From ‘1989’ to “American Idiot”: A New Songbook Asks, What Makes a Contemporary Folk Song?

At least around some American colleges and summer camps, Peter Blood and Annie Patterson’s Rise Up Singing songbook was ubiquitous and often quite functional. First published in 1988 and a steady seller ever since, its sky-blue cover, hand-lettering, durable binding, and illustrations of multiethnic hippie families promised a vision of unity in the form of chords to 1,200 songs from across genres and traditions.

Now comes a companion and sequel, Rise Again, as endearing as the original, if perhaps not quite as essential. Much has changed in the quarter-century since Rise Up Singing, not the least of which is the market for printed song chords, the way popular music is generally made, and the notion of whether a modern folk canon can even exist. It was perhaps a decade after the book’s initial publication that laptops were declared to be the “new guitars,” but then the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? inadvertently kicked off a ceaseless modern folk boom and the new guitars (if anything) turned out just to be ukeleles.

There’s nothing by Taylor Swift in the spiral-bound Rise Again, nor anything by Ryan Adams for that matter, but the editors make an almost transcendently earnest attempt to include recent shared standards alongside other folk songs and ’60s staples left out of the first volume. With no overlap from the 1988 fakebook, the 1,200 songs represent a broad and idiosyncratic swath of music, American and otherwise, in some ways uncovering global folk’s changing musical fabric, but in more ways reenforcing the impossibility of the task.

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There is more country than the first time around, from old-guard C&W like Hank Williams to mainstream fare like Garth Brooks (“Night Rider’s Lament,” “The River”), and more attention to pop. There’s some indie-ish rock, including Wilco (the predictable “California Stars,” and Jeff Tweedy’s duet with Mavis Staples, “You Are Not Alone”) and Sufjan Stevens (“Casimir Pulaski Day”), various bits of AM gold (Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Your Song”), occasional reggae (Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross”), dozens of traditional melodies from around the world, and a dozen or more songs from the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia repertoires. Perhaps unreasonably, though not unfairly, there is also an enormous amount of contemporary folk that may not’ve leapt the wall to other social groups. In that way, Blood and Patterson’s choices can be read like a semi-secret history of an underground that continued strumming unabated even after Dylan went electric.

Though the Quaker/old Left/everybody-sing-for-peace message is impossible to miss, the scope of Rise Up Again is also hard to grasp, in part because of its fuzzy author index (which the authors promise to rectify on their website soon), but also because of the book’s whimsical organization system. Categorizations range from “Friendship & Community” (which encompasses Bob Dylan’s winking “All I Really Want To Do,” the Indigo Girls’ introspective “Closer To Fine,” and Phil Ochs’ sardonic “Outside a Small Circle of Friends”) to “Healing & Letting Go” (such as Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”), alongside the occasional more tangible genre such as “Broadway” or “Lullabies.”

Rise Up Again is for ramblin’, amblin’ browsers and strummers, and leaves room for laughs as well as heated arguments in the margins. One chapter titled “Surfin” USA” aims to encapsulate “US rock groups & artists from 1963 to 1995” and results in a fairly goofy survey of the period, even by folkie standards, including Journey (“Don’t Stop Believin'”), Billy Joel (“You’re My Home”), and The Left Banke (“Walk Away Renée”). Most awkwardly/interestingly/think-piecingly, there’s a chapter titled “Millennial Songs,” whose two dozen tunes manage to fold in Adele (“Rolling in the Deep”), Feist (“1, 2, 3, 4”), Green Day (“American Idiot”), They Might Be Giants (“Birdhouse in Your Soul”), Iron and Wine (“Naked As We Came”), and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Under the Bridge”), but raises more questions than it answers, which — most likely — Blood and Patterson are fine with.

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To quibble too deeply with the choices is to miss the songbook’s spirit, though, which is (of course) to sing. “Don’t argue, it’s just a folk song,” the late Pete Seeger was fond of his quoting his father Charles, a father of ethnomusicology. By extension, the same might be said of Rise Again: it’s just a folk songbook. If it reminds users of some other song they might want to play, they can Google it themselves. Or, all the better, just make a guess, commit, and go for it, à la Half Japanese or Dirty Projectors. Seeger, who wrote the introduction for the original edition and makes a posthumous return for the new book (one that’s even signed the month after his death!), might not grasp all the new meme-mutated forms of digital folk musicking. But as a performer and songwriter who lived through the first few folk revivals, he’d surely understand Ryan Adams’ 1989 if not the attendant hullaballoo. By contraction, it might also be said that any song is still just a song. All it requires is the will to sing it.

An unconscious but instinctual rebuttal to rockists, poptimists, or anyone who thought group singing was reserved for karaoke, Rise Again‘s simple chord maps joyously dethrone the privileged 21st-century notion of “covers” and “tributes,” and the mindset that there needs to be anything solemn or even artistic about playing a song. Songs don’t have feelings, songs are feelings, malleable and born for reinvention. Due to oversight or copyright, Rise Up Again misses more than it gets, and leaves a blind spot to lots of contemporary standards (Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”? R.EM.’s “Everybody Hurts?” Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea”?), but it is also so fun and rich that it opens the possibility of a new wave of “folk” songbooks that are way more practical and pleasant for group singing than smartphones or laptops or even tablets.

There’s no Lou Reed (“Perfect Day”?) or Nirvana or Bruce Springsteen or Madonna or Michael Jackson or Harry Nilsson or punk or _____. “We Are the World” surely has a spot in any unironic global songbook, and if bubblegum pop like Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” can make the cut (as it does in Rise Up Again), why not go whole hog and include “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”? The list-making could go on for days. Or volumes. Music fans spend much time debating critical rank and influence, but Rise Again constructs an argument for a whole other kind of value: whether a song is worth singing. Not everything in Rise Up Again will pass the test for everybody, but it’s a big, nice thought that still sounds good when sung loudly with friends.