Thanks for writing this analysis. It's been bugging me since Combs version came out. Chapman's Fast Car was released while I grew up in a dangerous neighborhood with a dad with a violent drinking problem. I was desperate to live somewhere safer. Her song reminded me again and again how easy it would be to get stuck in a community and a family full of violence. Her open singing about race and racism was refreshing at a time when women and non-whites were being told everything was even now and to stop complaining. Hearing a white man country star sing it feels... off, like being gaslighted. I'm glad Chapman benefits from this cover - both financially and from a new group of people hearing her music for the first time.

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The first think that came to mind for me here was Alice Walker and Tracy Chapman’s love affair. I love the interview Gayle King does with Alice Walker where Alice describes that depth and beauty in Tracy’s voice- how that song carries all of our hearts. https://tracy-chapman-alice-walker.blogspot.com/2022/04/alice-walker-and-tracy-chapman-arent.html

Also my first husband Frank Wolf who has a recording studio and is a Sound Engineer, he was living in Boston back in 1988 and he had a music studio in Alston back then, and he heard Tracy playing in dive bars in Boston back in the 80’s and he said it was instantaneous- that recognition that Tracy was going to hold the globe 🌍 in rapture with her voice- all that poignancy, hope, sadness, beauty. Black women have always been our liberators in the country. Thinking of Felicia Hilton on Des Moines last week where so went to testify with the ACLU against the abortion ban. https://youtu.be/DQnfQfsFuFQ

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I'm going to be thinking about this all day (and may end up leaving multiple comments). I think it's really interesting, and when you talk about the different uses of the term "folk music" those are distinctions that I'm familiar with, but you use them differently than I would.

Before trying to pull some of those thoughts together, I wanted to start with a couple of quotes that I come back to in terms of thinking about what is the heart of folk music. First, one of the best arguments for an expansive definition of the term is this Arlo Gutherie discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSF89swJ9IU

"Everything was fine until Pete [Seeger] looked at me and said, 'Arlo, why don't you sing something?' I realized Pete had just sung all of the songs I thought anybody might know. I didn't know what to do. I said, 'Well here's one you might know . . . made popular by the king of folk singers Elvis Presley.' Pete looked at me. Seemed like a nice guy most of the time; he had a look in his eye that said that banjo could get fairly dangerous any moment . . ." Leading into a wonderful performance of "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You" (based on a 17th Century French song)

But, given the long history of arguments about what constitutes a folk song, here are a couple of good capsule versions (which I happen to have gotten from my dad).

"This civilization of ours is a fast-moving thing. New inventions and discoveries continually change our ways of living: we move from place to place, and not many of us get to live in the places where our parents spent their childhood. In some ways, the changes are good: distant neighbors are not so distant as they used to be, and we are slowly learning not to be suspicious of people just because they happen to be different in some way from ourselves. But one effect that is not so good is that it is hard for us to see how we are related to our ancestors, whose lives were so different from ours. And this makes it hard for us to say, "I know who I am, and I know where I belong in the world." In my own case, the study of folk music has made this easier. My ancestors seem more real to me when I learn that they and I have laughed at the same song; and when I sing a song that I learned from my mother, who learned it from her father, who learned it from his father, and so on back for generations. I have a feeling that there is a place for me in the world, because so many people have helped to prepare it for me. Even when I sing new songs, it gives me pleasure to think that it may live to be an old song, and that, in some far-off day, somebody may feel a kinship with me because of it. And, so, I am passing these songs on to you, in the hope that you will enjoy them, that you will make some of them your own songs, and that you may pass them along to future boys and girls who will call you their ancestor."

"One of the most important things about folksongs that makes them different from other kinds of songs is that there is never just one way to do them: everybody can sing them in his own way, and nobody can say that there is any "right" or "wrong" about it. Of course, if a song came from the mountains of Kentucky, and if you weren't raised in the mountains of Kentucky, when you sing it your way it will no longer be a Kentucky mountain folksong. But it will be your song."

From Liner Notes For "Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts" -- Sam Hinton

"Folk music has come to have a real function in all our lives. In a vague but real way, "We", the singers and audience together, form a community of our own. At some time most of us hitch-hiked, sat on floors, read a lot, not read at all, wanted to live away from everybody, and worried about the world, about what the people who run things would mess up next, and about that we might do to improve things. We're mostly urban people, out of power and nervous. And one of the things we do is use folk music. Most of us have no genuine connection with any folk community, and these songs are not genuine to us in an objective way. In other words, nobody thinks we're natives, and we don't have a native music. But since we don't, we're free (given a good bit of nerve) to grab whatever music we like and use it. The result is that we end up being just like mountain people, or blues singers, or cowboys, but relative to our own situation: singing in order to stay sane, and stubborn, to have a good time, and to say how we feel."

From liner notes for "Sandy and Jeanie Darlington" -- Sandy and Jeanie Darlington

Leon Rosselson wrote the following in the notes on That's Not the Way it's Got To Be! talking about his songwriting.

"These songs are not folk songs. They may, it is true, have been influenced by the idiom of folk song. It is true also that without the folk revival and the folk clubs, they would probably not have been written and would certainly not have been sung. And they do, I think, share with folk songs a concern for words--as opposed to the pop world's preoccupation with sounds, whether it be the sounds of protest, the sounds of poetry, the sounds of sitars rippling in the mystical breezes of transcendental meditation, or the sounds of a million well-fed cash registers playing a Song for Europe."

"But they are not folk songs. I think the traditionalists are right in wanting to keep the term--if it is to have any meaning at all-to describe the traditional culture of a

particular class. These songs are self-conscious rather than class-conscious, self-centered rather than community-centered, personal rather than impersonal. In any case, I don't believe modern folk songs can grow in the sort of urbanized, fragmented, intensely individualistic and competitive society we live in."

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One more tangent (hopefully interesting) prompted by the discussion of the racial dynamics of the cover.

At some point I was listening to different version of "Frankie & Johnny" and I was struck that it was an unusual folk song that was popular with both Black and White artists. For example

Charlie Poole: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7FbN51rBwM

Mississippi John Hurt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtyRqTFptL0

Pearl Bailey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_Znn49mCsE

Beth Orton (I really like this one): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUietpnUvCY

Can you think of other songs that fit that description? I thought of something like "Iko Iko"

Dixie Cups (so good): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuC519ni1aE

Dr. John: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28b6LaZXuFA

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oh sure! there are a bunch of songs that were covered by black and white artists...Summertime is one, St. Louis Blues, Peace in the Valley...

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Those are good examples (and you're right, it's not hard to find them among the standards)

Also St James Infirmary Blues

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I do think "Frankie and Johnny" stands out for the range of versions ( Sam Cooke, Pete Seeger), but there are plenty of other examples.

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I think St. Louis Blues is one of the most covered songs ever...that and the Beatles' Yesterday...

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That does go along with my feeling that it makes sense to think of Jazz standards as folk songs.

My comment about "Frankie and Johnny" was partially about the range of styles. I suspect the covers of "Yesterday" tend to be more consistent. But yes, according to the web there are over 1600 covers of "Yesterday" and wikipedia cites "at least 256 versions" of "Frankie and Johnny"

Also, this reminded me, I enjoyed this story about the Louis Armstrong version of "Mack The Knife" https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-recording-preservation-board/documents/MackTheKnife.pdf


Armstrong found the song richly evocative of his New Orleans childhood, laughing out loud as he listened to the demo. “Oh, I’m going to love doing this!” he told Avakian. “I knew cats like this in New Orleans. Every one of them, they’d stick a knife into you without blinking an eye! ‘Mack the Knife’! Let’s go!”

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Yesterday covers can vary a lot! I kind of hate that song in all its incarnations, but its been tackled by a wide range of performers...

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Thanks; I'm convinced.

As this conversation shows, I have some musical knowledge but I'm really not that familiar with either the "Great American Songbook" or the world of Beatles music.

On a different note, I don't see any comprehensive list of which songs have been covered the most -- which I would be interested in -- but I see the claim that in second place, behind "Yesterday" is "The Girl From Ipanema" which makes sense.

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This may be a longer conversation that is convenient in comments, but here's another set of thoughts:

Anytime you have multiple artists performing the same song it raises questions of:

1) What are the similarities or differences in their performance?

2) What are the differences in their personal connections to the music and musical tradition?

3) How does that affect the meaning and reception of the song.

Those are all questions that get discussed frequently in the context of folk music but, at the same time, you don't have to think of "Fast Car" as folk music to discuss them, and I think that putting the discussion in the context of folk music offers some interesting observations, but also goes a little astray.

I should also say, be default I'm one of those purists who would hesitate to call most of Pete Seeger's work "folk music." I would sometimes say, "folky" to describe a musical style or "singer-songwriter" to describe a genre of songwriting (and, yes, the old joke is that "singer-songwriter" sound like the name of a sewing machine).

In my mind Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Tracy Chapman are all singer-songwriters (and influenced in various ways by the people who came out of the folk revival) but I wouldn't call any of them folk musicians.

I'm making the obvious point that we would use the term in different ways, and I stumble over a line like, "'Fast Car' is folk music because it tells about the authentic experience of a particular marginalized community. But it also, contradictorily, might be considered anti-folk music, because it is about dreaming of, or imagining, an escape from that same authentic experience. "

Neither of those make it folk music (or not folk music). My personal favorite hip-hop song, Talib Kwali's "Memories Live" tells about the authentic experience of a particular marginalized community (with both emotional sensitivity and subtle writing) but I wouldn't call it "folk music."

However I think your comments about how the song changes when switched to a different genre and community are interesting and appreciated.

I also think it's smart to note that both country and "folk music" (what I would call singer-songwriter) are both generally seen as very White genres. I don't know much about Luke Combs, but I would also be curious to know whether covering a song that is so strongly associated with a Black woman is seen as a challenge to the Whiteness of country music (in addition to transforming the song to reference a White community).

Finally, and tangentially, I remember reading a couple of articles about Jason Isbell's decision to have only Black women as opening acts for his residency at the Ryman which were interesting and satisfying and a good reminder that there are Black women in country:



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the problem with circumscribing "folk music" to certain kinds of authentic expression is that when you dig down, the authenticity becomes more and more difficult to chase down. Traditions are constantly evolving and tend to be in conversation with mass culture and with other traditions. Check out the Sahelsounds label, which chronicles music of the Sahel, some of it rooted in old traditions and forms, but also very centered on electric guitar, and distributed (for a while anyway) through cell phone sound chips.

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Jul 18, 2023·edited Jul 18, 2023Liked by Noah Berlatsky

That is absolutely true. I just don't think that, "the authentic experience of a particular marginalized community" is a better criteria to use.

Any criteria will be flawed, but I think that goes to far in associating "folk music" with a specific purpose.

Edit: The definition I find myself most drawn to is (paraphrasing from memory), "If I play a song and it isn't what you're expecting and you think 'oh, that's a new variation', rather than 'that's wrong' that's folk music."

That also has problems but gestures at am important characteristic of folk music as being collective.

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then all jazz standards are folk music!

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I can live with that.

I think there's something important about, "many hands have shaped this work" and that is true of Jazz.

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I may be letting myself in for more brickbats—but I feel like cultural appropriation is a large first step towards mainstream acceptance.

It's like being a White European Protestant fan of "disreputable" foreign cinema: Indonesian horror and action with its impressive stunt work and mix-and-match of Hollywood and folklore; "Bollywood" movies with their songs, dances, and over-the-top action setpieces; Hong Kong "kung-fu" films and *wuxia* where through training and discipline ordinary people transform into super-beings; Japanese *chambara* (swordplay movies) and anime; and so on. Yes, I started watching those movies because of all the weirdness to my Western brain, but in so doing I gained a perspective on worlds I barely thought of, and when I did it was usually in an ignorant "Ugly American" manner. There's still a universe of things I don't *grok* as somebody who's grown up in those cultures does, but at least now I know enough to know how much more there is to know.

I think that might have been part of why Luke Combs chose to cover Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" for the Country charts. While I doubt he consciously thought of this, I wonder if somewhere in the back of his brain it bugged him how many of his fans want to push America back to the Jim Crow era. While never INTENTIONALLY planning it this way he remembered just how much Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" meant to him as a boy, and wouldn't it be funny if all those MAGA Chuds who listen to Country radio started singing along to a song by a Black Gay Woman? A few of them might even get their consciousness raised a bit in the process—and even if that never happens, at least he can pay tribute to Tracy Chapman in the best way he knows how, by putting royalties in her bank account.

Who knows? Maybe he could even get her to come out and sing a duet with him at the CMAs or something.... 🤷‍♂️

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there's not a lot in Combs' work that makes me think he's that thoughtful.

I don't think the focus on cultural appropriation as a bad thing is necessarily all that useful; all sorts of people enjly all sorts of things, and wuxia and Bollywood are pop culture for a mass audience. The difficulty comes when certain people are excluded from certain communities on the basis of identity. That's the issue with country; it's always been interested in other music traditions (look up Bob Wills) but very reluctant to let Black people exist as equals as performers.

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::That's the issue with country; it's ...very reluctant to let Black people exist as equals as performers.::

Well, it is now, certainly! My ex-wife, friends, and I watched Ken Burns's COUNTRY MUSIC documentary series on PBS shortly before lockdown, and we were all really surprised at how many Country Musicians of Color there were before the 1960s, as opposed to the "There was Charlie Pride, and there was...Charlie Pride" that we've had for the last sixty-odd years. (Yes, Lil Nas X hit the Country charts with "Old Town Road" thanks to Billy Ray Cyrus's assist, but I kind of doubt he wants to stay there any more than Country music wants a Gay Black Rapper as a regular feature.)

I blame the (ugly, violent) reaction to the Civil Rights Movement for why Country Music got so damned White and to the Right. Even relatively liberal country stars don't stick around too long as a rule; they either modify their act to something more Soft Pop, or they get cancelled by the Right for standing up for such controversial positions as recognizing George W. Bush and Donald Trump are petty thugs with no moral compass, or the Government using the Bill of Rights for toilet paper. Dolly Parton's a notable exception, but that's largely because when she speaks out she's got so much built-up goodwill and moral authority that even the Proud Boys know better than to sass her!

::there's not a lot in Combs' work that makes me think he's that thoughtful.::

Yeah, well...even I couldn't credit Luke Combs with any intentionality! My comments about his thought process probably play better if you hear him in your mind like I did—as a stoned surfer thinking deep thoughts because somebody laced his weed with fentanyl or Ex-Lax or something....

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Country's pretty much always been centered on white identity. There are a handful of exceptions over the years (Pride, DeFord Bailey), but it's a category which was literally created to segregate the market when race records were separated from hillbilly music.

For instance, Ray Charles released a couple country albums. they did well commercially—but not on country radio.)

The book Hidden in the Mix is oldish now, but worth reading.

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