Folk Music

views updated May 23 2018

Folk Music

Before the twentieth century, a dichotomy prevailed between cultivated music, by educated, formally trained musicians and composers, and folk music, performed by everyone else. Cultivated music was created by and for the upper classes, and was taught and transmitted within a written tradition, while folk music was created by and for the lower classes, and was transmitted orally. Since folk songs were remembered rather than written down, they changed over time—sometimes gradually over centuries, sometimes all at once at the hands of a particularly innovative interpreter. The changes might be accidental, resulting from a lapse of memory, or a deliberate improvement. This communal re-creation is one of the defining characteristics of folk music. The songs and variation belonged to the whole community and were not associated with specific individuals. The names of great classical composers were transmitted in the written tradition along with their compositions, but traditional folk songs are anonymous. Cultivated music had to please the wealthy patron who paid the composer, but a folk song had to appeal to the entire community in order to survive over generations. Thus cultivated music was aristocratic and folk music was communal. Each reflected its audience's values. Cultivated music was often quite complex and required specialized musicians who were hired to perform it, whereas folk songs remained simple, so that anyone could memorize, sing, or play them.

One innovation which compromised the oral nature of folk music was the broadside. Broadsides were lyrics printed on large sheets of paper and sold at the marketplace. There was often an instruction to sing the lyrics to the tune of a well-established song. This introduced a degree of literacy to folk music, and many "broad-side ballads" exhibit literary qualities. But the major change that permanently affected folk music was the advent of mass media. Records, movies, radio, and television all gave rise to popular music accessible to everyone from coast to coast. Individuals were able to become rich, or at least make a living, by performing music which appealed to millions of people. This has caused difficulty for musicologists in defining folk music. Popularity itself does not disqualify a song as folk music, but some musicologists claim that it ceases to be folk when it conforms to mainstream styles and tastes. In the latter half of the twentieth century there are very few communities unaffected by mainstream culture (with the exception of isolationist communities like the Amish). One may be immersed in one's own regional or ethnic tradition, but hardly anyone is completely sheltered from mass media. Consequently, individual traditions have shed their particularities and conformed to mainstream tastes. Folk has given way to folk rock and folk pop. The same can be said of blues, bluegrass, and country. These were originally types of folk music which have been popularized into mainstream genres.

American folk music is among the richest and most variegated in the world, owing to the many ethnic groups that make up the American people. The major strains of American folk music are Irish, Scottish, English, and African. Other European traditions, notably Spanish, have also exerted some influence. The American Indians have a rich musical heritage, but it was never integrated with the European or African traditions. Some instruments of American folk music are the guitar, string bass, mandolin, autoharp, dulcimer, fiddle, and banjo.

The most intriguing genre of the American folk song is the ballad, a song which tells a story. The earliest American ballads came from the British Isles and thrived for centuries in Appalachian areas. Ballads can often be traced to mythic or epic traditions. "Polly Vaughan" (Peter, Paul and Mary) can be traced back to Celtic mythology. (Note: in this discussion, examples of ballads will be followed by popular performers who have recorded the song. More traditional versions of many of these ballads may be explored in Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads.) "Polly Vaughan" tells the story of a hunter who accidentally kills his wife, having mistaken her for a swan. The story has a supernatural element: in some versions Polly is resurrected as a swan; in others her ghost visits the courtroom where her husband is tried. "John Riley" (Joan Baez, the Byrds) tells of a man who, returning from a seven-year expedition, disguises himself from his wife to find out if she has been faithful. John Riley has obvious parallels with the Greek Odysseus. Many ballads derive from the Biblical tradition, as in "Samson and Delilah," also called "If I Had My Way" (Grateful Dead, Peter, Paul and Mary).

Although there are some comic ballads, most ballads are tragic and have a tone of inevitability which exerts a strange power over the listener. Many tell of the hero's ruin and seek to deter the listeners from a similar fate by delivering a moral at the end. "The House of the Rising Sun" (Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Odetta, the Animals), tells the tragic tale of a woman lured into prostitution and warns the listener "not to do what I have done." The fidelity of women is a common theme, as in "John Riley" mentioned above, and "Gallows Tree," also called "Hangman" (Peter, Paul and Mary, Odetta), which tells of a man at the gallows abandoned by father, mother, and brother, until his true love finally comes to pay his fee (a very different version of this song is recorded by Led Zeppelin as "Gallows Pole"). The infidelity of men is an equally common motif, as in "Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies," also known as "Tiny Sparrow" (Peter, Paul and Mary).

Ballads may be inspired by local events, such as battles, uprisings, disasters, trainwrecks, and shipwrecks (including the Titanic). A shipwreck is the subject of "Sir Patrick Spens," one of the oldest and most famous of all British ballads, often included in literature anthologies for its deft, concise poetry and symbolism. Train songs are very common. The advent of the train captured the folk imagination for its great economic and cultural impact upon rural America. "John Henry" (Odetta) tells of a railroad laborer who tried to outperform the steam drill using his bare hands to drill the railroad tracks. "Casey Jones" tells of an engineer who died in a trainwreck (the Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones," from the album Workingman's Dead, is their own composition, only marginally related to the original). The Badman Ballad was also popular. Often petty criminals and bandits attained legendary status and became tragic or ironic antiheroes in ballads such as "Jesse James" or "Pretty Boy Floyd."

One of the major genres of American folk music is the protest song. Wars have always been a topic of protest songs. "Cruel War" (Peter, Paul and Mary) goes back to the American Revolution. But in this century it was the "union singers," declaiming the atrocious labor conditions of the Industrial Age, that made protest songs notorious. One of the first union singers was a Swedish immigrant named Joe Hill. He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and contributed to their book, Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent. He was executed in 1915, accused of murdering a businessman. (Joan Baez commemorated him in the song "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill.")

But the great flowering of protest songs arose from the hardships of the Great Depression. Notable among these are the Dust Bowl ballads of Woody Guthrie. Guthrie added his own lyrics to folk and country songs to tell what he saw and suffered in his travels across America during the Depression. He modified the Badman Ballad to write songs about good men down on their luck. Thus one of his major contributions was the emphasis on new lyrics. Guthrie traveled with folksingers like Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Cisco Houston, and Huddie (Leadbelly) Ledbetter. In 1941 he joined the Almanac Singers, who played topical songs that would inform people of current events which might not be covered honestly in the media. They formed a commune in Greenwich Village and charged 35 cents for daylong performances which demanded audience participation. (Such group participation in folk music is called a hootenanny.) The purpose of these folksingers was to promote group solidarity and rally listeners into supporting workers' rights by joining unions. Though Guthrie and his companions would be hailed as "authentic" folksingers by a later generation, many folk musicologists of the time objected to this popularization of folk music for the sake of political causes. Guthrie himself denied that he was a folksinger. He hated the beautifully sad songs of the "silk-stocking balladeers" of an ancient British tradition which held no hope of social mobility for the lower classes.

Another important folksinger of the period was Pete Seeger, a musicologist and Harvard dropout who, like Guthrie, was bent upon traveling and recording his experiences in song. He traveled to other countries, learned their traditions, and included them in his repertoire. Seeger also joined the Almanac Singers, though he was more famous for his next band, the Weavers. Seeger, Guthrie, and others were affiliated with Communism, like many left-wing activists of the time. In 1953, the Weavers disbanded, effectively silenced by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In 1954 Guthrie entered the hospital, debilitated by Huntington's Chorea. He ceased to write songs, though he did not die until 1967. Without these major players, folk music subsided in the mid-1950s, forgotten by the mainstream amid the excitement of a thrilling new sound called rock 'n' roll.

But folk music became chic among certain middle-class college students who disdained rock 'n' roll as an inane, fleeting fad. Eventually folk scenes arose in Berkeley and Cambridge, and Albert Grossman opened the Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago. Grossman was also responsible for producing the Newport Folk Festival, which became an annual event. The first festival, in 1959, introduced Joan Baez. But the most exciting folk scene was in Greenwich Village, in coffee houses like the Bitter End and the Gaslight Cafe. (This scene was later satirized in Dylan's "Talking New York," and commemorated more abstrusely in Simon and Garfunkel's "Bleecker Street.") Grossman visited Greenwich Village, and, moved by the devotion of college students buying expensive coffee while watching grubby folksingers, he decided the time was right to cash in on folk. He converted three clean-cut California boys into the Kingston Trio in 1957. They recorded "Tom Dooley" (1958), a traditional ballad about a man sentenced to death, which sold two million copies. Soon a proliferation of polished, cleancut folkies imitated the Kingston Trio: the Folkswingers, the Limeliters, the Ramblers Three, the Brothers Four, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, and Peter, Paul and Mary. But a remarkable new talent distinguishing himself from the crowd was Bob Dylan, who wrote his own material in addition to covering traditional songs. Dylan was audacious, perhaps even pretentious: his "Song for Woody" compared his own travels to the hardships Guthrie endured during the Depression. However, Dylan soon proved to be a poet worth listening to. When his songs were covered by Peter, Paul and Mary they became hits, and Dylan finally got his deserved recognition. Soon the folk popularizers, and then mainstream acts, were covering his material. But a more signifi-cant outgrowth of Dylan's success was the emergence of folksingers who, rather than simply covering his songs, were inspired by Dylan's example to write and perform their own songs. Tom Paxton, Tim Hardin, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, and Gordon Lightfoot were all indebted to the standard of originality, creativity, and intelligence established by Dylan. Peter, Paul and Mary's reputation hovered between the popularizers and the earnest folkies, until Dylan's nostalgic poem commemorating their performances at the Gaslight was published on their album In the Wind and boosted their credibility. In February 1964, Peter, Paul and Mary were at the height of their popularity, with all three of their albums in the top ten, when the Beatles invaded America and awoke the sleeping giant of rock 'n' roll.

It was inevitable that folk and rock would merge. Rock was always an eclectic genre, born of blues and country music, and was always ready to absorb influences. After the Beatles began to dominate the charts, other bands sought some something new to hook fickle teen tastes. In September 1964, the Animals attacked "House of the Rising Sun" with electric guitars and organ. The song was a hit, and suggested to the folkies that they too could cash in on the hybrid.

1965 saw the explosion of folk rock. This year was important for several reasons. In January, Bob Dylan shocked the folkies by "going electric" on the single "Subterranean Homesick Blues." They hoped the new style was a put-on, a satire of the rock craze, but these hopes were shattered in March by the equally electric album Bringing It All Back Home. At the Newport Folk Festival in July Dylan and his electric guitar were booed offstage after three songs, despite the fact that Muddy Waters had played an electric guitar at the 1964 festival. Meanwhile, the Byrds had released Mr. Tambourine Man (June 1965), featuring Dylan songs and other folk songs revitalized by their electric twelve-string guitars and harmonies. They followed this up with another fine album in December, Turn! Turn! Turn! The Byrds were essentially folk musicians, who shrewdly recognized rock as the new direction in popular music. Simon and Garfunkel were also urban folkies transformed into folk rockers. Their first album, Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M., was, like Dylan's first album, a mixture of traditional folk songs and authentic-sounding original compositions. In spite of its great musical and lyrical qualities, the album did not sell well. But when their producer added electric guitars and drums to one of these songs, "Sounds of Silence," and re-released it as a single, it reached the top of the charts. Fortunately, Paul Simon was able to live up to the expectations stirred by the folk rock version. He had been uncomfortable with the "authenticity" demands of the folkniks and proved to be an original and intelligent songwriter, free of Dylan's evasiveness and posturing. Simon created much of folk rock's finest music throughout the rest of the decade.

Meanwhile, the Beatles also had come under the influence of Dylan. Inspired by his mellow introspection and elusive symbolism, Lennon responded with "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," and McCartney offered the folksy, wordy "I've Just Seen a Face" (Help!, August 1965). By December the Beatles were rising to the challenge of the upstart Byrds, and exhibited a more pronounced folk influence on Rubber Soul. It never occurred to the Beatles to explore their own British tradition of folk music. This task was taken up by the Scottish troubadour Donovan Leitch. Donovan combined the ballad tradition of the British Isles with Dylanesque lyrics and was quickly hailed the "Scottish Dylan."

By 1966 folk rock was seemingly everywhere. Worthy folk rockers included the Lovin' Spoonful, the Mamas and Papas, Buffalo Springfield, and the Turtles. But the "folk" label was often abused as a marketing device applied to anyone slightly eclectic, from Janis Joplin to the Youngbloods. Even Sonny and Cher were considered folk rock. On the other hand, the Grateful Dead are rarely considered folk, but produced great folk rock on Workingman's Dead, American Beauty, and later Reckoning by mingling blues, country, jugband, bluegrass, and Appalachian styles. The Dead's lyricist, Robert Hunter, was a poet whose literary qualities rivaled Paul Simon or Dylan. His terse, ironic tales of the struggles and adventures of simple folks were closer to genuine folk song than many others ever came.

Much of what passed for folk rock was the appropriation of several features with varying relevance to traditional folk song. First of all, anyone holding an acoustic guitar was called a genuine folkie, and the electric twelve-string guitar was also labeled folk, based on the Byrds' precedent. And then there were the vocal harmonies associated with Peter, Paul and Mary (though these were just as often borrowed from the Beatles or the Everly Brothers). Finally, "sensitive" lyrics, whether political or personal, were a sure sign of folkdom. Dylan's songwriting was the widest and most enduring influence, though not always for the best: his style of protest—detached, ironic, and accusing—was eventually imitated in every area of popular music, reaching a crescendo of sanctimony in the "Art Rock" of the 1970s. The "other side of Bob Dylan," his cryptic autobiographies, also exerted an unfortunate influence, as less skilled writers began to bare their soul with diminishing subtlety and sophistication. The 1960s spirit of togetherness, embraced by everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary to Crosby, Stills and Nash, was abandoned in the 1970s as these and so many other groups splintered into solo artists. Retreating from the political chaos of the late 1960s, the singer/songwriters resorted to whiny introspection and self-infatuation. Some of them, such as John Prine and Jim Croce, maintained a sense of humor and irony which made them worthy folksingers. Others, such as Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, relied on their literary prowess to grace their gloom with a little dignity.

Folk rockers of the British Isles tended to avoid the singer/songwriter malady. In the late 1960s and 1970s, Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, and Irish guitar maestro Rory Gallagher successfully blended folk influences into their eclecticism. These were usually musical influences, without the ideological baggage associated with folk music. The folk spirit of protest, homespun integrity, and anti-corporate independence was eventually seized by a new and very different breed of "simple folks"—the punk rockers.

—Douglas Cooke

Further Reading:

Anthology of American Folk Music. Folkway Records (FP 251-253), 1952.

Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996.

Child, Francis James. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. New York, Dover Publications, 1965.

Folk Song and Minstrelsy. Vanguard (RL 7624), 1962.

Lang, Dave, et al. Electric Muse: The Story of Folk to Rock. London, Methuen Paperbacks, 1975.

Nettl, Bruno. Folk Music in the United States. 3rd edition. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1976.

Pollock, Bruce. When the Music Mattered: Rock in the Sixties. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984.

Vassal, Jacques. Electric Children: Roots and Branches of Modern Folkrock. Translated and adapted by Paul Barnett. New York, Taplinger, 1976.

Folk Music

views updated May 18 2018

Folk Music

Folk music entertains, tells or supports a story, and is transmitted from generation to generation. It is the music of the common person as well as the wealthy. A significant number of American ballads were obtained from other societies such as Scotland, Ireland, Germany, England, and Wales, and the words were altered to fit the interpretation of the singer. Most often, the songs were obtained through oral tradition, rather than in written form, and the singer was left with the task of interpreting the meaning of the lyrics on the basis of his or her cultural milieu.

Most of the early folk songs were sung without instrumental accompaniment. According to folklorist Maude Karpeles, while collecting songs in the southern Appalachian Mountains during the years 1916 to 1918 with her colleague Cecil Sharp, found:

The songs were, with one exception, sung without instrumental accompaniment. This is in accordance with the older traditional methods of singing, both in England and in America. The present custom of singing to the accompaniment of guitar or banjo, which has been adopted by some traditional singers, is fairly recent and is probably due to the influence of popular and pseudo-folk music heard on the radio. (Sharp and Karpeles 1968, p. 9)

The instrument used while singing a folk song varies with the culture, from the drum in Africa to the bagpipes in Scotland to the plucked dulcimer in the American Appalachians. In the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the major instruments were the guitar, five-string banjo, upright bass, and fiddle.

The durability of a folk song may be attributed not only to the song itself, but to the folklorists and collectors who accepted the task of obtaining songs in various sections of the world and tracing their origin. Folklorists such as Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, Maude Karpeles, and Alan and John Lomax have preserved a folk music legacy that might otherwise have been lost.

Folk music has been written and performed portraying every theme imaginable. There are love songs and silly songs. There are songs with religious themes and songs with secular lyrics. Folk songs portray the good life and they delineate hardship. Some of the most popular folk lyrics portray dying and/or death. Common themes are death and its relationship to accidents, the supernatural, trains, murder, natural causes, the elements, war, suicide, and religion.

Death by Accident

There are many forms of accident that can result in death. Vehicular death has been portrayed in folk songs on more than one occasion. "The Drunken Driver" tells the story of two small children who were killed as they walked along a state highway. One of the deceased children turns out to be the drunken driver's son. "The Fatal Wreck of Bus" is the true tale of mass death when a bus goes over a cliff.

The death of two small children via drowning is reflected in "Kiss Me Mamma, For I Am Going to Sleep," which originally appeared in sheet music form. Songs about the sea, such as "Asleep in the Briny Deep" and "The Sailor's Sweetheart," tell the story of maidens who have lost their lovers to the sea. "Mighty Mississippi" and "The Flood Disaster of 1937" are only a few of the folk songs about floods and death. In the popular ballad "The House Carpenter," a wife leaves her husband and children to run away to sea with her lover. They are both killed when the ship sinks.

"Companions Draw Nigh" (also known as "The Dying Boy's Prayer") provides an account of a young man crushed in a construction accident and destined to die without prayer, song, or Bible present: "I must die without God or hope of his son, covered in darkness, bereaved an' undone." The popularity of cowboy songs in the early 1900s produced "Little Joe, the Wrangler," the tale of a young boy killed in a cattle stampede. When an avid cave explorer named Floyd Collins was trapped in a sandstone cave in Kentucky, and died before rescue workers could save him, several songs were composed about the tragedy. Eric Clapton's commercial recording of "Tears in Heaven" (1992) is reminiscent of early folk songs of tragedy. It tells the story of Clapton's son, who fell from a sixth-story window to his death. The song asks a question often found in folk music: "Would you know my name, if I saw you in Heaven?"

Sensational accidents involving a large number of people are especially likely to become popularized in musical literature. Train wrecks, mining disasters, airplane crashes, fires, cyclones, and sea disasters are a few of the themes in folk music. "Lost on the Lady Elgin" and "The Ship That Never Returned" are about separate ship wrecks. The most famous of all the sea disasters is probably the sinking of the Titanic, immortalized in songs such as "The Sinking of the Titanic" and "Just as the Ship Went Down."

"The Akron's Last Flight" is about an airplane disaster. "The Avondale Mine Disaster," "The Dying Miner," and "Dream of the Miner's Child" reflect the relationship between coal mining and death. "Bonnie James Campbell" and "Darcy Farrow" concern horseback riding accidents that result in death. Death via fire is delineated in songs such as "Baltimore Fire."

Trains and Death

Perhaps no machine has ever captured the imagination of Americans like the train. In the early 1900s adults and children alike were in awe of the steam locomotive. The so-called father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, was known as "the singing brakeman" because of his obsession with trains and songs about trains. Many songs reflect the death of the hobo, the common man who was often without home and food, and content to ride the rails. A few such as "The Fate of Chris Lively and Wife" concern death resulting from being hit by a train. Most, however, are about train wrecks and the brave engineers willing to die with their trains. "Casey Jones" (a train engineer on the Chicago and New Orleans Limited in Vaughan, Mississippi, in 1900) became an American hero when he died refusing to abandon his engine when it was about to crash into another locomotive. In "The Wreck of the Old 97" the engineer is "found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle, a-scalded to death by the steam." The devotion of the railroad engineer is best exhibited in "Engine 143" when George Alley's last words are, "I want to die for the engine I love, One Hundred and Forty-three."

The Supernatural and Death

One of the oldest folk songs containing a supernatural theme is "The Wife of Usher's Well" (commonly called "The Lady Gay"), an English ballad reflecting the view that excess grief will cause the dead to return. A woman sends her children away to get an education, they die, she grieves, and they return to her in a vision. As a woman walks by the side of a river, her dead lover, "Lost Jimmy Whalan," returns to her in an apparition. In "Lily Lee," a sailor has a death vision involving his true love. When he returns years later she is dead. In the classic "Grandfather's Clock," the clock stops and never works again when its owner dies. Elements of the supernatural appear in the popular "Bringing Mary Home." The singer picks up a little girl walking along a highway and takes her home. When he opens up the door to let her out of the car, she is gone. The lady of the house explains that her daughter died thirteen years previously in an automobile wreck, and states, "You're the thirteenth one who's been here, bringing Mary home."

Death from Natural Causes

Death from natural causes is a common subject in musical literature. When the song involves a child, the title of the song often contains the word "little" followed by the first name (e.g., "Little Bessie," "Little Mamie," and "Darling Little Joe"). The listener does not know what the cause of death is, but the last hours of the child are sometimes emotionally portrayed. For example, in "Put My Little Shoes Away," the dying child's major concern is that the parents will give his or her prized shoes away. "Darling Little Joe" focuses on what others, both human and infrahuman, will do after he is dead. The dying soldier in "Break the News to Mother" is worried about the welfare of his mother when she receives the news of his death, and "Little Bessie" experiences auditory hallucinations common among those who are dying:

There were little children singing,
Sweetest songs I ever heard.
They were sweeter, mother, sweeter,
Than the sweetest singing bird.
(McNeil 1988, pp. 172173)

Death from the Elements

The plight of orphans frequently appears in folk music, often coupled with death from the elements to provide a more pathetic story. In "The Two Orphans," "The Orphan Girl," "Poor Little Joe," and "Little Paper Boy," children are discovered frozen to death at the end of the song. "Mary of the Wild Moor" and her child die from the cold weather and are discovered the next morning on the doorstep at the home of Mary's father.

The fact that failure to heed the advice of parents can end in death is emphasized in "The Frozen Girl" (also "Young Charlotte"), the true story of a young girl who froze to death on her way to a ball on January 1, 1840, after failing to heed her mother's warning:

"Oh, daughter dear," her mother cried, "This blanket 'round you fold,
Tonight is a dreadful one, you'll get your death of cold."
"Oh, nay, oh, nay!" Charlotte cried, as she laughed like a gypsy queen,
"To ride in blankets muffled up I never would be seen."
(Sandburg 1927, pp. 5859)

Children As Victims in Murder Ballads

Murder stories involving children have been very popular in musical literature. While mothers are generally portrayed as gentle and kind, there are songs that portray their violent side. Feticide/ infanticide may be found in "Mary Hamilton" and "The Cruel Mother" (also known as "Down by the Greenwood Sidie"), and rejection/neglect is delineated in "Lady Gay" ("The Wife of Usher's Well").

Drunken fathers are factors in songs like "The Drunkard's Child." "Little Blossom" goes to the bar to find her father and in a drunken rage he murders her. Poisoning is the variable in death for "Lord Randall." Revenge against the father for failure to pay a debt leads to the murder of his son in "Lamkin."

Several of the child murder ballads popular in America were transplanted from Europe. Sir Hugh tells the story of a little boy murdered by a Jew's daughter, and "Dunbar the Murderer" is the tale of a man who murders two children left in his care by the parents. However, most child murder ballads are original to the United States. Surprisingly, sensational cases, such as the murder of fourteen-yearold Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb on May 21, 1924, and the murder and cannibalism of Grace Budd by Albert Fish in the 1930s, never made their way into musical literature. However, the killing of "Little Mary Phagan" at the pencil factory where she worked in 1913, the murder and beheading of "Little Marian Parker" on December 14, 1927, and the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 were popularized in the media, commercial records, and folk music. Mass murders such as the "Ashland Tragedy" in 1883 (two children and a neighbor in Ashland, Kentucky, were murdered and the bodies burned) and the "Murder of the Lawson Family" (the father killed his wife, six children, and himself) made their way into the folk music tradition.

Women As Victims in Murder Ballads

The common theme in ballads involving the murder of women is the luring of the woman by the man to the place of her demise under false pretenses. Most of the songs are English ballads or altered forms of English ballads.

The victim dies when she refuses to marry her murderer in "Banks of the Ohio" and "Poor Ellen Smith." Money appears to be a factor in "Down in the Willow Garden" (also known as "Rose Connelly"). Jealousy on the part of the killer is extant in songs like "Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor" (the name of the woman changes with the singer). Pregnancy sometimes exists as a variable. For example, when Scott Jackson and a fellow dental student murdered Pearl Bryan at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, in 1896, both pregnancy and jealousy were factors. Jonathan Lewis drowned "Omie Wise" in Deep River in 1888 for dual reasons: She was pregnant and he preferred a local girl. "Knoxville Girl," a British broadside (single-sheet ballads sold for a penny or half-penny on the streets of towns and villages around Britain between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries) written in the early 1700s, contains some of the most violent lyrics in any folk song.

Men As Victims in Murder Ballads

Few songs feature the murder of a man by a woman. Outstanding are the English ballad "Young Hunting" (known in America as "Loving Henry" and "Lord Henry and Lady Margaret") and American ballads such as "Frankie and Albert" (also known as "Frankie and Johnny") and "Frankie Silvers." In all these songs the homicide is the result of jealousy.

Men kill men for many reasons and under varied circumstances in folk songs. There are heroes (e.g., "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Jesse James") and anti-heroes such as "Stagger Lee." Murder may be committed for wanton cruelty or economic remuneration. An act of homicide may involve the killing of one man ("Jesse James") or many ("The Golden Vanity"). The killing can be the result of jealousy and/or hatred. Whether the song is simply to tell a story or entertain, it is popularized and transmitted from generation to generation.


Parental opposition to a love affair is a major theme in songs concerning suicide. In "Silver Dagger," both the boy and girl commit suicide when her parents oppose their love. Death due to grief is a factor for women ("Barbara Allen" and "Earl Brand") and men ("The Two Sisters"). In "It's Sinful to Flirt" the boy kills himself because the girl won't marry him, while the reverse is true in "The Butcher Boy." The girl commits suicide in "Johnny Doyle" because she is being forced to marry someone whom she doesn't love. The man dies from a self-inflicted wound in "The Last Letter" when the girl marries someone else.


Songs about war are fraught with death and dying. There are lyrics portraying the grief (and death from grief) of those left behind. In "The Cruel War" the girl refuses to be left behind, dresses as a man, and goes off to war with her lover. The horror and violence of the battle are often portrayed in folk songs. Reflections of the dying soldier are quite poignant in folk music. Most of the final thoughts involve mother and/or the sweetheart left to mourn. In "Legend of the Rebel Soldier," the dying Confederate is concerned with whether his soul will pass through the Southland one last time on the way to the hereafter.


Songs concerning religion have three major themes. First, there are songs that provide a blueprint for living prior to death. Second, the means of conveyance to the hereafter is occasionally a subject. For example, it might be by train ("Life's Railway to Heaven"), a band of angels (that may carry the soul to Heaven as in "Angel Band"), boat ("The Gospel Ship"), or chariot ("Swing Down, Sweet Chariot"). Third, there are lyrics that denote what the afterlife is like. It is portrayed as a place of "Beautiful Flowers" and an "Uncloudy Day." It is a realm where there is no suffering or pain, loved ones may be greeted, and "The Soul Never Dies."

Folk songs provide helpful insight into the cultural traits related to death and dying in a specific society at a particular point in time. They also allow for comparisons of traits over a period of time. The provision of entertainment and knowledge at the same time makes folk music an integral part of any society with a music tradition.

See also: Mahler, Gustav; Music, Classical; Operatic Death


Clapton, Eric. "Tears in Heaven." On Eric Clapton Unplugged. Reprise Records 9-45024-2.

Cohen, Norm. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folklore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.

Crissman, James K. Death and Dying in Central Appalachia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Johnny Cash Motion Picture Songs. New York: Hill and Range Songs, 1970.

McNeil, W. K., ed. Southern Folk Ballads. Vol. 2. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1988.

Sandburg, Carl. The American Songbag. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927.

Sharp, Cecil, and Maude Karpeles. 80 Appalachian Folk Songs. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, 1968.

The Country Gentlemen. "Bringing Mary Home." On Bringing Mary Home. Rebel Records REB 1478.


Folk Music

views updated May 23 2018

Folk Music

African-American folk music embraces sacred songs known as spirituals and many kinds of secular music, both vocal and instrumental. These include work songs that regulated the rate of work, street cries, field "hollers" that enabled workers to communicate over long distances, lullabies, and various kinds of dance musicall known before the Civil War. The musical elements that characterized African music described by European traders in the early seventeenth century were common in African-American folk music.

Africans did not arrive in the New World culturally naked, despite many statements to that effect. Historians and anthropologists now agree that many elements of African culture converged with surrounding European influences to form a new African-American culture. In their free time, blacks continued to perform the songs and dances they had in Africa. Early contemporary descriptions depicted the same musical elements previously described in Africa: polyrhythms; a strained, rasping vocal quality; variable pitches; singing accompanied by bodily movement in which everyone participated; and the extremely common call-and-response form of singing, in which leader and chorus overlapped. African instruments also came to the New World: drums, banjo, a kind of flute, and the balafo, a kind of xylophone. Improvised satiric or derisive singing was used to regulate the rate of work in rowing, grinding grain, and harvesting, in both Africa and the Americas. Strong rhythms were accentuated by stamping, hand-clapping, and other percussive devices. Although European music shared some of these elements, contemporary observers emphasized the exotic qualities, not the similarities that were later cited erroneously as evidence of European origin. Until the invention of sound recording, the only means of preserving music was transcription into a notational system designed for European forms. In the process, many distinctive elements were lost, and what was transcribed looked like European music. Performance style and sound could not be captured, but until the mid-twentieth century, musicians tended to regard transcription as the equivalent of the music as it was performed.

African instruments reached the New World through the practice, common in the slave trade, of providing instruments aboard slave ships to encourage singing and dancing, a recognized means of combating depression, suicide, and revolt. As early as 1693, a slaving captain reported that music and dance provided exercise in a limited space, raising the captives' spirits. Some captains collected African instruments before sailing, thus transmitting African instruments to the New World.

When the Africans landed, concern for the continued health of their new possessions led some plantation owners to make efforts to acclimate them gradually to their new circumstances. Contemporary accounts describe the welcome of the new arrivals by older slaves, who sang and danced with them in a style characterized by Europeans as "exotic" or "barbaric." African instruments were described in the West Indies from the mid-seventeenth century, but reports from the mainland came later because of the relatively small number of blacks there until the mid-eighteenth century. As early as February 18, 1755, the Virginia Gazette printed an advertisement for a runaway slave who played well on the "Banjar," while Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1781) described the "banjar, which they [blacks] brought hither from Africa."

The official report of the Stono, South Carolina, slave revolt of 1739 described "dancing, Singing and beating Drums" as the means used by the rebels to attract more blacks to their ranks. An African drum from Virginia was purchased in 1753 by the British Museum, where it remains today. In many mainland colonies the playing of drums or other loud instruments, being forbidden by law, was surreptitious, but drum-making continued; as late as the 1930s, it was observed in Georgia by Federal Writers' Project interviewers. In place of drums, other percussive devices were used to provide rhythmic support for singing and dancingstamping, hand-clapping, and the less threatening sound of the banjo.

An African xylophone, the balafo (or barrafou), was reported in Virginia in 1775 by a schoolmaster, John Harrower, in his Journal, and in a news item in Purdie's Williamsburg Virginia Gazette in 1776. Blacks also learned to play European instruments such as the fiddle, the French horn, and the flute. As early as the 1690s, Accomack County records in Virginia reported a court case involving a slave fiddler. During the eighteenth century, reports of blacks fiddling for white dances were common, an indication of the progress of acculturation.

Most of the music blacks played for the dancing of whites consisted of conventional European country dances and minuets, but reports from the eighteenth century also described whites dancing "Negro jigs" as a change from the more formal dances. Published versions of these "jigs" show few African characteristics; how the music sounded in performance is conjectural.

With the beginning of evangelical efforts to convert blacks to Christianity in the mid-eighteenth century, reports of African dancing became less frequent except in New Orleans, where such activities continued into the nineteenth century in a specially designated area called Place Congo.

From a musical point of view, the characteristics of sacred and secular music were similar. In many instances, songs regulating work in the fields or on the water that originally had secular words were adapted to sacred texts when the singers joined churches that proscribed secular songs.

Learning to play European instruments and to sing Protestant hymns was part of a process of acculturation, along with learning the English language and the ways of the white captors. But African ways were not forgotten. Even though new arrivals from Africa virtually stopped in 1808, many old customs persisted in secret, rarely witnessed by the whites who were the primary source of contemporary reports. Political and social pressures also influenced these nineteenth-century accounts, tending to divide them into two patterns: either to describe the singing and dancing as proof that the slaves were happy, or to deny that the slaves had any secular music, depicting them as singing only hymns. Pro-slavery arguments and the minstrel-theater tradition fit into the first pattern, while the abolitionists tended to the latter. Neither pattern conformed fully to reality. Contemporary accounts of slaves singing and dancing demonstrate beyond dispute that increasingly acculturated secular music and dance continued without interruption, despite the undeniable suffering of the slaves.

Songs to regulate the rate of work in Africa were easily adapted to the fields of the New World for planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops, whether they were sugar, rice, indigo, corn, tobacco, or cotton. These songs frequently were a dialogue between a leader and a chorus, although the chorus could play a relatively minor role in providing a rhythmic background. Later, such songs were adapted to the pace of railroad gangs for laying track. This kind of singing was observed in southern prison camps, where isolation and long association led to a higher development of the relation between leader and chorus.

Incredible as it seems, a belief that blacks had no secular music coexisted with the immense popularity of the white minstrel theater, which, initially at least, purported to show plantation life. The early shows were relatively simple, and it is not known how much the early minstrels knew of slavery. Dan Emmett, the reputed composer of "Dixie," had toured the southern states in a circus, but the extent of his contact with blacks is unknown. Little has been written about black secular folk music in the postCivil War era, but it must have thrived to have produced a generation of talented black performers who themselves played in minstrel shows and popular theater.

Another form of improvised folk music was the Blues. Its origins are obscure, but the blues probably developed among rural blacks during Reconstruction. In contrast to the spiritual, which was usually a group performance with solo and chorus alternating, the blues was a solitary expression of loneliness and misery. It incorporated some elements of the so-called field holler and the gapped scales, blue notes, and syncopation of African music. As improvised utterances, the earliest blues songs were never written down and were lost. By the time blues achieved publication and recording, it had become to some extent professional.

Collections of black folk songs, as distinct from spirituals, began to be published after World War I. Natalie Curtis Burlin edited the Hampton Series of Negro Folk Songs (1918-1919), based on the singing of students at the Hampton Institute. Camille Nickerson of New Orleans specialized in Creole French folk songs. John Wesley Work III produced an important collection, American Negro Songs and Spirituals, in 1940. A very different collection was Lawrence Gellert's Negro Songs of Protest (1936), described as "the living voice of the otherwise inarticulate resentment against injustice." Initially, such songs were received with suspicion as reflecting an outside political motivation, but the civil rights struggle of the 1960s testified to their legitimacy.

The civil rights movement, beginning with the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in December 1955, produced a group of songs that played a more important role in a political and social movement than any since the anti-slavery songs of a century earlier. "We Shall Overcome," based at least in part on a spiritual, "No More Auction Block for Me," was only the most famous of the freedom songs that inspired and inspirited a great movement.

In southern Louisiana, French-speaking blacks had made their own music for many years, unnoticed by the world outside. Only in the postWorld War II period did the whole country become aware of it, largely through sound recordings. Zydeco, as it is called, has not been published much, for little has been written down, but it has become known through recordings.

No form of popular music in the United States, commercial or noncommercial, has remained uninfluenced by black folk musicits rhythmic drive, syncopated beat, gapped scales, and blue notes. The potency of this influence is now worldwide.

In the era after the Civil War, spirituals became the dominant form of black music in the thinking of the general public, both in Europe and in North America, since many writers denied the existence of black secular folk music. This misconception was due in part to the influence among many blacks of religious sects that denounced secular music and dancing as sinful. The many reports of blacks who refused to participate in dancing or to sing anything but sacred songs persuaded many whites outside the South that blacks had no secular music.

The origins of the spiritual are still uncertain. Conversion of the slaves to Christianity proceeded very slowly in the eighteenth century because of the opposition of some slave owners who worried that baptism might interfere with work or even lead to freedom. Moreover, missionaries were few and plantations far apart. Gradually, ministers took an interest in converting slaves, who learned European psalms and hymns with alacrity. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the camp-meeting movement brought whites and blacks together in large, emotional crowds where mutual influence in styles of singing was unavoidable. It is likely that a blending of African performance style with Protestant hymnody grew out of these encounters. The public in the North first became aware of spirituals through the concert tours in the 1870s of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and other groups, such as the Hampton Singers.

Among very pious slaves, the only form of dancing permitted was the "shout," or holy dance, performed after a church service. Witnesses described it as a circle dance in which the legs were not crossed, while the feet edged backward and forward or right and left, without being lifted from the floor. Music was provided by a separate group of singers who "based" the dancing with "shout" songs or "running" spirituals (Epstein 1977, pp. 278-287).

See also Africanisms; Fisk Jubilee Singers; Folk Arts and Crafts; Folklore; Gospel Music; Music in the United States; Spirituals


Allen, William Francis, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. Slave Songs of the United States. New York: A. Simpson & Co., 1867. Reprint, Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Books, 1995.

Courlander, Harold. Negro Folk Music, U.S.A. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.

Epstein, Dena J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

Krehbiel, Henry Edward. Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. New York: G. Schirmer, 1914.

Small, Christopher. Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England / Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History, 3rd ed. New York: W. W. North, 1997.

Walker, Wyatt Tee. Spirits That Dwell in Deep Woods: The Prayer and Praise Hymns of the Black Religious Experience. Chicago, IL: GIA Publications, 2004.

dena j. epstein (1996)
Updated bibliography

Folk Music

views updated May 21 2018


Russian folk music is the indigenous vocal (accompanied and unaccompanied) and instrumental music of the Russian peasantry, consisting of songs and dances for work, entertainment, and religious and ritual occasions. Its origins lie in customary practice; until the industrial era it was an oral tradition, performed and learned without written notation. Common instruments include the domra (three-or four-stringed round-bodied lute), balalaika (three-stringed triangular-bodied lute), gusli (psaltery), bayan (accordion), svirel (pennywhistle), and zhaleyka (hornpipe). Russian folk music includes songs marking seasonal and ritual events, and music for figure or circle dances (korovody ) and the faster chastye or plyasovye dances. A related form, chastushki (bright tunes accompanying humorous or satirical four-line verses), gained rural and urban popularity during the late nineteenth century. The sung epic bylina declined during the nineteenth century, but protyazhnye protracted lyric songs, slow in tempo and frequently sorrowful in content and toneremain popular. Significant stylistic and repertoire differences exist among various regions of Russia.

Russian educated society's interest in folk music began during the late eighteenth century. Numerous collections of Russian folk songs were published over the next two centuries (notably N. L. Lvov and J. B. Práč, Collection of Russian Folk Songs with Their Tunes, St. Petersburg, 1790). From the nineteenth century onward, Russian composers used these as an important source of musical material.

During the nineteenth century, German philosopher Johann Herder's ideas of romantic nationalism and the importance of the folk in determining national culture inspired interest in and appreciation of native Russian musical sources, especially as they reflected notions of national pride. Mikhail Glinka, for his purposeful use of Russian folk themes in his 1836 opera A Life for the Tsar, is considered the founder of the "national" school of Russian music composition, most famously embraced by Mili Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This designation had more political than musical significance, as composers not associated with the national school, such as Peter Tchaikovsky and Igor Stravinsky, also made use of folk music in their compositions.

Russian ethnographers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made efforts to record native folk music in the face of increasing urbanization. In 1896 Vasily Andreyev (18611918) organized an orchestra of folk instruments, and in 1911 Mitrofan Piatnitsky (18641927) founded a Russian folk choir. Originally consisting of peasant and amateur performers, both became well-known professional ensembles, providing folk music as entertainment for urban audiences.

During the Soviet era folk music had important symbolic importance as a form genuinely "of the people." During the 1930s, state support for socialist realism encouraged study and performance of folk music. Composers and amateur performers developed a new "Soviet folk song" that wedded traditional forms and styles with lyrics praising socialism and the Soviet state. Official support was demonstrated in the establishment of the Pyatnitsky choir and the Russian folk orchestra directed by Nikolai Osipov (19011945) as State ensembles. Russian folk music became a state-sanctioned performance genre characterized by organized amateur activities, notated music, academic study, and large professional performing ensembles that toured internationally. During the 1970s, Dmitry Pokrovsky(d. 1996) began a new effort to collect and perform Russian folk songs and tunes in authentic peasant village style, with local variations. This revival of Russian folk music received international attention as part of the world music movement.

See also: balalaika; folklore; glinka, mikhail; music; rimsky-korsakov, nikolai andreyevich


Brown, Malcolm Hamrick. (1983). "Native Song and National Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century Russian Music." In Art and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Russia, ed. Theofanis George Stavrou. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Miller, Frank J. (1990). Folklore for Stalin: Russian Folklore and Pseudofolklore in the Stalin Era. Armonk, NY:M.E. Sharpe.

Rothstein, Robert A. (1994). "Death of the Folk Song?" In Cultures in Flux: Lower-Class Values, Practices, and Resistance in Late Imperial Russia, ed. Stephen P. Frank and Mark D. Steinberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Taruskin, Richard. (1997). Defining Russia Musically. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Susannah Lockwood Smith

Folk Music

views updated May 14 2018

Folk Music

Folk music is traditional music in the sense that it has been passed down from one generation to the next, usually by memorization rather than by writing. In a more modern sense, folk music is music written for and about, and performed by, common people.

Prior to the twentieth century, folk music was reflective of one's culture. Throughout the world, each culture claimed its own type of folk music, songs that told of the history of its people. The music would be played at festivals and celebrations, and young and old alike knew the words as well as the dance steps. Folk music was very much a part of one's cultural identity.

Folk music as comfort and as protest

In the early decades of the twentieth century, American folk music began to play an important social role. In the 1930s, the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression (1929–41). Millions of Americans were without jobs or homes, and many went hungry. In a time of little hope, musicians like Woody Guthrie (1912–1967) began singing songs written to give the common man some comfort. His simple tunes, sung

while he strummed his guitar, promised better days ahead and let those who were down and out know they were not alone.

Guthrie influenced many folk singers who came after him, such as Pete Seeger (1919–), whose own solo career began in the 1950s. He was famous for songs protesting war and calling for peace and harmony. Beginning in the 1940s, Burl Ives (1909–1995) became a popular singer of traditional folk songs and ballads. In the 1950s, folk musicians like Harry Belafonte (1927–), who popularized Caribbean folk music, and folk groups like the Limeliters and the Kingston Trio found commercial success by recording much-loved songs from the past.

Arguably the most well-known folk singer to break onto the music scene in the 1960s was Bob Dylan (1941–). Dylan was heavily influenced by Guthrie, and one of his most popular early tunes was “Song for Woody.” Dylan's music was cherished by many who sought political and social change in the United States. Perhaps his most famous song, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” became the anthem of the civil rights movement when folk group Peter, Paul and Mary performed and recorded it in 1963. The group's members are Peter Yarrow (1938–), Noel Paul Stookey (1937–), and Mary Travers (1937–).

With the 1962 release of the album Peter, Paul and Mary, the group shot to stardom. The album remained in the Top 10 for ten months and in the Top 20 for two years. Within one year, the trio had three albums in the top six slots on the record charts. Their popularity was solidified with hits like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Folk musicians became famous not only for their music but also for living its message. Many, like Joan Baez (1941–) and Peter, Paul and Mary, were deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War (1954–75). They performed and spoke out at demonstrations, marches, and fundraisers.

Canada was experiencing its own folk movement during the 1960s and early 1970s. The most famous Canadian folk musicians—Gordon Lightfoot (1938–), Leonard Cohen (1934–), and Joni Mitchell (1943–)—all became international stars. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded Lightfoot's tune, “In the Early Mornin’ Rain,” which helped them achieve eight gold and five platinum albums by 1970.

Changing times

By the mid-1970s, folk music as a genre had declined in popularity. New musicians were blending folk with popular music or country music and playing it with electric guitars and syncopated (off-beat) rhythms. Other genres, such as heavy metal and hard rock, incorporate folk melodies and traditional folk instruments such as fiddles and bagpipes.

Popular musicians continue to acknowledge the value of folk tradition. In 2006, for instance, rock superstar Bruce Springsteen (1949–) released We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Along with about a dozen musicians playing banjos, fiddles, and accordions, Springsteen paid tribute to Seeger by covering his most beloved songs. In giving these songs a rock-and-roll twist, Springsteen illustrated that folk music is the basis of American classic rock.

Folk Music

views updated May 11 2018

Folk Music

For a long time, the term "folk music" meant music made by ordinary people rather than by professional musicians. In many cultures around the world, and over many generations, songs were handed down from one person to the next. Good folk songs survived over time because they spoke to basic human emotions and told stories that everyone could relate to. In the twentieth century, with the rise of commercial popular music, folk music was no longer just music made by ordinary folks; it became a style of music that had commercial appeal as well.

During the twentieth century in the United States, folk music went through a number of transformations. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression (see entry under 1930s—The Way We Lived in volume 2), folk singers sang songs about the hard times people were going through. One of the most important artists was Woody Guthrie (1912–1967), who sang topical songs (songs about current issues in society) and protest songs about outlaws, politics, and class relations. His most famous song is probably "This Land Is Your Land," which celebrated the United States as a place for everyone, not just for the rich. It continues to be sung today. In the 1940s and 1950s, other folk singers rose to prominence. Pete Seeger (1919–) played the banjo on his own and in the Weavers, one of the most important folk groups of the 1950s. Among other topics, The Weavers sang about political life from a radical perspective, something that got them into trouble during the anticommunist hysteria of the early 1950s. Seeger went on to a long career bringing folk music to crowds large and small.

Although ordinary folks continued to sing folk music, in the 1960s there was something of a folk music revival, when dozens of new bands and artists rediscovered folk songs and made them into successful hit songs. Groups such as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary were among the more commercially successful. But the folk revival also produced artists such as Bob Dylan (1941–; see entry under 1960s—Music in volume 4), who began his career singing his own topical folk songs, such as "Blowin' in the Wind." This folk revival also led rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3) musicians to experiment with softer, folk sounds, resulting in a style called "folk-rock," perhaps best represented by the group the Byrds.

Although the folk-rock revival faded by the 1970s, the popularity of folk music has continued since then as an important style of music that continues to draw new fans. By the end of the twentieth century, folk music could still mean the old songs that ordinary people sang to themselves and their friends, but it could also refer to a category of popular music that featured acoustic instruments and singing. Either way, folk music remains an important musical style and an important link to the American past.

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Neff, Maryl. Folk Music. (accessed March 15, 2002).

Nettl, Bruno. Folk Music in the United States. 3rd ed. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976.

Smith, Harry, ed. Anthology of American Folk Music. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1997.

Uncle Tom's Folk Music History Page. (accessed March 15, 2002).

folk music

views updated May 23 2018

folk music. Term covering folk-songs and folk dances. Folk-songs are songs of unknown authorship passed orally from generation to generation, sung without acc., and often found in variants (of words and tune) in different parts of a country (or in different countries). Folk-songs were generally found among the country-dwellers, but with the increase of urbanization and industrialization they spread to the towns and factories. In the 19th and early 20th cents. the fear that with the advance of modern life the old customs were dying out led to a major campaign of song coll., in Eng. by Cecil Sharp, Vaughan Williams, Maud Karpeles, Mrs. Leather, Anne Gilchrist, Frank Kidson, and many others; in Hungary by Kodály and Bartók, and similarly in other countries. Many composers have made use of folk-songs in their comps., from Renaissance times to Haydn, Grieg, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Vaughan Williams, and others. Although folk-songs enshrine the nat. characteristics of their country of origin, they have int. similarities. Most of them are modal. Like every generic term, folk-song is susceptible to many conflicting interpretations, and readers are referred to several important books on the subject. It is also impossible to predict how folk-song may develop in future centuries. It may well be that the popular songs of the 20th cent. by named composers may become (indeed already have become) the folk-songs of a new age. Folk dance is a type of dance which has developed by itself without aid from choreogs., is connected with traditional life, and is passed from one generation to the next.

folk music

views updated Jun 11 2018

folk music Music deriving from, and expressive of, a particular national, ethnic, or regional culture; it is nearly always vocal. Its main theme tends to be the history of a people, so that folk songs are usually narrative. Their origin is almost always peasant. The musical structure is the simple repetition of a tune (with or without chorus), sometimes with a freedom of rhythm that adheres more to the natural metre of the word than to the more formal requirements of composition.

folk music

views updated May 23 2018

folk mu·sic • n. music that originates in traditional popular culture or that is written in such a style. Folk music is typically of unknown authorship and is transmitted orally from generation to generation.

Folk Music

views updated May 14 2018


FOLK MUSIC. SeeMusic: Early American, Folk Revival .