ELIZA SCRUTONI grew up on Appalachian folk music. My family takes a trip to the mountains of Eastern Kentucky every year for an event called Family Folk Week, where we spend the week singing, dancing, and jamming with friends. It was at Folk Week that I met such folk music legends as Jean Ritchie and Lee Sexton, and a huge array of other folk musicians and lovers of old-time music. Largely because of Folk Week, I took up the fiddle (not the violin) when I was 7 years old, and my house is perpetually filled with the sounds of banjo picking and singing. Although it takes up less than 2% of my year, my time at Folk Week has defined my life and me as much as anything else.
Much like food, music often becomes an iconic representation of its culture. Buskers with accordions fit into the prototypical Paris experience just as much as croissants and crepes suzettes. Salsa music and pressed sandwiches both make Cuban culture what it is. And banjos are just as symbolic of the American South as biscuits and gravy. Not surprisingly, as music and food are so intrinsic to cultural heritage, the two come together quite a bit. Because folk music has shaped my life so profoundly, I was curious to explore those points of intersection.
Naturally, my Folk Week friends were the first people I went to for examples of how profoundly a culture’s food influences its music. People came up with dozens of ideas off the top of their heads, because food and drink is everywhere in folk music. “How Many Biscuits Can You Eat,” “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait,” “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn.” Even the old familiar “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” mentions chicken and dumplings, a Southern specialty if there ever was one.One thing that sticks out to me about food songs is their distinct lack of gloom. This may not sound impressive, but folk singers are not always a particularly cheery bunch. As my friends and family members were quick to point out, there are not nearly as many songs about food as there are about murder, death, and suicide. I can’t count the number of songs I know where someone dies in a coal mine or murders their lover/sister/child/some other person they probably shouldn’t be murdering. But food songs tend to be more joyous. It’s hard to feel sad singing about going fishing in the crawfish hole (“The Crawfish Song”), about ashcake that tastes like shortenin’ bread (“Chased Ol’ Satan”), or about a 15-story house brimming with chicken pie (“Old Joe Clark”). Singing about food is a celebration, not a quest for catharsis.
Usually. When it comes down to it, it’s hard to find a topic that folk singers can’t turn mournful. One song that comes to mind is “John Barleycorn Must Die,” an apparent murder ballad that’s actually a metaphor for milling barley to brew beer. The Punch Brothers’ “Rye Whiskey” serves as a cautionary tale about what happens when you drink too much of the title substance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, songs about alcohol vary considerably in their mood. There’s a stark contrast between a rousing chorus of a jolly drinking song like “Little Brown Jug” and a song like “Jack of Diamonds,” which tells of the woes of alcohol-induced gambling. Good music has the remarkable ability to capture the complexity of human emotion as it relates to a particular topic. Through music, food can be delightful, or mournful, or pretty much anywhere in between.
Food has been a topic worth singing about for centuries, and at this rate it seems like it’s going to keep being sung about for many years to come. It’s all over folk music, but it’s also pretty visible in more modern tunes. From contemporary country favorites like “Chicken Fried” and “Beer For My Horses” to the endless gourmet food references of chef-turned-hip-hop-artist Action Bronson, it seems pretty clear that food is not losing its place in the world of music any time soon. And I, for one, look forward to seeing where it goes.