Many pop and rock artists have a connection with world music traditions, and the sounds of many regional traditions can be heard in popular music. It would take a decent sized book to do justice to the range and depth of these connections, so here is a grab-bag of some notable, surprising and trivial connections between these two music worlds.
Mainstream rock and pop
- Many big-name pop stars have recorded or performed traditional material with varying levels of commercial and critical success, including Van Morrison, Bryan Ferry, Sinéad O’Connor, Bono, Sting, Paul Simon, Björk, Marianne Faithful and Bob Dylan.
- Björn Ulvaeus played in a folk group (Hootenanny Singers) before forming ABBA. Band-mate Benny Andersson is now very active in the Swedish folk music scene as a performer and producer, and has worked with Emma Härdelin of Garmana.
- Led Zeppelin were heavily influenced by traditional music. A number of their songs (eg Gallows Pole) were directly based on folk songs. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page have continued to champion world music and recent releases by the duo have shown strong influences from traditional music.
- Australian singer Nick Cave has recorded several folk songs and a number of his own compositions use traditional elements.
- Heavy metal legends Metallica have recorded Irish folk songs and used the hurdy gurdy on their recordings.
- Heavy rock band System of a Down incorporate elements of Armenian folk music. Meanwhile, the folk metal movement is particularly strong in Northern Europe and Russia and involves traditional songs performed with heavy metal arrangements.
- Damon Albarn (of Blur and Gorillaz) has collaborated with traditional musicians from Mali and China and worked with Afro-Cuban musician Ibrahim Ferrer in Gorillaz. Damon’s old Blur band-mate Graham Coxon has been a long-time champion of English traditional music and his recent recordings are heading in a decidedly more folky direction.
- Pulp front-man Jarvis Cocker has recently recorded a traditional sea shanty for an album, Rogue’s Gallery, produced by Johnny Depp as a companion piece to the Pirates of the Carribean movies.
- Moby’s album Play made extensive use of recordings by folk song collector Alan Lomax.
- Dance outfit Saint Etienne have recorded a number of traditional songs. One of their best known songs Like a Motorway uses the tune of American folk song The Silver Dagger.
- Peter Buck of R.E.M. is a folk music afficionado who occasionally moonlights in a band called The Minstrel in the Galleries, performing covers of English folk-rock tunes.
- Singer Beth Orton has recently collaborated on traditional material with Scottish folk guitar legend Bert Jansch, as have Johnny Marr of The Smiths, and Bernard Butler of Suede.
- Thom Yorke of Radiohead is a big fan of Bagpuss, a British children’s TV show based on traditional songs. Lyrical references to the songs used in the series are scattered throughout his recent work. The songs in Bagpuss were sung by Sandra Kerr, mother of Nancy Kerr.
A particularly interesting development in the last few years has been a mini folk revival within the indie pop scene. This has mainly been a general influence in terms of song structures, instrumentation and vocal stylings — labelled nu-folk — but a number of indie musicians such as Alasdair Roberts and Pumajaw have recently started taking an almost exclusively traditional repertoire to their erstwhile indie pop audiences.
At the same time, a new sub-genre called folktronica or laptop-folk has emerged, that blends folk-based instrumentation with minimalist electronic accompaniments and songwriting redolent of traditional folk songs. Some of the leading lights in this field are:
In the US, the nu-folk grouping merges with a movement known as alt country — creating a style that combines an indie aesthetic with the older, more traditional, less commercial aspects of country music. Some other notable nu-folk/alt country artists include:
- The Decemberists
(singer/guitarist Colin Meloy has released a CD of English traditional songs)
- Sufjan Stevens
- Joanna Newsom
- Lau Nau
- Devendra Banhart
- Hank Dogs
- Laura Veirs
- In Gowan Ring
- Iron and Wine
- Nick Drake
definitely not new or young (as he died in 1974) but the recent resurgence of interest in his music is undoubtedly part of the nu-folk phenomenon.
- Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billie
(whose repertoire includes American and Scottish traditional songs)
- 16 Horsepower
- The Handsome Family
- Gillian Welch