What is Folk Music?
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Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Riseā„¢

What is Folk Music?

It's July, 2020, and I've been singing, arranging, and performing Folk songs since the mid-1960s, not to mention writing any number of songs that fit within the Folk tradition. I've also been writing about topics related to Folk music for several years. For example, my article "What was the Folk Revival?" traces the mid-20th-century movement that started out celebrating traditional music, then included singer-songwriters who created original music that was similar in style.

But I have never written on the topic "What is Folk Music?" before this, in part because I have many old memories of huge arguments starting with that question.

My own, overly-simplified answer would probably be something like "Traditional songs that have been passed down through the generations with no memory of the original author, as well as songs and performances that generally fit within the melodic, harmonic, and acoustic traditions of those songs. So "The Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night" fits into column A, while Tom Paxton's "The Last Thing On My Mind" fits into column B. But there are other columns that other folks would include. Please understand that the "definition" I just provided is not the only definition, or even necessarily the best one.

The following list summarizes the major points of view that were expressed during the "knock-down-drag-out" fights on this subject back when Folk music was dominating the airwaves.

  • Unknown Author - To some extreme purists, it wasn't "Folk music" unless the authors were unknown - there was almost a Derrida-style attempt to divorce the song from the last person who had left his or her "fingerprints" on the text or tune. Fortunately for purists, ethnomusicographers (folk song collectors) of the late 19th and early 20th century had collected thousands.

    In the 1800s, Francis James Child collected the lyrics to hundreds of ballads sung in America, but with English and Scottish roots. When he discovered two or more sets of lyrics that he considered variants of the same song, he would assign them to the same number. There are 305 of these groups of lyrics, but if you counted each lyric separately, the count would be much, much higher.

    Child published only about 50 of the tunes for his ballads, but starting in 1959, Bertrand Bronson published traditional tunes that he believe were associated with each of Child's ballads. Let me caution you that both Child's and Bronson's works spanned multiple volumes, and they're both long out of print. So buying a set might mean tracking down Volume 1 from one provider, Volume 2 from another provider, etc. A scanned version of Child's work is available online - there's a link in the Wikipedia article above.

    When ethnomusicologists subsequent to Child encountered a version of a song Child had documented, they would attach the number Child had assigned to make cross-referencing the sources easier.

    An Appalachia-born folk song collector, John Jacob Niles, toured Appalachia, publishing the tunes as well as the lyrics and the stories of how and where he collected them. The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles is also out of print, but easier to find.

    Father and son ethnomusicographers John and Alan Lomax toured the country, collecting songs from many other sources, including prisons, mining camps, and cattle ranch country. They not only collected the tunes, they also made many "field" recordings, some of which found their way to the Smithsonian.

    In addition, Alan Lomax communicated with many early pioneers of the Folk Revival, including Pete Seeger, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, and Jean Ritchie. Together John and Alan Lomax published several hundred more songs for the mid-20th-century Folk singers to go learn and present to their audiences. And they did, though there were often adaptations to make the songs more acceptable to ears unused to modal melodies or archaic language.

    In addition, many individual Folk artists, inspired by the work of the Lomaxes and others, sought out previously undocumented Folk songs in fields that hadn't yet been harvested (such as mining towns in England and Caribbean sugar plantations). So the repertoire of Folk songs that were collected in "the field" and available for anyone to record free of charge grew into the thousands.

    Such Folk songs recorded by early Folk Revival singers included dark ballads of murder, tales of ghost children, tales of dying cowboys, tales of pioneer life, tales of thwarted romance, riddle songs, sea chanteys, work songs, railroad songs, silly dance tunes, and much more. In fact many of those resources continue to provide inspiration to musicians in the post-Folk era.

    But back when many Folk musicians and fans were "purists," artists in some settings couldn't sing original songs unless they pretended they were traditional songs that they had "discovered."

    Personal note: Most of the collected Folk songs were "public domain," meaning "free to publish without paying royalties." Many of them found their way into the songbooks we used as schoolchildren. "I Gave my Love a Cherry," "Crawdad Song," "There's a Hole in the Bucket," a sanitized version of "Sweet Betsy from Pike, the short version of "Barbara Allen," and many more.

    As a result, most Boomers grew up knowing dozens of Folk songs that they didn't even realize were Folk songs. Sadly, the same companies that published those songbooks later decided that those old songs no longer "met the needs of modern children." So they replaced those classics with dumbed-down "children's songs" written by fourth-rate staff writers. So the X-generation and beyond never got exposed to that wide range of roots-based Americana that we did. I realized this to my dismay when I presented my own clever rewrites of "There's a Hole in the Bucket" and "Barbara Allen" to an "Americana" festival audience and not one person under 45 knew the original song I was lampooning.

  • Rewrites Faithful to the Genre - To others, it still counted if it started as a traditional song and any modern revisions or enhancements (like extra verses by Pete Seeger or new tunes by Chad Mitchell) stayed within the musical parameters of the original genre. So Chad Mitchell's "Golden Vanity" still counted as "Folk," even with a new tune and lyrics. So did the Kingston Trio's near-total rewrite of "Worried Man Blues," sort of. But if you added drums and electric guitars to any of those songs, they wouldn't have been considered "Folk" at all.

  • Original Songs in Folk Style - To others, it still counted as "Folk" if it was played on acoustic instruments and written in a style that imitated traditional Folk tunes. So the original songs by artists like Tom Paxton, Noel Stookey, Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, and even early Bob Dylan counted as Folk. But when Dylan picked up an electric guitar, adherents of this tenet "wrote him off."

  • Politically Toned - To others, it counted as "Folk" if it was similar to traditional music and included an element of political activism. This notion was likely rooted in the songs, works, and approaches of politically-minded songwriters like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, who were, after all, largely responsible for the Folk Revival movement even happening. Dylan's "The Times They are a Changin'" spoke to this group. Even the electric version of Paul Simon's "Sounds of Silence," qualified to some.

    But some of the most extreme adherents to this point of view would reject the works of actual traditional artists who were politically conservative. Unlike longtime activist Pete Seeger, who would share the stage or his living room with anybody of any political persuasion, many folk fans who equated Folk music with activism were quick to pitch their Bob Dylan records when he recorded an album featuring traditional Country musicians.

    Footnote: In 2018, my sister Tess Hoffmann and I participated in a "round-robin" hootenanny in Ohio. Digging up songs from our combined musical past, we shared several 50- and 60-year-old protest songs that - sadly - are just as applicable today as they were when they were written. Song against exploitation of immigrants, songs against racism, songs against needless wars and so on. The other musicians involved were not "put off" in any way. In fact, most of them felt the same way we do on such issues, but in the decades since the Folk era, they had just gotten more used to singing "safer" or "feel-good" songs.

    At the end of the night, one of the participants said, "I had no idea you were so political." I said, "We're Folk singers. What did you expect?" I was halfway joking, but within the room, most folks near our age nodded their head and said things like "Oh, that's right; I had forgotten that Folk music used to stand for something."

    Sadly, that aspect of Folk music has been all but forgotten, even by Boomers who marched for peace or civil rights at one time.

  • Folk-Inspired - Once electric groups like We Five and the Byrds started performing Folk anthems like "You Were On My Mind" and "Turn, Turn, Turn," it was a very short step to creating original songs in the same mold. Bands like The Lovin Spoonful and The Mamas and the Papas straddled the fence between Folk and Pop stylistically for a time. Ironically, former Folk fans who would have rejected The Lovin' Spoonful's John Sebastian as a "serious" Folk artist are now finding that - in the light of cultural changes since those days - Sebastian shows up more often in Folk musician lists than anywhere else. (Maybe his famous purple autoharp has something to do with that.)

    If John Denver's career (born in Folk ensembles and venues) hadn't outlasted the Folk Revival movement, most, if not all, of his music would show up in the "folk" column, too.

  • "Feel-Good," Singalong, or ??? - Some critics, fans, and musicians, tired of the arguments among people with different definitions of "Folk music," tried to come up with more general "definitions." They would say something like, "I think Folk music is any music that makes people feel like coming together and singing." Or "I think Folk music is anything that gives you a spirit of optimism when you sing it with other people." Of course the latter rules out all those tragic ancient ballads that are definitely Folk songs in the strictest sense of the word.

No matter how narrowly or broadly you defined it, you have to admit that "Folk" virtually became a derogatory term by the mid-to-late seventies.

But Folk didn't go away as much as it influenced or at least cross-pollinated with many other styles that outlasted the original Folk Revival period. The following paragraphs describe some of this influence.

Folk and Rock

The "British Invasion," which reintroduced a visceral sort of Rock and Roll to North America, inspired many Folk-loving musicians like Roger McGuinn to adopt electric guitars and drums, and to drop the "Folk" label in favor of a "Rock" label. However, most of the Rock bands of the mid and later 60s started out deeply entrenched in Folk Revival styles, often earning the moniker "Folk Rock."

The Byrds had big hits with rock versions of Folk standards like "Turn, Turn, Turn," and "Mr. Tambourine Man." But most of the acoustic songs of the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Three Dog Night, and even Steppenwolf still fit pretty squarely into the Folk/Folk Revival tradition.

To this day, the "unplugged" sets of quite a few rockers who started out on acoustic guitar still sound an awful lot like the singer/songwriter kind of Folk that Ochs, Dylan and others brought to popularity. That does rule out the bands that only play "power chords" or the artists who synthesize everything, though.

The "Last Gasp" of "Folk"

For a time in the early 1970s, it seemed as though artists like James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Don McClean, Bread, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, CSN&Y, and America would be keeping the Folk, or at least the Folk-Rock genre alive. But Disco, Punk, and other distinctively non-acoustic genres eventually pushed such music off the charts and - frankly - made "Folk" a dirty name among the generation who hadn't grown up with it.

Not to mention that MTV, which became the "top 40" heavy-rotation station of the X-generation, focused on visually spectacular, expensively produced videos, which ruled out almost anything played on acoustic guitar and most songs with lyrics you had to think about.

Like the banjo, which went from prominence on the charts during the Folk Revival era to becoming the butt of countless "hayseed" jokes in the 1980s and beyond, the term "Folk music" began to be synonymous with "outdated," "repetitive," and "boring." That Thing You Do - one of the most realistic movies about the mid-60's music industry - included a mind-numblingly boring fake Folk Music song just to "prove" that point.

Folk and Country

As mentioned above, many of earliest Folk researchers and performers drew heavily on the songs and sounds of Appalachia, including the work of the Carter family, often called "The First Family of Country Music." That said, Folk and Country diverged as:

  • The "Nashville Sound" began focusing more on slick production that sounded as "hokey" to Folksingers as it did to early rockers like Buddy Holly.

  • The younger politically active component of the Folk genre and its fans began both to alienate and to separate themselves from anything associated with cultural conservatism.

Both Bob Dylan and Earl Scruggs worked hard to build bridges between the two genres - Dylan by recording with Nashville musicians, Scruggs by recording songs by Dylan, Ian Tyson, and other Folk authors. But both came close to sabotaging their own careers by doing so.

As the Folk Music movement faded and the Country Music industry grew, a few acoustic-based singer-songwriters whose initial careers placed them well in the Folk genre quietly morphed into "Country" and never looked back. A few others whose music would have been considered Folk if their career had started a few years earlier went right into the Country music industry, because it was the only career path open to "roots"-influenced acoustic guitar players.

To this day, many of the acoustic songs written by Country writers are barely removed in style or substance from the non-topical Folk songs by writers like Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton. I will not name names, because my C&W-loving friends always get their hackles up when I suggest that one of their favorite artists or songs is Folk in all but name (and use of pedal steel, I suppose).

'Nudder Personal Note: In the 1990s I spent several weeks off and on in Nashville hanging with friends who had one foot in CCM and one foot in Country. On what they called "Songwriter's Row," I met any number of folks who could outwrite me seven ways from Sunday, but whose best songs (in my opinion) would never be considered for radio airplay because they didn't fit the "formula," and you had to listen to the words to really appreciate them.

In other words, please don't condemn all Country songwriters based on the dance tunes you hear on the radio. If "Folk" was still a vibrant genre versus a byword for something the uninformed have been conditioned to consider outdated and lame, many of Nashville's songwriters would have a fine career in that genre.

Folk and Bluegrass

As mentioned above, much of the early Folk music involved Appalachian roots. Bluegrass even moreso. Pete Seeger, who appreciated the contributions of the Carter Family, respected the energy and talent of the emerging Bluegrass music as well. He called Bluegrass "Folk Music on overdrive" and shared the stage and his home with Bluegrass musicians many times.

Because many Bluegrass musicians are just as interested in their music's heritage as were the early Folk Revival musicians, the genres shared countless traditional songs in the days before the Folk community became singer/songwriter focused.

On a personal note, while I was doing Folk gigs in the 1960s, most audiences were delighted when I slipped Bluegrass numbers like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" into my sets. Sadly, I had to drop banjo altogether from my concerts by the mid-1970s, because popular culture had decided that banjo was "uncool" or a "joke," and it was hard to get most audiences to take anything I performed with a banjo seriously. (Our article "Whatever Happened to the Banjo" addresses the Banjo's "fall from grace" during and after the Folk-Rock era.) Fortunately, that pendulum has swung back somewhat, but crossovers from Bluegrass to other genres besides Country are still too few and far between.

Because Bluegrass and most popular streams of Folk and Folk-inspired music use so many of the same instruments, chord progressions, flatpicking patterns, etc. it's usually easy for folks from the different traditions to collaborate or jam together. Personally I love it when I get that chance, though I'm not immersed enough in the Bluegrass tradition to fool anybody into thinking that I belong in the band.

Folk and Gospel

There's some irony here. The Folk Revival started out with a great deal of respect for Gospel music, which faded as the genre's performers and fans became less interested in "roots music" and more interested in politics. Folk singers used to sing many Gospel songs. Several, including Noel Stookey (B.C.) and Chad Mitchel, wrote songs with Gospel themes and musical conventions. But as the Vietnam conflict and resulting protests intensified, so did the tendency of the Folk community to reject even a hint that they might be sympathetic to the cause of, say, Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and its ilk.

Here's where the irony comes in. At the very same time, Folk-inspired "Jesus music" was evolving on the west coast as a part of the short-lived, but culturally influential "Jesus movement." Though some of the earliest "Jesus musicians" were full-on rockers like Larry Norman, most individuals and ensembles that toured the country under the "Jesus music" banner were distinctly "Folk" in style, if not in substance.

Part of the "Christian singer-songwriter touring with only a guitar" movement may have been due to economics. Surviving on self-produced albums and "love offerings" was not for the faint of heart or for large bands who might have to split a $35 love offering at the end of many gigs.

Personal Note: I did this regionally for years, but thankfully had a day job that offset the costs. My friends who were attempting to support themselves this way found themselves, as St. Paul said, "in fastings often" - even in bands that supposedly had "label support."

That said, Don Francisco, Nancy "Honeytree" Hennigbaum, Pat Terry, John Michael Talbot, and countless others could have "held their own" in any Folk setting, except for a message that the Boomers were increasingly prone to reject. Folk royalty Noel Stookey became a believer and began adding spiritually-themed tunes to his albums. Folk-Rocker Barry McGuire underwent a religious conversion, started writing and singing music with Gospel themes, and never looked back. Even Bob Dylan recorded some Gospel that seemed to be heart-felt at the time (though he later gave Barbara Walters a long-winded explanation about how it was - paraphrasing - a creative phase he went through).

In fact, the first Jesus Music festival - Ichthus, in Wilmore, Kentucky (1970) - specifically spelled out that they would be using Folk Music with spiritual messages to help reach young people.

By 1974, though, the Folk influence became less and less important as big commercial interests began making "Contemporary Christian Music" look and sound more like pop and rock genres every year. By the early 2000s, the CCM industry had faded from prominence and most of the big companies had bailed.

Yet the "Contemporary Worship" movement remained. Many of that movement's songwriters are acoustic musicians writing songs that are heavily influenced by Folk Music's melodic and harmonic traditions. If they had no compunctions against singing "religious" songs, nearly every Folk singer I ever knew or heard could sit in on nearly every "Contemporary Worship" service in the country without missing a note. (For a Brief History of Contemporary Christian Music, click here.

Folk and "Singer/Songwriter"

Technically, anyone who writes songs that they perform is a "singer/songwriter." What most folks born after, say, 1955 don't realize is that the movement toward artists writing their own songs was a quantum shift from the way the music industry worked before the 1960s. Almost nobody wrote their own songs. In fact, the "Artist and Repertoire" department of established record labels existed almost entirely to find songs that suited their singers.

In a sense, the songs were on one track and the artists were on another. It wasn't unusual for the same song to be on the charts with recordings from two or three different artists at the same time.

Early rockers like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry broke that mold by singing songs they wrote. So did countless Folk artists. But both movements started outside the recording industry mainstream. The record companies didn't really recognize the value of promoting singers who performed their own material until Bob Dylan's records started making an impact (~1963), followed by Beatles albums like "Hard Day's Night" (1964).

If you look up "singer/songwriters" today you'll find very long lists of platinum-selling performers whose songwriting contributed to their success. That's not what we're talking about here.

Even before Folk and Folk-Rock disappeared from the airwaves, there had been a class of solo songwriters whose careers quietly churned along under the radar, as they wrote thoughtful songs that were usually performed on acoustic instruments. Throughout the waves of Disco, Punk, New Wave, Alternative, and more, they have quietly toured clubs, coffeehouses, and festivals, living off tips, "door percentages," and the sale of self-financed albums and "merch."

By the mid-1990s, the term "singer/songwriter" began to imply this class of independent soloists, especially as their "indie" home recordings began drawing attention. Their fans include people who aren't put off by lack of glitz, hype, or even (in some cases) vocal prowess - they go because the songs draw them. (Personal note: I was once told by a venue manager that he didn't care for my voice but he loved hearing my songs. I told him that, since nobody else was doing my songs, the only way to hear them again was to invite me back. It worked, at least until I gave up singing in his kind of establishment.)

Since the term "singer/songwriter" took on the context of solo acoustic artist with meaningful songs, countless folks who were either Folk singers at one time or who are heavily influenced by Folk and Folk-Rock musicians have been calling themselves "singer/songwriters" in their marketing materials. Why not "Folk"? Because "Folk" still meant "outmoded, repetitive, and boring" up until a few years ago.

Americana and Folk

If you define "Americana" music as music that is uniquely American, you have to go pretty broad, from the Blues to John Phillip Sousa to Rogers and Hammerstein to Gershwin to Buddy Holly . . . .

But most folks think of "Americana" as something closer to "roots" music, music that started "off the grid" in the honky-tonks of Mississippi, in the brothels of New Orleans, in the hills of Kentucky, and even - sometimes - in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. Used this way, "Americana" includes dulcimer societies, (Dixieland) banjo societies, and regional singalong clubs.

Countless independent musicians who perform what is - to all intents and purposes - Folk music also use this term. In some cases I honestly believe it's because "Americana" implies gritty, authentic "music of the people" without mentioning the "F" word.

Celtic and Folk

When applied to music genres, the word "Celtic," used to imply traditional music from Ireland or Scotland (or maybe Wales) . Now it means "music influenced by the traditional music of Ireland and Scotland." A number of Americans who "cut their teeth" on Folk music have found a home in "Celtic" ensembles, where they can play the instruments they grew up with, with familiar chord progressions, and even some songs they grew up with, such as "Whistlin' Gypsy."

At the same time, many Irish, Scot, and UK-born musicians seamlessly incorporate American songs, even historic Folk, Country, and Bluegrass songs into "Celtic-style" sets. That's not entirely surprising, considering that some American Folk artists' records went higher on the charts in England and Ireland than they did in North America, possibly because of the somewhat analogous "Skiffle" movement over there.

Folk and Urban

Quite a few African-American musicians contributed to the Folk Revival, beginning with Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter (whose songs also influenced the UK "Skiffle" movement, albeit through the medium of white performers). But the influence of Black "roots" music faded as the movement became less interested in "roots music" in general and more interested in politics. I may be crucified for saying this, but I believe that modern African-American-dominated musical styles such as Rap, and Hip-Hop draw no influence to speak of from mainstream Folk or related forms.

In my opinion, such forms seem to draw influence from traditions that were well-known within African-American communities, but overlooked by the mostly white folk movement. I'll get in over my head quickly and probably insult some people needlessly if I take that discussion any farther, though.

Folk Music Today

In the last twenty years or so, the Internet has helped music lovers become more aware of Indie acoustic musicians (whatever they call themselves). Among millenials, "Folk" never was a dirty word, and some "youngsters" (compared to me) have begun increasingly to respect the power and appeal of thoughtful songs performed with acoustic instruments. Folksingers who've been describing themselves in other terms are beginning to "come out of the closet."

Because the traditional Folk music songs I occasionally perform are very far removed from what the post MTV-generation grew up on, some don't understand the appeal, at least at first. But to others, the music seems fresh and almost revolutionary (my white hair notwithstanding). I know countless other acoustic musicians, some of which are young enough to be my children, who are discovering the same thing.

With songs on the radio getting shorter, more synthesized, more homogenized, and more "pop-y" every day, I doubt seriously that Folk music will ever retake the ground it lost in the 1970s and beyond. But with so many ways of reaching one's audience or finding new artists, the ability to perform or listen to something akin to or influenced by Folk should continue far into the future.


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