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folk-song

folk-song. The distinction between folk-song and ‘art music’ is a controversial one, but many writers agree with the main features identified by the international Folk Music Council in 1955: folk-song has evolved through the process of oral transmission, being shaped by (a) continuity which links the present with the past; (b) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (c) selection by the community which determines the form in which the music survives. Folk-song is passed down through generations, both words and music undergoing constant evolution in the process, so that it rarely exists in a single identifiable version. Traditionally it has been associated with rural communities and lower socio-economic classes, but in the 20th cent. the pattern of dissemination changed, with greater emphasis on written transmission and especially on recordings. At the same time many of the original functions of folk-song have been taken over by popular music, another form of ‘vernacular’ music, although one often involving professional musicians and wide dissemination through the mass media.

Folk-songs are generally functional: examples include those linked to the cycle of the year (whether the rural year as in harvest songs or the church year as in carols), work songs such as sea shanties, children's songs, narrative ballads telling a story—often of a moralistic nature—and songs for dancing. Traditional British folk-songs have generally been performed unaccompanied. The most common verse comprises four-line stanzas, each set to the same basic melody, although the singer will often bend the rhythm or introduce vocal ornaments (this is particularly the case in Ireland). Older English folk-songs frequently have a different tune for each line (ABCD), while more recent ones favour a degree of repetition (ABBA, AABA, ABCA, etc.). Rhythms derive from verse patterns, so that up-beat openings are prevalent and quintuple metre not uncommon. Much English folk-song is modally based, although many Gaelic tunes are pentatonic. Scottish folk-song in fact clearly differentiates between the Gaelic tradition of the Highlands and Hebrides (including the bagpipe-influenced ‘pibroch songs’), the Lowland songs and ballads, and the Scandinavian-based songs from Orkney and Shetland.

The boundaries between folk-song and art music are often very indistinct. In the 16th and 17th cents., for example, popular melodies like ‘The Western Wynde’ provided the framework for masses or motets (composers include Tye and Taverner) and keyboard variations ( Bull and Byrd), while street cries appeared in consort songs ( Weelkes and Gibbons). Eighteenth-cent. ballad operas like Gay's celebrated Beggar's Opera incorporated well-known songs, and the words of broadside ballads were printed and sold on street corners. Interest in collecting folk-songs stems largely from Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765); the following century saw an increasing number of publications, often of texts without music, especially in Scotland.

The real revival of English folk-song, however, came at the beginning of the 20th cent., primarily due to Cecil Sharp. He travelled around the country collecting over 3,000 tunes and over 200 folk-dances, often publishing them in regional anthologies such as the Folk-Songs from Somerset. In 1898 an English Folk Song Society was formed (incorporated in 1932 into the English Folk Dance and Song Society), and similar societies appeared in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Folk-songs were used in schools (with totally inauthentic piano accompaniments), while their modal language and undulating melodies became assimilated into a new compositional style. Foremost in this nationalistic movement was Vaughan Williams, himself a committed collector and arranger of folk-songs. The traditional use of folk-song for social and political protest was revived in the 1960s through the urban genre of folk rock epitomized by Bob Dylan. In Britain this composite style was adopted by groups such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

Eric Cross

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