A shorter version of this article is featured on Stamp The Wax
Is it a genre invented by crate diggers in the early ’90s desperate to find a hidden break or sample, or was it actually dreamed up by ’60s record company types trying to define a new sound?
I have to be honest, I am not sure if I can put a finger on it. A few people more fluent and knowledgeable than myself have tried, but I’ll give it a go…
The earliest example of ‘folk-funk’ found to describe something in a musical context is within the pages of a 1967 edition of The Democrat and Chronicle newspaper (Rochester, New York). In that publication you’ll find an article about the ‘The Kingston Trio’ (a US folk group formed in 1957) penned by Chuck Boller – “Some of us remembered how it began – how the Trio broke into college campuses across the land in the late 1950s, spearheading a folk music revival that (has) since been dominated by ‘folk-funk’ types.” How does that help me explain what ‘folk-funk’ is, well it doesn’t, but it shows the use of the term pre-dating the adoption of it in the early ’90s.
The Kingston Trio — Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane and John Stewart — appear on “The Jack Benny Program” in 1965. (NBC/NBCUniversal/Getty Images)
So that’s where the genre tag may come from but what about the sound of ‘folk-funk’? Well, something that seems to have been ignored, forgotten or largely unknown, is that the pairing of two pivotal musicians to the ‘folk-funk’ sound had already happened. Somewhere towards the end of the ’50s two young coffee bar folkies had met and become friends. Terry Callier and David Crosby both journeyed on the US folk circuit and the two troubadours quickly became friends and eventually performing together. They headed off to NYC and the Greenwich Village scene in search of a recording contract, but it seems that late ’50s America was not ready for a mixed-raced folk duo. Our loss for sure, but both go on to become pivotal influences on the ‘folk-funk’ sound.
Dylan going electric at the Newport (Rhode Island) Folk Festival in 1965 was a turning point in the history of music and in turn an obvious influence on the ‘folk-funk’ genre. This electrified folk unquestionably led to the whole California ‘folk-rock’ scene championed by the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Soul and folk collided too with artists like John Lucien, Richie Havens and the aforementioned Terry Callier blending these new sounds.
Another interesting progression of ‘folk-funk’ is the connection it had with performance art and poetry. Ian Wallace wrote an article in a 1967 edition of the Vancouver Sun in which he talks about the Western Supplies art show by The Mandan Company at the Bau-Xi Gallery, which featured the poet and artist Bill Bissett whose work is described as “the paradigm of the folk-funk aspects of the show”. An article featured in a 1969 edition of the San Francisco Examiner mentions Allen Ginsberg evoking the ‘folk and funk’ in his 1966 anti-war poem ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’. We should also mention artists usually associated with Beat or jazz movements, think Gil Scott-Heron, LeRoi Jones and also the Last Poets, whose lyrical content concerning social and political issues directly influenced the content of some ‘folk-funk’ songs.
‘Sunshine Pop’ is also directly connected to ‘folk-funk’, originating in Southern California, it combined nostalgic sounds with the youth aesthetic which was evolving along with the growing drug culture, expanding not only minds but music too. Think Curt Boettcher, The Millennium, Sagittarius, and the Free Design who all sit comfortably rubbing shoulders with ‘folk-funk’. When ‘folk-rock’ blends with ‘sunshine’ we begin to stumble into something that directly influences the ‘folk-funk’ aesthetic, although as the ’60s progressed themes did become somewhat darker, ‘Morning Dew’ and ‘Woodenships’ for example, both relate to an apocalyptical post-nuclear world, picking up on the issues of the artists mentioned in the paragraph above. With other genres, including the early ’70s Christian music, which soon adopted the less religiously sounding tag Xian for the youth market, think Christmas/Xmas and Christian/Xian, was thrown into the mix. We get a fusion of folk traditions and wider musical styles giving us a hybrid sound that spread throughout the musical world.
Meanwhile, over in the UK artists such as Pentangle, Synanthesia, Fairport Convention and Donavon were starting to infuse folk into a more electric and somewhat trippy vibe. A variety of ‘folk-rock’ emerged that combined modern elements with folk tradition in a quintessentially British way. This sound started to permeate back across the Atlantic. An example of this would be Sunforest, whose performances at Doug Weston’s Troubadour in West Hollywood, USA was well received.
In July 1972 an article written by Peter Erskine appeared in an edition of the music weekly ‘Disc’ – it was a feature about John & Beverly Martyn and was titled ‘Martyn’s folk funk’. An advert in a newspaper from Kettering, Northamptonshire from September of the same year, also featuring John Martyn, was emblazoned with ‘FOLK FUNK’ as the heading. These two mentions in printed media and both connected to John Martyn seem to be the earliest to adopt the use of the term ‘folk-funk’ in the UK. Across the pond, however, and in December the same year James Taylor was also being referred to as ‘folk-funk’ in an article by Tony Palermo featured in The Pittsburgh Press – “And while Folk Funk sounds contradictory, Taylor’s managed to put together even crazier amalgams of the two than before.” In 1973 gigs were being advertised in the Happenings section of The San Francisco Examiner using the tag ‘Folk-Funk’ and a year later, in 1974, Brewer & Shipley were being described as “folk-funk” by Pete Bishop in The Pittsburgh Press. In the same year, and from the Spokane Chronicle, Washington, USA, country singer Wade Gentry mentions in an article by Dick Yost that he “expects to fly to Nashville next month to cut a second record in the style the music industry calls ‘folk funk’.”
Now let’s make an almighty leap forward to the late 1980s and the UK music scene. ‘Folk-funk’ became a new way to tag a certain sound that collectors and sample diggers were beginning to seek out. Gaining traction as a continuation to rare groove, these funkier folk sounds began being played on the club circuit. When trip-hop came along at the start of the ’90s new influences and undiscovered gems were sought. Doris Svensson, Nancy Priddy and Sunforest became the type of ‘folk-funk’ staples being given a second life and sampled for their unique drum breaks.
Bootlegs and licensed albums started to appear with ‘folk-funk’ prominent in the title or the liner notes – Pete Reilly & Tim Hayward’s ‘The Folk Funk Experience Volume 1’ (1995), ‘The Mighty Mellow (A Folk-Funk Psychedelic Experience)‘ (1997), Sony France put out the compilation ‘Folky & Funky’ (1997), John Stapleton’s series of compilations on Harmless ‘Make Music (Folk Funk Flavours & Ambient Soul)’ (2002) and ‘As We Travel (Folk Funk Flavours & Ambient Soul)’ (2002), a third was compiled but not released. We had the naked ladies of ‘Folk Funk Flavours’ (2003), Gilles Peterson’s ‘Broken Folk Funk Latin Soul’ (2003), the Italian released ‘Folk, Jazz & Poetry’ compiled by Matteo Sola (2003). Out of Norway and compiled by Lars Mørch Finborud ‘Lukk Opp Kirkens Dører – A Selection Of Norwegian Christian Jazz, Psych, Funk & Folk 1970-1980’ (2011), and John Reed compiled the compilation ‘One Way Glass (Dancefloor Prog, Brit Jazz & Funky Folk 1968-1975)’ (2017).
So while defining a brief history of ‘folk-funk’ is not so easy, I hope I have parted the clouds to some sort of clarity to the adoption of the term at least.
What about the sound of ‘folk-funk’? A track deemed ‘folk-funk’ has a somewhat folky origin and feature a kick-ass groove. My favourite ‘folk-funk’ records have a funky limp, by this I mean a beat that chugs along as though it has one leg shorter than the other. Although not listed in this top 5 I would point you towards the 1968 release ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Deena Webster, and the 1969 release ‘Me & Mr Hohner’ by Bobby Darin. You will hear similarities, although one is a folk classic and the other is not the genres bend and begin to melt into each other, both definitely falling into the ‘folk-funk’ genre.
I’ll end with this. On the subject of ‘folk-funk’ hidden in the depths of the verygoodplus web forum Peter Beaver once wrote: “It’s folk music with funk or jazz beats/overtones & when it’s good it’s really f**king good”.
Where does my love for folk-funk stem from?
With an eclectic taste, my musical influences are broad but I fell into ‘Folk-Funk’ directly from a love of ‘Sunshine Pop’ and the ‘Beat Generation’. I had started dropping tracks into my sets and was continually looking for more records. In 2003 I had begun playing support sets for The Polyphonic Spree on their UK tours and joined them at their ‘Annual Holiday Extravaganza’ at the Lakewood Theatre, Dallas. I would play a diverse mix of mainly sunshine pop with some folk-funk favourites thrown in. I’d begun to get bored of playing clubs and pubs and I found having to make people dance for 5 hours very repetitive and stressful, preferring the pre-band support slot to build up a crowd for the main event, and as I wasn’t the main event it took the pressure off. Not buying records specifically to play out gave me a chance to purchase more vinyl just for my own musical and selfish pleasure.
My early musical education came listening to a lot of Love, Brian Wilson and the folk sounds of Terry Callier. A friend also introduced me to David Crosby’s masterpiece ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ and this changed everything. My love of ‘sunshine pop’ and the hippie dream began to morph towards a less sugary fix.
I had continually been inspired by the aforementioned verygoodplus web forum, thanks to an introduction by my friend James ‘Bodger’ Clarke. I began to hear mixes by Peter Beaver, recommendations from the likes of Towny, Sie Norfolk and a series of CD-Rs produced for the forums Xmas swaps by Ian Pakes (of the band The Lancashire Hustlers). I’d also been appreciating the soft-rock sound of the mid-’70s and started to incorporate more of that into my playlists. Then along came Loner Folk and the world of the lost Private Press. Just over 10 years ago I started pulling all these influences together and produced the first of my ‘Folk Funk & Trippy Troubadours’ mixes which I began to share online using the music streaming service Mixcloud. I think this amalgamation of genres that I adopted muddied what the ‘folk-funk’ sound actually was. Although I did this purposely to widen the goalposts for my ‘Folk Funk & Trippy Troubadours’ mixes, I have tried to really trim back into the essence of ‘folk-funk’ for this article.
Which ‘folk-funk’ record left the biggest impression on me?
‘Feel The Spirit’ by Heaven & Earth, ‘Taking So Long’ by Kathy Smith, ‘Mountain Song’ by Penny Nichols, and ‘Woodenships’ by Christine Harwood are all great examples of a funky groove based on a folk tradition.
Top 5 ‘folk-funk’ tracks
Magician In The Mountain by Sunforest
Sunforest were a British folk-rock trio from the late ’60s and released just one album and one single. ‘Magician In The Mountain’ appears on the 1970 self-titled album on Deram, this Sunforest song has everything you need in a ‘folk-funk’ track. Its folky lyrics and chugging limp, mixed with a sugar cube drop of psychedelia ticks all my boxes. Two of the tracks would be re-recorded and featured on the soundtrack of Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’.
Rainmaker by Click
Click Horning, known as Click, was from New Hampshire, USA and grew up listening to Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Peter Paul & Mary. In 1965, at the tender age of 17, he caught a ride to Greenwich Village to pursue a career in music. Within a week he was a staff writer for a music publisher and soon had an independent record deal with Laurie Records. ‘Rainmaker’ features on the B side of his 1967 release ‘Girl With A Mind’. It has that instantly recognisable ‘folk-funk’ groove and is an almost perfect example of how to put the funk into folk.
Father I Put My Life In Your Hands by Sister Janet Mead
I wanted to add some diversity to this list and I have been an avid collector of Xian ‘folk-funk’ and ‘soft-rock’ for some time. So this track, written by Arnold Strals, is a perfect example. Sister Janet Mead was an Australian nun known for her pioneering use of contemporary music to get across a Christian message. Again we hear that limping beat that permeates through the whole track, with guitar licks here and there and the beautiful drop of the flute towards the end as the track just builds and builds. It was a toss-up as to which Xian track to include, this one or the mighty Kris N’ Dale’s ‘She Touched Me’ – Sister Janet came out on top.
It’s Taking So Long by Kathy Smith
How could you have an article about ‘folk-funk’ and not mention Richie Havens? ‘It’s Taking So Long’ featured on the Kathy Smith album ‘2’ and was released in 1971 on Stormy Forest, the record label created and owned by Richie Havens. The track is augmented with keyboard licks, Jeremy Steig on flute, and a funky psychedelic overtone. Limping along getting slightly faster and faster, it bursts into a wonderful track and must have been a show stopper when performed live.
In the late ’60s, Smith was a staple around the L.A. scene, this led to a partnership with Penny Nichols. Nichols’ own track ‘Mountain Song’ narrowly missed inclusion in this 5, and is one of my all-time favourite ‘folk-funk’ tracks.
Kathy Smith, originally from California, played to an audience of 600,000 at the Isle of Wight Festival, but unfortunately due to poor marketing, neither of her albums hit commercial success. Store them next to other psych-folk gems by Linda Perhacs, Vashti Bunyan, Bonnie Dobson and Susan Christie.
Paint A Lady by Susan Christie
Susan Christie was a singer/songwriter from Philadelphia, USA. She had a minor hit in 1966 with the folk song ‘I Love Onions’, but had several unsuccessful late ’60s single releases on Chanté Records and Columbia. By 1970 Christie, had become friends with Margo Guryan, and was offered the chance to record her own album. Music executives didn’t have the foresight to release these recordings and only a handful of promotional test copies were ever produced. Christie’s lost psychedelic-tinged folk masterpiece featuring a break heavy folk-funk rhythm section was shelved for over 30 years. Until 2006 when UK label Finders Keepers re-issued 8 tracks including this title track ‘Paint A Lady’.
A melancholy folk song about the closing of a carnival and being left alone. This dark but funky folk song has a brooding to it, clocking in at just over 3 minutes – I always hope for more as the song fades and wish for a full folk-funk psychedelic breakdown lasting for another 4 minutes at least.
The best of folk-funk by Paul Hillery
- An Elephant Called Slowly by Howard Blake
- Along Came Sam (The Morning Of The Mutations) by The Sound Of Feeling
- You’ve Come This Way Before by Nancy Priddy
- Woodenships by Christine Harwood
- Rush Hour by Bugsy Maugh
- The Loner by B.J. Ward
- I Got Stung by Bonnie Dobson
- Father I Put My Life In Your Hands by Sister Janet Mead
- Rainmaker by Click Horning
- Color Her Blue by Val Stöecklein
- Friendship by Franciscus Henri
- Say You’ll Be With Me by Denny Guy
- And That’s Saying a Lot by Christine Perfect
- Play With Fire by Barbara & Ernie
- But Never by Maryanne Mahoney
- Summer Wind by Kathy Stack
- All I Dream by Estelle Levitt
- Some Kind Of Fever (Pray For Rain) by Maxine Sellers
- It’s Taking So Long by Kathy Smith
- Mountain Song by Penny Nichols
- Magician In The Mountain by Sunforest
- Paint A Lady by Susan Christie
- Scarborough Fair by Deena Webster
- Feel The Spirit by Heaven & Earth
- Take Me With You by Lyn Christopher
- Ko Zna Reći by Jadranka
- Det Är Svårt För Ett Ägg Att Bli En Fågel by Birgitta Yavari
- Petis Peiu by Collage
- The Ballad Of Ho Chi Minh by Michael Glick
- Tennessee Voodoo by Booker T Jones
- Sun by Gregory Paul
- You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman by Terry Callier
- Dweller by Marcellino & Larson
- She Touched Me by Kris N’ Dale
My compilation ‘We Are The Children Of The Sun’ is out April 2022 on BBE records. And is a lovingly handpicked musical excursion that takes in strummed soft rock, blissful beach beats, the soft fizz of electronica, all carried to your ears by a gentle summer breeze. It ranges from hazy, long-forgotten early 70s tapes, right through to digital compositions recorded during lockdown in 2020. Tune in and ruminate while consciousness is awoken with transmissions dropping out from the fringes of psyche tranquillity, holding hands with folk-funk that runs deep and hazy, as the bejewelled turquoise waters lap gently at the ocean’s shore
This will be followed up with the release of ‘Once Again We Are The Children Of The Sun’ also on BBE records.
Paul Hillery’s curated compilation ‘Folk Funk & Trippy Troubadours – Volume 1’ will be released on RE:WARM records around September 2022
A shorter version of this article featured on Stamp the Wax, in April 2022.
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