a mash-up of religion & (making) music
I had originally titled this essay “Is folk music a religion?” because my first approach at it had me pondering with a curious eye the seeming religiosity of my city’s local folk music scene… a scene in which I’ve never really participated, nor fully understood. The revision emerged as I continued to write and realized the accusations I was placing at the feet of folk music were not necessarily unique to any particular genre, and in fact folk music (while it would rank right up there on the cult-ish scale, if one were to exist) is probably not even the best example of music followings blurred with religious ferocity.
I do like music. I really do.
I also have specific tastes and tuned preferences for various styles or intensities of sound and rhythm that fill certain emotional or mental needs at different points in my day and life.
When I walk, I like candy pop. When I run, I listen to pounding electronic music or thrashing punk. I usually put on some kind of jazz while I work, though don’t dare ask me what kind of jazz I listen to because I couldn’t even tell you who is playing… I just like the sounds. When I’m driving I like instrumental soundtracks (no, really) and I fill all the other gaps of my life from an eclectic playlist of tunes slotted from a broad range of genres.
This not only gives me claim to a huge music collection, but makes me one of those indecisive guys who answers that-question-we-all-ask with the vague-ish, non-answer of “Y’know, I like all kinds of music.”
Now, I honestly don’t understand the intensity with which some people latch onto one specific genre and yearn to participate in it. I’m not critical; if anything I’m a little jealous. Perhaps I just don’t have the music-lover’s gene baked into my chromosomes, or maybe it’s because the music I heard most in my youth is linked inexorably in my mind to a certain political lean to which I do not currently subscribe, all of that making me a kind of music orphan with no musical heritage to latch onto. Either way, there is a subset of society to which I do not belong that digs in with a sense of religiously-intense fandom with certain categories of music, or even certain performers.
I see it all happening from afar, but it is (no, honestly) a bit foreign to me.
The singular example that prompted this essay, is as follows: each year our city, like many other’s I’m sure, hosts a large outdoor festival of folk music. Each year that festival sells out in record-breaking time: mere minutes pass and tens of thousands of tickets are sold for this event. A few months later those lucky ticket-holders queue up at the gate for a mad rush to the seating area to secure the best tiny patch of blanket space wherein they will park their bottoms, picnic, send selfies to Facebook, and ultimately indulge on music from a long list of random performers. People speak of the event in one-syllable code-words, and the event becomes this catch-all excuse that answers to all manner of sins for a few days before, during and after: clogged traffic, missed work, and the sense that a select chosen few inexplicably fall from the face of the Earth without notice, only to re-appear afterwards with a sunburn or a cold and a phone filled with hundreds of blurry pictures of a few thousand people watching a poorly-lit stage in the distance.
I’ve never gone.
Those who have, wax eloquently on the epic nature of the event, a kind of modern day urban-Canadian Woodstock but with (a little) less sex and drugs and more food trucks. And of course, lots of folk music.
Perhaps “religion” is too strong of a word. After all that word implies a kind of faith-evoked servitude that cuts off ties to fiercely-rational decision-making in pursuit of control of an individual’s soul and moral standing on behalf of an organized group around a specific belief system. Folk music, on the other hand, lets people go for a few months in between just being normal people.
The “fest” is just a single example, of course. And perhaps I am exaggerating when I make note of –and draw attention to– the ferocity with which people ‘join a band’ or ‘just gotta see someone play.’ My own experience with music tends to mirror my own experience with actual organized religion in that respect: I just tend to figure things out on my own and let everyone else do their own thing. So, maybe I’m exaggerating and from that outside perspective everything that people follow with fierce devotion looks like the same blur of blind fascination to which I have trouble relating.
Or maybe, in an age of real and growing popular dissatisfaction with actual religion, our souls actually are latching onto music in its stead.