Folk River is the Intersection of Politics, Music and Culture

Folk River is an excursion to the crossroads of folk music, politics and culture. It offers expression to a wide variety of voices amid the rapidly changing landscape of journalism. Those changes have brought the layoffs of hundreds of journalists in newspapers, radio and television whose job it is, or was, to keep an eye on those in power, and to protect democracy.

The critical journalistic routine of beat reporting – going day-after-day, month-after-month to watch and listen at public meetings and critical gatherings – is disappearing in too many towns and cities.Consider the possibility that folk music can be a first draft of history. Folksingers write and sing about war, peace love, work – the human experience.

Many in America think of folk music as belonging to the 1960s, with songs about the changing times and the war in Vietnam. But as you’ll find as you travel along Folk River, long-time troubadours and new folk artists are writing and performing songs today about the environment, politics, society and the complex issues of our time.

The value of folk music is that it sometimes brings attention to issues arising in society that beg for attention, but have been avoided for social or political reasons. The late singer-songwriter Phil Ochs is a striking example of an artist whose political and social concerns shaped his music. Ochs described himself as a singing journalist who wrote topical songs based on stories he read in the news. One of his albums is titled All The News That’s Fit to Sing.

On another album, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, the title song embodies , the spirit of many protesting the draft and the Vietnam war, and speaks for those who mourn the loss of life in wars of many eras.

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall 
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun 
Tell me is it worth it all

 For I stole California from the Mexican land
Fought in the bloody Civil War
Yes, I even killed my brothers
And so many others
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore

A chilling example of bringing a social, political and racial issue to the surface a is Strange Fruit, a song about the lynching of black people in the South that forced some in America to come face-to-face with racial injustice.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

As technology and the sluggish U.S. economy create pressures that blur the boundaries between media and traditional watchdog journalism, folk music is a vital stream of public voice that can help preserve democracy.

The word “media” has come to mean television, radio, blogs, podcasts and social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and constantly-evolving new choices. Those not involved in reporting may tend to toss journalism casually into this mix. But journalism, traditionally, requires training, and one of the nation’s preeminent journalism institutions offers perspective on the importance of training is important:

“The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism’s purpose is to educate and train students, from all over the world, to become accomplished professional journalists. The school prepares them to perform a vital and challenging function in free societies: finding out the truth of complicated situations, usually under a time constraint, and communicating it in a clear, engaging fashion to the public.”

As news organizations and individual journalists confront the dramatic changes resulting from financial pressures and the onslaught of digital media, the Pew Research Center State of the Media 2013 report documents the changes:

“Signs of the shrinking reporting power are documented throughout this year’s report. Estimates for newspaper newsroom cutbacks in 2012 put the industry down 30% since its peak in 2000 and below 40,000 full-time professional employees for the first time since 1978.

“In local TV, our special content report reveals, sports, weather and traffic now account on average for 40% of the content produced on the newscasts studied while story lengths shrink. On CNN, the cable channel that has branded itself around deep reporting, produced story packages were cut nearly in half from 2007 to 2012. Across the three cable channels, coverage of live events during the day, which often require a crew and correspondent, fell 30% from 2007 to 2012 while interview segments, which tend to take fewer resources and can be scheduled in advance, were up 31%.

“Time magazine, the only major print news weekly left standing, cut roughly 5% of its staff in early 2013 as a part of broader company layoffs.”

More information from the Pew Research Center summarizes these changes, according to an online article by the center’s
Jodi Enda and Amy Mitchell:

“Faced with shrinking revenue and dwindling audiences, news organizations in recent years have slashed staffs and reduced coverage. Most news consumers are little aware of the financial struggles that led to these cuts, a new Pew Research Center survey finds. Nevertheless, a significant percentage of them not only have noticed a difference in the quantity or quality of news, but have stopped reading, watching or listening to a news source because of it.

Nearly one-third—31%—of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to, according to the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in early 2013. And those most likely to have walked away are better educated, wealthier and older than those who did not—in other words, they are people who tend to be most prone to consume and pay for news.”

The Pew Research Center’s State of the Media 2013 report is online at:

So dramatic are the changes in journalism, there is even a website called “Newspaper Death Watch: Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism.” The site’s R.I.P. list includes metropolitan daily newspapers in Baltimore, Tucson, Cincinnati, Oakland and Honolulu. The site also has a list of dailies that have cut print editions or adopted hybrid print/online versions or online only models, including newspapers in Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans, where I believe the voices of diverse citizen groups desperately need to be heard.

The fact that the 79-year-old Newsweek magazine published its last print edition in December 2012 and launched an all-digital format in 2013 is one more red flag.

Who will take the time to submit Freedom of Information requests and monitor politicians and state and federal agencies in charge of millions of dollars in taxpayer money?

Here is where the value of folk music comes in – at the intersection of politics, culture and change. Every voice speaking out in song is one more promise of a free and just society.

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