Folk music reached its peak in the sixties and early seventies, fanned by the flames of the Vietnam conflict. The protest spirit of folk flourished with the turbulent times, but after the hippies had gone, the war had ended, and the disco movement began, folk faded away. It’s difficult to tell why folk music is finding such a strong following these days. True, there is a war going on, a war which many people in this country think is wrong, but the protesters on the streets are not necessarily joining hands, passing out flowers or singing folk songs.
There have always been cycles in the popularity of particular styles of music. One cycle consists of processed Top 40 radio fare, the kind of music that seems to pervade the TRL countdown. Another is a decidedly singer / songwriter style of music featuring artists and bands that write their own songs and play their own instruments. While Britney, Lindsay, and Hilary are still selling loads of records and getting heaps of magazine covers, there is a sense that the bubble is about to burst, that the tides will shift towards the shores of the singer / songwriter once again. I for one feel that it is a long time coming, but I often tend to be in the minority.
Artists like Sam Beam, Bonnie `Prince’ Billy, Sufjan Stevens and Animal Collective have been instrumental in resuscitating the genre of folk. None capture the essential primal and natural spirit like Devendra Banhart. Banhart graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute, housed in a city famous for its folk / Summer of Love movement in the sixties. He went on to record on shoddy four-track equipment and Michael Gira of Young God Records was one of the recipients of a demo tape. Since then, Oh Me Oh My and Rejoicing in the Hands have slowly gained significant cult followings. Banhart’s latest album, Niño Rojo, is a collection of songs from the same recording sessions that birthed its predecessor.
Some may argue that Rejoicing in the Hands contained the A-list material from the Georgia cabin sessions, but this new album has some shining moments as well, specifically in “At the Hop,” a song co-written by Andy Cabic, one of Banhart’s partners in crime in Vetiver. The absurd lyrics, prevalent throughout the album, put a smile on ones face as the two-toned bearded eccentric warbles them.
At the hop it’s Greece ball heaven
with candy Andy pants and spot the Archie too
I remember introducing a friend to Devendra’s Rejoicing in the Hands. For months afterward he would tell me how much he loved it and how many people would come up to him and ask him if he had heard of the folk musician. Just a few weeks ago another friend told me that she had heard this amazing CD (by way of the first friend) and asked if I had ever heard it. The circle, albeit small, was complete. It was like sending out one of those chain e-mails and getting it back later. Ultimately, the reason that Devendra Banhart is so great, the reason that he will succeed where so many others fail, is that there is no one else who can do what he does. He is, in a word, unique. I love Devendra Banhart and so should you.