Feminist Folk Music: Does It Exist?



One of the more tedious forms of mass-produced think-pieces in our internet era is “Is [surprising and unexpected piece of pop cultural ephemera] actually a feminist masterpiece?” At the risk of falling into this I’d like to pose the following question: Is folk music feminist? Well, the answer is no because folk music is a massive category of musical styles and forms stretching back hundreds of years so it’s far too broad a category to draw conclusions about. But let’s restate the question. Is folk music more feminist than people give it credit for? And I’d say yes, yes it is. The usual disclaimers here apply, I am an asexual man, take my opinions about feminist issues and sexual politics with a grain of salt, etc, etc but I really do think that within the vast corpus of folk music exists a number of surprisingly feminist themes.

This may seems surprising, given that folk music is the music of old white people. But folk music is also an extremely populist genre. Though the term is now used to refer to an entire style of music, technically it refers to music of traditional or unknown authorship, music passed from generation to generation orally, music written by communities about their daily lives. This is why I’ve always loved traditional music, because it has the capacity to cut to the core of people’s hopes and dreams in a way nothing else does. Women are people. Women are actually a lot of people! And women wrote and sung and passed down songs as much as men ever did. That’s not to say that all folks songs about women have progressive messages. The number of songs cheerfully recounting men murdering their girlfriends/wives/random women/etc is sort of astounding, just for example. But you also have folk songs forthrightly laying out condemnations of the institution of marriage, folk songs acknowledging women’s sexual agency, and folk songs about defiance, about spitting in the eye of those who would attempt to control you.

That’s what I want to talk about today.

(Trigger Warning: Violence against women, sexual assault, rape)

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