Friday, 8 April 2011


"All music is folk music. I ain't never heard no horse sing a song!"
- Louis Armstong.

Ah, the most famous quote in the history of folk music. How witty, how original, how funny! How absolutely infuriating...
Louis Armstrong thinking up
his next snappy one-liner...
I've mentioned the subject of Satchmo's nag previously on this blog but want to create a separate blog entry for the subject so I can snottily direct people to it whenever they "trot it out" (now that's wit!).

Here's a little history about the man and the quote, and we'll start with a mini biog for anyone who has got this far and is still asking "Louis Armstrong - was he that guy who landed on the moon?". Louis Armstrong (1901 - 1971) was a  trumpeter, a singer, a movie star and - in his time - one of the most famous people on the planet (which he never left). He's regarded as one of the most important jazz musicians ever, he spoke with popes and paupers, he helped break down the US colo(u)r bar and was a great good time guy. I like him a lot, not least for some of the fabulous music he left behind:

Now, to that famous quote. At some point in his life - I've not been able to discover exactly when - he was asked a question about music (possibly specifically about 'folk music'), he reportedly replied "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard no horse sing a song!", and ever since then people have raised this quote whenever a discussion of the elusive definition of folk music is on-going.

And why not? It's a good point, isn't it? Horses don't make music, only people (folk) make music, therefore all music is folk music! Oh, my aching sides...

There are several things to bear in mind.
1) Armstrong was a huge celebrity, was interviewed a lot, and probably got asked the same sorts of question a lot. Like many people in that situation he would have got bored with the same old same old and, being a smart guy, would have come up with some pat answers. The "Horse" quote is, I feel, almost certainly one of those. Louis had quite a few:
    •    “There is two kinds of music: the good and bad. I play the good kind.”
    •    “What we play is life.”
    •    “If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.”
    •    “Musicians don't retire; they stop when there's no more music in them.”

2) Armstrong was an American. The American meaning of "folk music" is significantly different to the British meaning of "folk music". British folk music is about traditional tunes and songs passed down and evolved through the folk tradition, and about newer music inspired and influenced by those older songs. American folk music is anything played on an acoustic guitar.

3) Armstrong was a prodigious writer and liked to play with words. He knew very well that "folk" and "folk music" are two different things, and used that dichotomy to humorous effect. In other words, he was joking! Incidentally, and perhaps unintentionally, Louis also built a fine triple negative into his phrase: ain't never heard no. He riffed on language like he riffed on tunes.

4) Armstrong was a jazz musician, which is arguably the antithesis of traditional folk music. Jazz may have had its origins in a collision of various traditional musical idioms, but even by Armstong's time had evolved a very long way from those roots.

5) Armstrong never got to hear Red Rum's cover version of What A Wonderful World...

“You blows who you is!” - Louis Armstong

So, here was a jazz musician making a jokey remark about a subject (American folk music) he wasn't directly involved in and which - from a British point of view - isn't folk music at all! Wow!

Louis' quote was witty, original and funny - but it's also an utterly useless addition to any serious discussion of folk music. And by the time you've heard it for the umpteenth time it's not very witty, original or funny any longer. Indeed, one vintage online folk music discussion group banned it from even being hinted at, and anyone who even seems to be on the verge of mentioning a certain jazz horn blower will be greeted with pre-emptive cries of "Horse!" from one and all!

That's not surprising. Saying "All music is folk music" is as much use in the real world as a timber merchant declaring that "all wood is trees" and refusing to arrange his warehouse by species or size. Yes, it's literally true (in a way) but it's also absolutely stupid. Do you really think that rap, krunk, soul, bubblegum pop, opera, death metal and grindcore should all be filed in one big category marked "Folk Music"? Do you? DO YOU! You must be mad, deaf or both...

If you genuinely believe that "all music is folk music" then, to misquote Mr A, you'll never know what folk music is.

And anyway...


hoppersongs said...

Armstrong's music may not be folk music, but it is wonderful. People ask me what kind of music I play and I want to tell them to listen and make up their own mind - but most say it's folk music. I'm not sure...

Simon Hopper

Dominic Rivron said...

Interesting. I play in a band which is undisputably a jazz band - but often feel that boundaries are being crossed into world music and other genres.

We sometimes play music from the "American Songbook". It's a line of thought I've just thought of, an off-the-cuff thought but are songs like "I got Rhythm" (Gershwin) US folk music? I mean, some UK songs (like The Blackleg Miner, I seem to remember) were written by composers who saw an opportunity to sell a song sheet, and were taken up by "folk".

By the way, you can hear us at

RedNev said...

As it's obviously a joke, aren't you the one who has fallen for it by forensically dissecting it in this post? You protest too much, methinks.

FolkCast said...

Not when many people take it so very seriously, no...