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When folk music loses touch with "folks"

The old weird America is gone, but on the new Waterdrawn the Horse's Ha shows that hippies are just as scary.



Hippie alternaculture ate a friend of mine some years back. When I first knew her, she was to all appearances a competent, functional adult. She had a responsible job; she participated in a competitive sport with discipline and enthusiasm; she paid her bills. And then, in the space of a year or so, it all dissolved in a haze of vague spiritualism and patchouli. She ditched the job to be a bike messenger and ditched all the rest of it to smoke pot and pursue her inner puddle of bliss. Inevitably she ended up in Sedona, Arizona, practicing some vague mystical healing art and doing circus tricks. As the Horse's Ha say on "Hidey Hole," a song from the new Waterdrawn (Fluff & Gravy), "There's nothing dearer than free will."

My friend's self-­devolution can be seen as an implied critique of (or backhanded tribute to) the Horse's Ha and all they stand for. Janet Bean (Freak­water, Eleventh Dream Day) and Jim Elkington (Skull Orchard, Brokeback) are quite clearly making music for feral hipsters—songs by which to go out on a full-moon night and transform into Stevie Nicks. The duo's genre is, broadly, "freak folk," and the Platonic freaky folk that it's for are circus people and bike messengers. You don't sing these songs while working on the railroad or in the fields. You listen to them while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a coffee­house or college auditorium.

For a long time, "folk music" meant music linked in some way to a rural or working-class past. For Bob Dylan (or the Kingston Trio or Richard Thompson or Sandy Denny), the whole point of singing something called "folk" was to derive energy and authenticity from the ritual evocation of archaic, premodern, marginalized, and/or poor communities.

The Horse's Ha reference that tradition in a general way with their use of acoustic instruments and traditional-sounding tunes. They also reference it in particular; they've cited Davy Graham & Shirley Collins's 1965 album Folk Roots, New Routes as a direct influence. But while the older album combines Collins's archaic vocal style with Graham's progressive guitar, no such easy division of past and present is possible for Waterdrawn. At best, Bean and Elkington's music harks back to performers who harked back—or, to put it more bluntly, their music has lost virtually all contact with the people one usually thinks of as "folk." They've reached the point of appropriating the appropriators of the appropriators, in a never-ending Renaissance Faire of rootless cosmopolitanism. The jaunty skipping riff at the beginning of "Hidey Hole," for example, forcefully recalls not the Child Ballads but Simon & Garfunkel's "Leaves That Are Green." If a ghost hovers over the sparse, drifting melody of "Parachute Voluntary," it's not old Ireland's but Nick Drake's. There's no going back to Eden here; the best you can do, as the duo sing, is "make your getaway along the Edens Spur."

You could see this decidedly bourgeois and modern circle of reference as decadent delegitimization—as a sign that the folk revival has revived itself right into the ground. The Horse's Ha, though, are consciously committed to the idea that that very odor of decay can indicate a different kind of ominous fertility. In "Parachute Voluntary," for example, the spooky, exhausted Nick Drake dream seems spooky and exhausted not because it's poetic and evocative but because it isn't. "What are the chances of being hurt," Bean and Elkington ask in quavering tones, and then answer, "Someone says three to one. I'll take three to one." This is a world where the bleak calculus of murder ballads has been reduced to the bland calculus of extreme sports. "Square jaw, cleft chin, and clear eyes / No less the emperor of the skies / I tried so hard to move along," they confess, "but I ended up in sales." You start with endless vistas, you end up with marketing copy; everything transcendent and authentic is already commodified. They're writing sad poetry about the fact that volunteering to sing sad poetry means you have no sad poetry to sing.

There's a twee feyness to such self-­referential despair at the failure of despair, analogous to John Ashbery's elaborate, parodic melancholia at finding that the void poets have always mourned has unaccountably wandered off. That feyness can seem smaller than life, cramped and cloistered, locked in an in-joke. "There are prostitutes prowling the prairie, their stilettos are stuck in the mud," Bean says in clipped little-girl phrasing on "Dying Tree," as all the open spaces are deftly boxed in by the cutesy alliteration and the sexual wink. "From minnow to whale, the colors will pale, in the light of the dying tree," Elkington's smooth, deep voice insists, while the music tinkles like a music box, shutting in and shutting down. In the 1973 film The Wicker Man, which Elkington and Bean have described as an influence on their music, an isolated community turns to paganism, nature worship, and human sacrifice—a sort of apotheosis of vengeful hippie atavism. The Horse's Ha, in reaching back to folks who are reaching back, are arguably mired in an atavism once removed. But that doubled dislocation is in itself a kind of authenticity; the ghost of a ghost is still, or even doubly, a ghost, just as loss of loss is still loss.

Greil Marcus likes to talk about "the old, weird America," the jumble of archaic traditions and folkways and performance styles that existed in the early 20th century, before galumphing standardization smoothed out the kinks and oddnesses. From a historical perspective, though, surely that standardization is the oddest kink of them all. When else has it been possible to go from upstanding citizen to marginal dropout and yet seem even more conformist afterward than before? When else have all roads back seemed to lead so relentlessly around to where they began? Freak folk is freakish not because it channels the chthonic creepiness of the old folk, but because it embraces our current hipster creepiness—the up-to-date chill of the new weird America. At the end of "Hidey Hole," Bean sings "free will" as a distant chorus repeats the words behind her, giving them a witchy, twee, incantatory air. Meanwhile the remorselessly cheerful melody, its origins long attenuated, strums to its cadence, celebrating our ongoing, inevitable progress towards freedom, infantilization, and decay.

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