Staying alive: Folk music

Marlene Parmenter, a native of Upstate New York, attends a Scandinavian folk dancing class in Anaheim’s Downtown Community Center. She first became interested in the art while attending a yoga class in the same building.

“I was in deep meditation when I heard the Scandinavian music next door and was just drawn to it,” Parmenter said.

“Folk music used to be the universal form of music within cultures,” added Parmenter. “It welcomes everyone, but now it’s just a small esoteric group of people. I wish more people were interested. I kind of fear it will go away.”

This small class in Anaheim is made up of people who wish to see this art live on and retain value in society. They gather for classes once a week and also spend a great deal of their recreational time attending workshops and festivals all in the name of retaining folk music and its surrounding culture.

Folk music and folk dancing has deep roots in every country across the world. It is the music that helps people survive daily hardships, celebrate special occasions and entertain. But with its history fading from many minds, is folk music on the verge of extinction?

The history of international folk music in America has experienced periods of growth and decline. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, Norwegian immigrants owned halls that held these types of dances. Now, this generation is growing older and is less active, said Chris Gruber, folk dancer and musician who attends the class.

Gruber described the group of dancers and musicians as a village.

“For many people, it’s the foundation of their social life,” Gruber said. “They travel together to festivals… It’s like a village except that people come from far.”

In its roots, Scandinavian folk music was diversified across villages. In Sweden and surrounding Scandinavian countries, the villages were isolated enough that each could have its own adjustment to the music and to the dances. Each variation made the music and its dance feel slightly different in every town.

“When communities came together, the dances were similar enough that everyone could dance to the same basic type of music, but with their own variations of the dance,” Gruber said.

The music’s malleability is one reason the music cannot be put to paper. It must be taught orally.

Even when the songs are written down, the music is not accurate, said Gail Halverson, Scandinavian folk dancer, nyckelharpa player and computer programmer.

“Many of the good players can’t read music at all,” Halverson said. “It’s very much a folk tradition that you learn from somebody who learned from somebody.”

“There are so many nuances that don’t get written down anyway, so you can’t get those without learning it from another person,” she added.

The Nyckelharpa is a 16-string instrument that is considered Sweden’s token instrument and was played in the Anaheim class by a guest musician from Sweden, Jan-Eric Eckman. With limited English and help from a friend, Eckman explained and demonstrated how the instrument worked.

“Nyckel” means “key” in Swedish and the instrument is played by pushing individual wooden pegs on the side of the instrument, which dampen 15 of the strings. The remaining string is a drone that is not dampened by any peg. The strings are then played with a bow that is shorter than a violin’s bow. Dampening the strings allows the musician to play the flats and sharps of the scale.

Its drone sounds like a single drone on a bagpipe, but its remaining strings, which are played like a violin’s strings, give the instrument a sound that is a cross between a bagpipe and a viola.

The Anaheim group teaches each dance with the instructing couple in the middle of the dance floor and the students on the outer circle. Traditionally, these dances would never be taught this way. Aspiring dancers would learn by jumping in.

James Klimek, a visitor to the class and a senior at Ithaca College, said he prefers Contra dancing to Scandinavian folk dancing.

Contra dancing, made popular in New England, is an upbeat dance that is performed to jigs.

“There’s more freedom and it’s very fast-paced,” said Klimek. “You can put in a swing move and just get away with whatever you can.”

Klimek was first introduced to folk dancing through Rapper dancing, which is an English sword dance tradition that began with a few mineworkers after work. A rapper was a mining tool that has evolved over time to work like a flexible sword with the ability to interlock with other swords.

“That’s what really got me into folk tradition,” Klimek said.“My friends and I started doing it. It was the coolest type of folk dancing so we set up our own team called the Velocirappers.”

The dance was designed to be performed in extremely small spaces since it was originally performed in pubs. Five people dance in a set and perform a basic step that allows them to form different figures and tie themselves in knots during the dance. Some of the figures include the star, where all five members interlock their swords and the flip, where the smallest member of the set would get flipped over the interlocked swords.

“They would have maybe a five foot by five foot square area to dance in and that’s the way it was done,” Klimek said, referring to the pubs’ space. “The whole idea is to keep it nice and sharp and with very fast actions. It’s awesome.”

Rapper dances were a way of increasing unity within the mineworkers, who had to heavily rely on each other in dangerous conditions. It was also a way to increase camaraderie.

“One of the funny traditions of this dance is that if any one dancer lets go of the sword during the dance, he buys a round that night and everyone keeps dancing,” Klimek said. “It’s funny how the English dances are very closely related to beer and spirits.”

From New England’s contra music to the spirituals of the deep south, the clash of cultures that makes up the United States gives the country a variety of folk music.

“When I was first starting to play I was very interested in both folk music and the folk traditional stories, mostly from the Appalachians,” said Steve Kinzie, learning enhancement services coordinator at ULV.

Although it would be impossible and unfair to determine only one kind of folk music for America, Kinzie said that Appalachian folk music had a large impact on the music he was involved in during the 1960s, which contributed to the folk music revival.

“There was a lot of freedom in that kind of music to write and make political commentary,” Kinzie said. “It was a way of expressing dissatisfaction with some of the status quo that existed.”

John Redden, a folk dancer from the Anaheim class, agreed that folk music in America surged in the 60s and 70s.

“In 1975, it was part of the counter culture,” Redden said. “It was accepted at that time – to do it as part of being young and to do something that’s different.”

“The music became a way of really rebelling against the violence of the time by expressing outrage about the war,” Kinzie said. “It was also an interesting way of posing an alternative to that whole culture of death and destruction.”

Whether for purposes of protest or recreation, folk music is always functional.

“Folk music is functional simply because it always existed,” said Roberto Catalano, ethnomusicologist and world music professor at ULV. “You don’t play or sing because you want to entertain.”

Catalano explained that music, while it may be great for entertainment, always has a larger purpose. Even the process of making music gives it functionality and importance.

In Brazil, musicians do not practice in the privacy of homes or garages; they rehearse in public, Catalano added.

“They confront themselves with the audience. If the music is good, the public will dance. It is a success,” Catalano said.

Where is the folk music in America today? Is it being hidden in garages and homes? Is it fading out of existence with the rising popularity of other mainstream music?

“It’s very much alive,” Catalano said. “What is lost for most western folk traditions is the vastness of the repertoire. Everyone draws from a few sources that are known.”

Like many types of Scandinavian folk dances and music, American folk music has become narrower in scope.

People do not go beyond the important groups that have gained popularity in the folk music scene, Catalano said.

Also contributing to folk music’s decline is the fact that many traditions are not being passed on from the older generations. Folk music needs this oral history to survive.

“If the elders do not speak, the world will not listen,” said Catalano. “And if there are no more elders, no one can listen.”

Stephanie Duarte can be reached at

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