Know your history.

It’s a wonder that musicians start writing songs without one glance backward. I’ve even heard remarks as audacious as, “I don’t like learning other people’s songs because it distracts me from my own writing.” What?! Listen, folk music (I use this term as a synonym for “roots” music in general) is a way of transferring traditional music to maintain and sustain a culture. It’s a socialist passing of old to new. Without at least a secondary school level of education on the past, there’s no way you as a musician, are going to leave an impression on the future.

Most have heard the big names; Leadbelly, Muddy Waters, Woody Guthrie but what of Son House, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Washington Phillips, or Doc Watson? Here’s a little exercise, count how many records you have of Nickelback/The White Stripes/Radiohead and then count how many records you have of pre-1930/40 performers/musicians. If the ratio is ridiculously leaned in favor of modern pop, go out and buy Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, listen up and learn a few songs. If you’re feeling especially adventuresome, pick up Leadbelly’s Legacy series (3 volumes) and The Carter Family’s In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain. If you still want more (which you inevitably will), pick up some of Guthrie’s Asch Recordings (4 volumes) and start looking into Smithsonian Folkways collections. While you’re educating your ears you might as well educate your brain by picking up some books. American Roots Music and Guthrie’s Bound for Glory are a good start; the former will give you even more reference material to add to your now flourishing collection of real roots/folk music. Of course, if you’re a minimalist and tend to shy away from adding materials to your life, or finances are an issue, most (if not all) of these recordings/reading materials are available at your local library.

Without some knowledge of the past, or at the very least a yearning for it, I nor anybody else will/should take you seriously as a musician. Get started.

Read: The Perils of DIY