“Bellies full of Dust/We sing please oh please/Send the rain to us” There’s something somewhat surreal about hearing these lines, inspired by the dust bowl of the 1930s, sung out through a state-of-the-art stereo, or from a $700 iPhone. When you really think about it songs like Jake Down’s “A Plow Broke the Plains,” or folk music in general for that matter, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that neither make much sense. It’s a textbook contradiction with modern day. And yet, that doesn’t stop us from loving songs like “Maggie’s Farm,” the Bob Dylan classic, despite the fact that most of us hardly know what an actual farm even looks like. But with bands like Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters and Men, and The Lumineers achieving monumental successes through folk music, it’s clear that whatever drives this modern generation to like folk, is a strategy that works. But what is it really about this music style that makes it so universally appealing that even pop acts like Avicii have drawn from it? What makes a dusty old farm or a wagon wheel just as interesting as Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream?” This was a question I was hoping Grand Rapids, Mich. native and folk musician, Jake Down, could answer when he sat down with Badger Senate.
The first thing you need to know about folk musician Jake Down is that he is not a folk musician, or at least he doesn’t think of himself as just that. When I sat down with Down to Skype him on a library’s Mac desktop next to an old 1920s radiator that no longer functioned, I asked him why he chose folk music as his genre of choice. Here, he was quick to correct me. “It’s sort of just what I stumbled into at the time I was writing music,” he told me, but a folk musician wasn’t the only thing he wanted to be. Listening to underground Christian music as a boy, and inspired by individuals such as Canadian singer John K. Samson and vocalist Frank Turner, Down told Badger Senate that while he often played folk music, he also dabbled in rock and finds interest in rock music that can be adapted for an acoustic performance.
But with a closer look, it’s easy to see how I and others could perceive Down as a folk musician. Aside from the primarily acoustic sets and “folk-esque” instrumentation found on his first EP — Shipwreck — released in September 2013, Jake also commonly plays along with a backing band, The Midwest Mess. While he admits that holding onto this backing band has been difficult, it’s hard not to conger up the classic Bob Dylan and The Band imagery when seeing pictures of his band perform. But this group makeup is something more of a happy accident than conscious choice.
The set up of his Jake’s band, as well as his folk artistic direction, has its perks, mainly in the way of its versatility. “If one guy goes off and gets married and doesn’t want to tour anymore,” said Down, “we have the flexibility to switch up the lineup and people aren’t like, ‘oh it’s not the same group anymore.’ ” But Jake also told Badger Senate that the folk music identity doesn’t just help in flexibility with his band, but also with flexibility with himself. Folk music is something you are able to “do by yourself with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica,” said Down. This not only gives him more creative freedom when desired, but also frees up Down to play larger venues with his band, or smaller venues, even coffee shops alone, if desired.
As for now, Jake Down is excited to continue work on a 7-inch that, while no solid date is set, is expected to be out by the end of the summer at the latest. The 7-inch is anticipated to be a continuation of his first EP with the song, “Shipwreck pt. 3: Ghostship” a response to tracks on his first EP, to appear on the album and complete the song’s compilation.
As the interview came to a close, I was disappointed that Jake Down was unable to answer my question about the universal likeability of folk music. I packed up my things and looked at the several-thousand-dollar Mac computer that I had just finished the Skype call on, placed beside an old beat up radiator. This is when I thought back to what Down had told me about his art.
A Michigan native playing mostly in the Midwest, and creator of the Michigan-based music site, Listen to the Mitten, Down takes much pride in his region and its culture. “Its my home,” he told me when I asked about its influence. He went on to say that people “always need some place to come back to, somewhere to settle down.” And I got the sense that whether it was in Detroit as a boy, or in Grand Rapids in adulthood, Michigan — its sounds, its influences, its location, its feel — has always been his home.
I looked at the computer with its brushed metallic sides and alienating ovular shape. It sat next to a radiator that had no function but just to stand there and be what it was. It was a relic of a simpler time, and despite its odd shape, had a somehow universal palatability. In that moment Jake Down had answered my question. His music, and folk in general, is not about its practical function of farms and dusty crops; it’s all about returning to a place of comfort, the feeling of home.
Written by Alex Baumgarten