A Brief History of Folk-Funk

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? 

The earliest example of ‘folk-funk’ used 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’ 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.”

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 happened way before this article. 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, eventually performing together and heading off to the Greenwich Village scene in search of a recording contract. But late ’50s America was not ready for a mixed-raced folk duo. Our loss for sure, but both went on to become pivotal influences on the ‘folk-funk’ sound. 

Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 was a turning point in the history of music and unquestionably led to the whole California ‘folk-rock’ scene championed by the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Soul and folk collided again with artists such as John Lucien, Richie Havens and the aforementioned Terry Callier blending these new sounds. 

‘Sunshine Pop’ combined nostalgic sounds with the youth aesthetic which was evolving along with the growing drug culture, expanding not only minds but music too. When ‘folk-rock’ blended with ‘sunshine’ we began to stumble into something that directly influenced the ‘folk-funk’ aesthetic, although as the ’60s progressed, themes did become somewhat darker. 

Making 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 dig. Gaining traction as a continuation of 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.

All in all, a track deemed ‘folk-funk’ has a folk roots and features a kick-ass groove. My favourite 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 my top five picks below, I’d point you towards the 1968 release ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Deena Webster, and the 1969 release ‘Me & Mr Hohner’ by Bobby Darin. You’ll hear similarities, although one is a folk classic and the other is not, the genres bend and begin to melt into each other, and both definitely fall into the ‘folk-funk’ genre.

Read Paul’s extended intro on Folk-Funk.

Where does your 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’. My early musical education came listening to a lot of Love, Brian Wilson and the folk sounds of Terry Callier. A friend 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. 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 through 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.

What ‘folk-funk’ record has left the biggest impression on you as a DJ, and why?

‘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.

SunforestMagician In The Mountain

Sunforest were a British folk-rock trio from the late ’60s who 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’.

Click – Rainmaker

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.

Sister Janet MeadFather I Put My Life In Your Hands

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.

Kathy Smith – It’s Taking So Long

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.

Susan ChristiePaint A Lady

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 eight 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 three 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.

Paul Hillery’s compilation ‘We Are The Children Of The Sun‘ is out in April on BBE records. This will be followed by ‘Once Again We Are The Children Of The Sun’, also on BBE records. His curated compilation ‘Folk Funk & Trippy Troubadours – Volume 1’ will be released on RE:WARM records in September 2022.

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