Of Fleet Foxes and Folkies: Tired of Being a Rolling Stone?

It is my suspicion that most of what is typically labeled “postmodern” culture is actually just late modernity.  The same myth that taught me that I could grow up to be “anything I wanted to be” is the same one that advises “healthy” individuals to be unencumbered by tradition, and that happiness is only found when the individual is “free” to follow his/her hearts desire.  Descartes’s maxim, “I think therefore I am” has played itself out in our modern conceptions of the individual, “freedom,” and self.  But I think that some in my generation are growing tired of our ability to choose our own path and be masters of our own destiny.  There are signs from some that the power to pull ourselves out of mediocrity and find fulfilment as fully actualized individuals, apart from history and others, is wearing thin.  In the words of Umberto Eco, we find ourselves, “…knowing all languages, but speaking none.”  The pressures that come as a result of this cultural situation has left many of my generation confused and wandering.  Not the kind of confused and wandering that brought about the cultural revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but the kind that is now seeking to return home.  Dylan asked the perennial question, “How does it feel to be on your own, like a rolling stone?”  Well…it doesn’t feel good.  Enough deconstruction and cynicism, let’s get on with it.  There has been a swell of this sentiment lately in the folk music scene.

The wanderers of every generation have always expressed themselves through the music of the common man.  The rooted-ness of the folk tradition has always made a resurgence within American popular music whenever seismic cultural shifts have taken, or are about to take place.  From the depression era strums of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie, to the protests of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Paul Simon.  The last 70 years provides us with many fine examples and the last few years have brought a landslide of variations on the theme.

But there is something slightly different in the folk music that has graced the scene over the last few years.  While the Boomers feel a disaffected pride at being “out on their own,” the folkies of my generation are starting to question the foundations of both individualized autonomy and utopian denials of the human condition. Simon and Garfunkel sang “I am a Rock,” Dylan felt “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Pete Seeger expressed a communal patriotism by re-contextualizing “This land is my land.”  But I am sensing a different longing from some of the poets within the modern folk movement.  A desire rooted outside of individualism, nationalism, and utopic dreams.  This was brought to the forefront of my mind as I was listening to the new Fleet Foxes album Helplessness Blues.

The Fleet Foxes (fronted by Robin Pecknold) locate this new folk sentiment in the very way they position their soundscapes in the production of their records.  Reverb rich and earthy in tonality, the vocals seem like a rich ornament in a painted forest landscape that longs for the eternal.  These elements made their first full length album Fleet Foxes, and the single “White Winter Hymnal” a surprise hit and new favorites among the existentially inclined.  Their new album pushes this zeitgeist even further on a lyrical level.  The opening track “Montezuma” opens with the words,

“So now I am older,
Than my mother and father,
When they had their daughter,
Now what does that say about me.
Oh how could I dream of,
Such a selfless and true love,
Could I wash my hands of?
Just lookin’ out for me”

But it is the title track “Helplessness Blues” that intrigues me the most.  I don’t believe that Peckford is claiming these words in jest or lacing them in sarcasm.  I think these are sincere.  And if they are, what does this say about about the coming state of the postmodern soul?  Could it be that we have exhausted our inner resources as “individuals” and are coming to different conclusions about the state of humans in the face of the universe?

Peckford’s words connect with me on a guttural level and closely resemble the shift that I have described. Take a look and have a listen. Perhaps you also secretly long to work in an orchard and , “..serve something beyond me.”  Work until you are sore and get back to me someday soon.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues by subpop

Helplessness Blues
by Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes)

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me

But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

What’s my name, what’s my station, oh, just tell me what I should do
I don’t need to be kind to the armies of night that would do such injustice to you
Or bow down and be grateful and say “sure, take all that you see”
To the men who move only in dimly-lit halls and determine my future for me

And I don’t, I don’t know who to believe
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see

If I know only one thing, it’s that everything that I see
Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak
Yeah I’m tongue-tied and dizzy and I can’t keep it to myself
What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?

And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf
I’ll come back to you someday soon myself

If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m raw
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
And you would wait tables and soon run the store

Gold hair in the sunlight, my light in the dawn
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore
Someday I’ll be like the man on the screen

Listen to the whole album here