The origins of the term Folk Music are based in the snobbery of a Victorian antiques enthusiast. Folklore, wrote William Thoms (are) ‘the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes’.
The term as it’s used today seems to assume some deep mystical past but in fact refers only to the music that was unclassified before people like William Thoms came along to look down upon it.
For me, the term applies to any song that tells a narrative. If the song tells me a story with a beginning, middle and end then it’s someone’s tale, a Folk Tale.
Alt-J’s song 3WW (Three Worn Words) sets out an opening with no words. For the first thirty seconds or so it seems like a backing track or interlude, then things change. A rolling guitar enters and you realise that you’ve heard the start up sequence of something more. The first lyrics are sung in a way that we all know is the sound of Folk proper. As the story develops the vocalist seems less sure of himself. We’re treated to a sudden crescendo, another verse and then another person’s POV.
At five minutes long Alt-J are asking quite a lot of radio programmers with a short eye on big audiences with small attention spans. As a story, though, as a piece, it’s perfect.