What comes to mind when you think of American folk music? I think many people grew up with the same misconceptions about folk music as I did. The belief that it was primarily the province of white people (mostly of Scottish/Irish heritage) is only partly true, or that the people that make the music are dumb backward hillbillies in the hills of Appalachia (a misrepresentation also). Television only reinforced the stereotypes with shows depicting a sanitized Southern folklore in shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Dukes of Hazard.
Folk music in actuality is far more varied than Hollywood gives it credit for. After the Anthology of American Folk Music was released in the early 1950s, Americans were exposed to a racially diverse mix of styles that were formerly isolated from the wider society. People in places like Knoxville or Asheville knew of this diversity, but to the rest of America it was an ear opening experience. Eventually, folk music would influence a new crop of pop and rock artists on the cusp of Cultural Revolution.
That first wave of “hippie” artist was a multi-cultural, multi-racial onslaught with people like Richie Havens leading the charge for Black Americans. Then for the period of my childhood, the ideal of the black folk rock artist sort of disappeared in lieu of disco and funk. It would not be until the ‘80s with Tracy Chapman that the concept returned to the public’s attention.
Today little has changed with the public’s perception of folk music being a Anglo only enterprise. That’s a small part of what makes people like Valerie June alluring. June, a Tennessee born singer-songwriter/ musician is currently the best example of American contemporary black folk music.
While many of her cohorts are stepping to lip sync dance moves, June is reviving a musical style that’s familiar to the grandparents of people living in the hills of Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas. Her voice offers an odd blend of Erykah Badu meets Dolly Parton with a higher register that conjures up some of the deep South’s off kilter mysticism.
June developed her vocal style alongside her self-taught playing of the guitar, banjo and ukulele. Her songs, deeply influenced by the country tinged blues of the ’20 and ‘30s sounds authentically old, yet she has contemporary flourishes that don’t sound out of place.
Produced by Dan Auerbach (from the Black Keys), her debut LP Pushin’ Against A Stone juggles vintage style on songs like “Workin’ Woman Blues” and “Tennessee Time” with more retro-contemporary sounding tracks like the title song which could have easily been written for Amy Winehouse. In fact half of the album had an early ‘60s girl group vibe that reminds me of what Erykah Badu might have sounded like had she been recording 50 years ago.
Pushin’ Against A Stone raised the profile of folk music in much the same way The Be Good Tanyas or Allison Krauss and Union Station might have years ago. More importantly, Valerie June’s music is a reminder of black American’s rich legacy of folk music and reconnects to that legacy in a way that is palatable to those who might prefer more conventional pop musical styles.