music is traditional music that has evolved through the
process of aural transmission. Well-known American practitioners
of this style of music are Woody Guthrie and Jean Ritchie.
Alan Lomax began recording the folk music of the Appalachian
region during the 1930’s. It originates among the
common people of a nation or region and is spread about
or passed down orally. It is characterized by simple melodies.
In popular usage, this term refers to music of oral traditions,
often in relatively simple style, primarily of rural provenance,
normally lacking an identifiable composer and performed
by non-professionals, used and understood by broad segments
of a population and especially by the lower socioeconomic
classes, characteristic of a nation, society, or ethnic
group, and claimed by one of these as its own. Since this
is a romanticized picture that has often been imbued with
political significance, the term "folk music"
is avoided by specialists in ethnomusicology,the study
of musical cultures.
usually music of unknown origin, transmitted orally and
enjoyed by the general population. Today the term is applied
to some popular music that has the style or flavor of
folk art. It is considered as the traditional and typically
anonymous music that is an expression of the life of people
in a community. Folk music, in the original sense of the
term, is music by and of the people. Folk music arose,
and best survives, in societies not yet affected by mass
communication and the commercialization of culture. It
normally was shared and performed by the entire community
(not by a special class of expert performers), and was
transmitted by word of mouth.
the 20th century, the term folk music took on a second
meaning: it describes a particular kind of popular music
which is culturally descended from or otherwise influenced
by traditional folk music. Like other popular music, this
kind of folk music is most often performed by experts
and is transmitted in organized performances and commercially
distributed recordings. However, popular music has filled
some of the roles and purposes of the folk music it has
music is more or less synonymous with traditional music.
Some would use either term with a more specific meaning,
restricted to just popularized-folk/traditional music
or just not-popularized; however, both terms are used
interchangeably among the general population and are not
music is usually seen as the authentic expression of a
way of life now past or about to disappear (or in some
cases, to be preserved or somehow revived). Unfortunately,
despite the assembly of an enormous body of work over
some two centuries, there is still no unanimity on what
folk music (or folklore, or the folk) is." (Middleton
Shay, co-founder and host of the Philadelphia Folk Festival,
defined folk music in an April 2003 interview by saying:
"In the strictest sense, it's music that is rarely
written for profit. It's music that has endured and been
passed down by oral tradition. [...] And folk music is
participatory—you don't have to be a great musician
to be a folk singer. [...] And finally, it brings a sense
of community. It's the people's music."
English term folk, which gained usage in the 18th century
(during the Romantic period) to refer to peasants or non-literate
peoples, is related to the German word Volk (meaning people
or nation). The term is used to emphasize that folk music
emerges spontaneously from communities of ordinary people.
"As the complexity of social stratification and interaction
became clearer and increased, various conditioning criteria,
such as 'continuity', 'tradition', 'oral transmission',
'anonymity' and uncommercial origins, became more important
than simple social categories themselves."
Seeger (1980) describes three contemporary defining criteria
of folk music (Middleton 1990, p.127-8):
A "schema comprising four musical types: 'primitive'
or 'tribal'; 'elite' or 'art'; 'folk'; and 'popular'.
Usually...folk music is associated with a lower class
in societies which are culturally and socially stratified,
that is, which have developed an elite, and possibly also
a popular, musical culture." Cecil Sharp (1972),
A.L. Lloyd ().
2. "Cultural processes rather than abstract musical
types...continuity and oral transmission...seen as characterizing
one side of a cultural dichotomy, the other side of which
is found not only in the lower layers of feudal, capitalist
and some oriental societies but also in 'primitive' societies
and in parts of 'popular cultures'." Redfield (1947)
and Dundes (1965).
3. Less prominent, "a rejection of rigid boundaries,
preferring a conception, simply of varying practice within
one field, that of 'music'."
Harker (1985) argues that "folk music" is, in
Peter van der Merwe's words, "a meaningless term
invented by 'bourgeois' commentators".
of folk music
from instrumental music that forms a part of folk music,
especially dance music traditions, much folk music is
vocal music, since the instrument that makes such music
is usually handy. As such, most folk music has lyrics,
and is about something.
verse looms large in the folk music of many cultures.
This encompasses such forms as traditional epic poetry,
much of which was meant originally for oral performance,
sometimes accompanied by instruments. Many epic poems
of various cultures were pieced together from shorter
pieces of traditional narrative verse, which explains
their episodic structure and often their in medias res
plot developments. Other forms of traditional narrative
verse relate the outcomes of battles and other tragedies
or natural disasters. Sometimes, as in the triumphant
Song of Deborah found in the Biblical Book of Judges,
these songs celebrate victory. Laments for lost battles
and wars, and the lives lost in them, are equally prominent
in many folk traditions; these laments keep alive the
cause for which the battle was fought. The narratives
of folk songs often also remember folk heroes such as
John Henry to Robin Hood. Some folk song narratives recall
supernatural events or mysterious deaths.
and other forms of religious music are often of traditional
and unknown origin. Western musical notation was originally
created to preserve the lines of Gregorian chant, which
before its invention was taught as an oral tradition in
monastic communities. Folk songs such as Green grow the
rushes, O present religious lore in a mnemonic form. In
the Western world, Christmas carols and other traditional
songs preserve religious lore in song form.
sorts of folk songs are less exalted. Work songs are composed;
they frequently feature call and response structures,
and are designed to enable the labourers who sing them
to coordinate their efforts in accordance with the rhythms
of the songs. In the armed forces, a lively tradition
of jody calls are sung while soldiers are on the march.
Professional sailors made use of a large body of sea shanties.
Love poetry, often of a tragic or regretful nature, prominently
figures in many folk traditions. Nursery rhymes and nonsense
verse also are frequent subjects of folk songs.
in folk music
transmitted by word of mouth though a community will,
in time, develop many variants, because this kind of transmission
cannot produce word-for-word and note-for-note accuracy.
Indeed, many traditional folk singers are quite creative
and deliberately modify the material they learn.
variants proliferate naturally, it is naïve to believe
that there is such a thing as the "authentic"
version of a ballad such as "Barbara Allen."
Field researchers in folk song (see below) have encountered
countless versions of this ballad throughout the English-speaking
world, and these versions often differ greatly from each
other. None can reliably claim to be the original, and
it is quite possible that whatever the "original"
was, it ceased to be sung centuries ago. Any version can
lay an equal claim to authenticity, so long as it is truly
from a traditional folksinging community and not the work
of an outside editor.
Sharp had an influential idea about the process of folk
variation: he felt that the competing variants of a folk
song would undergo a process akin to biological natural
selection: only those new variants that were the most
appealing to ordinary singers would be picked up by others
and transmitted onward in time. Thus, over time we would
expect each folksong to become esthetically ever more
appealing — it would be collectively composed to
perfection, as it were, by the community.
the other hand, there is also evidence to support the
view that transmission of folk songs can be rather sloppy.
Occasionally, collected folk song versions include material
or verses incorporated from different songs that makes
little sense in its context. A perfect process of natural
selection would not have permitted these incoherent versions
decline of folk traditions in modern societies
music seems to reflect a universal impulse of humanity.
No fieldwork expedition by cultural anthropologists has
yet to discover a preindustrial people that did not have
its own folk music. It seems safe to infer that folk music
was a property of all people starting from the dawn of
the development of modern society--first literacy, then
the conversion of culture into a salable commodity--created
a new form of transmission of music that first influenced,
then in some societies essentially eliminated the original
folk tradition. The decline of folk music in a culture
can be followed through three stages.
I: Urban influence
of the first folk traditions impacted by modern society
was the folksong of rural England. Starting in Elizabethan
times, urban poets wrote broadsheet ballads that (thanks
to printing) could be sold widely. The ballads probably
didn't need musical notation, since they would have been
sung to tunes that everybody knew, the folk tradition
being very much alive at the time. These ballads heavily
influenced the folk tradition, but did not override it.
In fact, the folk tradition showed great resilience. Through
the process of folk transmission, the urban ballads were
modified, keeping the more vivid content and ironing out
the less "citified" material. The resulting
body of folk lyrics is widely considered to be a very
appealing blend. Thus, the printing press and widespread
literacy did not suffice to destroy the English folk tradition,
but in some ways enriched it.
English folk song legacy was probably affected by urban
melodies as well as words. The clue here is that folk
music in remote rural areas of the English-speaking world,
such as Highland Scotland or the Appalachian mountains,
abounds in tunes that employ the pentatonic scale, a scale
widely used for folk music around the world. However,
pentatonic music was rare among the rural English villagers
who first volunteered their tunes to researchers in the
late 19th century. A plausible explanation is that life
in rural England was far more closely affected by the
proximity to the urban centers. Music in the standard
major and minor scales evidently penetrated to the nearby
rural areas, where it was converted to folk idiom, but
nevertheless succeeded in displacing the old pentatonic
II: Replacement of folk music by popular music
pattern of urban influence on folk music was intensified
to outright destruction as soon as the capitalist economic
system had developed to the point that music could be
packaged and distributed for the purpose of earning a
profit--in other words, when popular music was born. It
was around Victorian times that ordinary people of the
Western world were first offered music as a mass commodity,
for example, in the phenomenon of Music Hall.
introduction of popular music was simultaneous with the
latter part of the Industrial Revolution. This was a time
of great change in lifestyle for the great body of the
people, notably the migration of the old agrarian communities
to the new industrial ones. It is likely that the resulting
social disruption helped cut people's emotional bonds
to their old folk music, and thereby helped the shift
in taste toward popular music.
technology advanced, succeeding generations became enticed
with popular music in ever more accessible and desirable
forms. Gramophone records became LPs and then CDs; the
Music Hall gave way to radio, followed by television.
With the ever-increasing success of popular music, the
musical life of many individuals eventually ceased to
include any folk music at all. Moreover, since popular
music for most people is passive music (that is, listened
to, but not created or performed), the overwhelming success
of popular music also entailed a sharp decline of music
as an active, participatory activity.
III: Loss of musical ability in the community
terminal state of the loss of folk music can be seen in
the United States and a few similar societies, where except
in isolated areas and among hobbyists, traditional folk
music no longer survives. In the absence of folk music,
many individuals do not sing. It is possible that non-singers
feel intimidated by widespread exposure in recordings
and broadcasting to the singing of skilled experts. Another
possibility is that they simply cannot sing, because they
did not sing when they were small children, when learning
of skills takes place most naturally. Certainly it is
very common for contemporary Americans to claim that they
is anecdotal evidence that the loss of singing ability
is continuing rapidly at the present time. As recently
as the 1960s, audiences at American sporting events collectively
sang the American national anthem before a game; the anthem
is now generally assigned to a recording or to a soloist.
to sing is apparently unusual in a traditional society,
where the habit of singing folk song since early childhood
gives everyone the practice needed to able to sing at
least reasonably well.
loss of folk music is occurring at different rates in
different regions of the world. Naturally, where industrialization
and commercialization of culture are most advanced, so
tends to be the loss of folk music. Yet in nations or
regions where folk music is a badge of cultural or national
identity, the loss of folk music can be slowed; this is
held to be true, for instance in the case of Hungary,
Ireland, Brittany, and Galicia, all of which retain their
traditional music to some degree.
emergence of popular folk artists
the twentieth century, a crucial change in the history
of folk music began. Folk material came to be adopted
by talented performers, performed by them in concerts,
and disseminated by recordings and broadcasting. In other
words, a new genre of popular music had arisen. This genre
was linked by nostalgia and imitation to the original
traditions of folk music as it was sung by ordinary people.
However, as a popular genre it quickly evolved to be quite
different from its original roots.
popular (i.e., commercially-disseminated) music based
on a folk tradition is called "folk music",
no matter how different it may be from a folk music rooted
in the community. As a result, some individuals in a modern
society are unaware that folk music of the original variety
rise of folk music as a popular genre began with performers
whose own lives were rooted in the authentic folk tradition.
Thus, for example, Woody Guthrie began by singing songs
he remembered his mother singing to him as a child. Later,
in the 1930s and 1940s, Guthrie both collected folk music
and also composed his own songs, as did Pete Seeger, who
was the son of a professional musicologist. Through dissemination
on commercial recordings, this vein of music became popular
in the United States during the 1950s, through singers
like the Weavers (Seeger's group), Burl Ives, Harry Belafonte
and the Kingston Trio, who tried to reproduce and honor
the work that had been collected in preceding decades.
The commercial popularity of such performers probably
peaked in the U.S. with the ABC Hootenanny (http://www.tvtome.com/Hootenanny/)
television series in 1963, which was cancelled after the
arrival of the Beatles, the "British invasion"
and the rise of folk-rock.
itinerant folksinger lifestyle was exemplified by Ramblin'
Jack Elliott, a disciple of Woody Guthrie who in turn
influenced Bob Dylan. Sometimes these performers would
locate scholarly work in libraries and revive the songs
in their recordings, for example in Joan Baez's rendition
of "Henry Martin," which adds a guitar accompaniment
to a version collected and edited by Cecil Sharp. Publications
like Sing Out! (http://singout.org/) magazine helped spread
both traditional and composed songs, as did folk-revival-oriented
of this group of popular folk singers maintained an idealistic,
leftist/progressive political orientation. This is perhaps
not surprising. Folk music is easily identified with the
ordinary working people who created it, and preserving
treasured things against the claimed relentless encroachments
of capitalism is likewise a goal of many politically progressive
people. Thus, in the 1960s such singers as Joan Baez,
Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan followed in Guthrie's footsteps
and to begin writing "protest music" and topical
songs, particularly against the Vietnam War, and likewise
expressed in song their support for the civil rights movement.
Such songs were newly written, but took their instrumentation
and stanza forms from folk tradition.
Ireland, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem (although
the members were all Irish born, the group became famous
while based in New York's Greenwich Village, it must be
noted), The Dubliners, Clannad, Planxty, The Chieftains,
The Pogues and a variety of other folk bands have done
much over recent years to revitalise and repopularise
Irish traditional music. These bands were rooted, to a
greater or lesser extent, in a living tradition of Irish
music, and they benefitted from collection efforts on
the part of the likes of Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy,
Hungary, the group Muzsikas and the singer Marta Sebestyen
became known throughout the world due to their numerous
American tours and their participation in the Hollywood
movie The English Patient and Marta Sebestyen's work with
the Deep Forest band.
blending of folk and popular genres
experience of the last century suggests that as soon as
a folk tradition comes to be marketed as popular music,
its musical content will quickly be modified to become
more like popular music. Such modified folk music often
incorporates electric guitars, drum kit, or forms of rhythmic
syncopation that are characteristic of popular music but
were absent in the original.
example of this sort is contemporary country music, which
descends ultimately from a rural American folk tradition,
but has evolved to become vastly different from its original
model. Rap music evolved from an African-American inner-city
folk tradition, but is likewise very different nowadays
from its folk original. A third example is contemporary
bluegrass, which is a modified development of American
old time music.
less traditional forms of folk music gain popularity,
one often observes tension between so-called "purists"
or "traditionalists" and the innovators. For
example, traditionalists were indignant when Bob Dylan
began to use an electric guitar. His electrified performance
at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was to prove to be an
early focal point for this controversy.
however, the exponents of amplified music were bands such
as Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span who
saw the electrification of traditional musical forms as
a means whereby to reach a far wider audience, and their
efforts have been largely recognised for what they were
by even some of the most die-hard of purists.
the 1970s a genre of "contemporary folk", fuelled
by new singer-songwriters, has continued to make the coffee-house
circuit and keep the tradition of acoustic non-classical
music alive in the United States. Such artists include
Steve Goodman, John Prine, Cheryl Wheeler, Bill Morrisey,
Christine Lavin and Gundula Krause. Lavin in particular
has become prominent as a leading promoter of this musical
genre in recent years. Some, such as Lavin and Wheeler,
inject a great deal of humor in their songs and performances,
although much of their music is also deeply personal and
folk music forms also merged with rock and roll to form
the hybrid generally known as folk rock which evolved
through performers such as The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel,
The Mamas and the Papas, and many others. More recently
the same spirit has been embraced and expanded on by performers
such as Dave Alvin, Ani DiFranco, and Steve Earle. At
the same time, a line of singers from Baez to Phil Ochs
have continued to use traditional forms for original material.
appropriation of folk has even continued into hard rock
and heavy metal, with bands such as Skyclad, Waylander
and Finntroll melding distinctive elements of folk styles
from a wide variety of traditions, including in many cases
traditional instruments such as fiddles, tin whistles
and bagpipes as an element of their sound. Unlike other
folk-related genres, folk metal often shies away from
traditional religion in favour of a more neo-pagan theme.
similar stylistic shift, without using the "folk
music" name, has occurred with the phenomenon of
Celtic music, which in many cases is based on an amalgamation
of Irish traditional music, Scottish traditional music,
and other traditional musics associated with lands in
which Celtic languages are or were spoken (regardless
of any significant research showing that the musics have
any genuine genetic relationship; so Breton music and
Galician music are often included in the genre).
of the more unusual offshoots of modern folk music is
the genre now known as filk, a form of music defined primarily
by who its audience is.
music is still extremely popular among some audiences
today, with folk music clubs meeting to share traditional-style
songs, and there are major folk music festivals in many
countries, eg the Port Fairy Folk Festival is a major
annual event in Australia attracting top international
folk performers as well as many local artists.