Traditional music, especially from rural areas, which is passed on by listening and repeating, and is usually performed by amateurs. The term is used to distinguish it from the classical music of a country, and from urban popular or commercial music. Most folk music exists in the form of songs, or instrumental music to accompany folk dancing, and is usually melodic and rhythmic rather than harmonic in style.
Each country has its own styles of folk music, based on distinctive scales and modes, and often played on instruments associated with that culture alone, such as the Scottish bagpipes, the Russian balalaika, or the Australian didjeridu. A number of composers of classical music have used folk music in their own pieces to give them a particular national character, and in the late 19th century the use of folk tunes was a prominent feature of nationalism in music.
In the 20th century a number of people, such as the composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók (who recorded over 1,000 East European folk songs in the early 20th century) and the musicologists Cecil Sharp and Alan Lomax, transcribed (wrote down) and recorded folk music to preserve it for the future. Since World War II, a renewed interest, especially among young people, led to a ‘folk revival’. Traditional folk music was performed to a much wider audience, and songwriters such as Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan composed popular songs in a folk style.
Elements of folk music have also been combined with rock and pop music, and form an important part of world music.
Folk music in the British Isles Interest in ballad poetry in the late 18th century led to the discovery of a rich body of folk song in Europe, but it was not until the late 19th century that there was any systematic collection of folk music. In England, this was seen in the transcription and preservation of folk tunes by such people as the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould and Cecil Sharp. The Folk Song Society was founded in 1898 and became the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 1911. In true Victorian fashion, they bowdlerized much of the material they collected, and edited out much of the sophisticated ornamentation and rhythmic complexity, which they felt to be ‘primitive’, or simply poor performance. The collection of folk music continued through the first half of the 20th century, with important contributions made by Ralph Vaughan Williams (whose collections not only influenced his own music but have been a significant source to the present day), A L Lloyd, and Ewan MacColl; and a unique and invaluable collection gathered by several generations of the Copper family of Sussex.
Although recognizably different styles of folk music can be seen within the countries of the British Isles, a rough classification can be made by national boundaries: English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh folk music all have their own characteristics.
In England, folk song is generally in the ballad tradition, either unaccompanied or with a simple concertina or melodeon accompaniment, and, typically for a maritime nation, there is also a large number of shanties. The two folk-dance traditions, Morris dancing and country dance and their many regional variations, each have their own associated tunes, usually played on a pipe and drum, fiddle, or concertina.
Scottish folk music can be divided roughly into two styles: Highland (associated with the Gaelic language), and Lowland. Unusually for a true oral folk tradition, most Scottish folk songs are by known composers and poets whose names have been passed down with their songs, which are mainly in the form of unaccompanied ballads. Instrumental music includes dance music for fiddle and concertina, and a uniquely Scottish genre, the pibroch, a form of theme and variations specifically for the bagpipes.
Irish folk song can similarly be divided according to language, with distinct musical traditions for both Irish and English lyrics. Dances such as the jig and the reel are typical in Irish instrumental music, and are played on the fiddle and pipe, and Irish versions of the harp and bagpipes, almost invariably with the rhythmic accompaniment of the bodhrán, a kind of drum. Much of the traditional repertoire has been preserved and played by groups such as the Chieftains.
Although there is a long tradition of musical culture in Wales, very little true folk music has survived. Welsh traditional music, like Scottish folk music, is mostly by known poets and composers, but because of its association with the Bardic culture, this is perhaps more accurately regarded as a classical rather than a folk culture.
Folk revival in the UK The post-World War II folk revival in the USA had a counterpart in the UK, with both a renewed interest in traditional folk music and a new generation of songwriters and performers in a folk style. The 1960s saw the appearance of performers in many different folk styles: the Watersons, who popularized traditional unaccompanied folk singing; groups such as Pentangle and the Incredible String Band, and the singer Donovan produced new music in a folk style; and folk-rock bands such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span brought some of the folk repertoire to a new audience by performing using the instruments of the rock band, as well as introducing new songs in a folk idiom. This folk revival continued through the 1980s, and was furthered by rock guitarist Richard Thompson and such Irish groups as the Pogues (formed in 1983), while the English singer/songwriter Billy Bragg continued in the tradition of the political protest song. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in roots, or world, music, encompassing traditional as well as modern music from many cultures.
Folk v. classical The term ‘folk music’ is generally used to describe music of an aural/oral tradition performed by amateurs, particularly in rural areas, to distinguish it from the classical, urban, or commercial music of a particular country or culture. This definition, however, makes it only relevant to cultures that have a classical, art music tradition (such as China, India, Europe, and North America); other countries tend not to recognize the distinction. The influence of Western music around the world, and in particular Western popular music, has thrown the traditional music of many countries into sharp contrast; this non-Western music has recently been categorized with genuine folk music as world music or roots music.
Origins All music is thought to have its beginnings in storytelling, worksongs, and ritual, and these are the basic forms still prevalent in folk music around the world. The ballad, often unaccompanied, is the most common genre of folk song, and probably evolved as a means of memorizing traditional stories to be passed on from generation to generation. The worksong was used to establish a regular rhythmic accompaniment to repetitive physical work, often in a call and response pattern. Instrumental folk music is usually restricted to accompaniment for folk dance, and has its roots in rituals – especially those associated with specific events in the rural calendar such as harvest, midwinter, and the beginning of spring.
The study of folk music In Europe at the end of the 19th century there was a resurgence of interest in folk music, partly because of a fear (since proved to be well-founded) that it might be lost to posterity in the face of increasing urbanization, and partly to establish ‘schools’ of composition with some form of national identity to distinguish them from the mainstream (that is, Austro-Germanic) classical music of the time. There was also a wider interest in the music of other cultures, which led to the establishment of the new discipline of ethnomusicology. As the 20th century progressed, organizations began to form for the preservation and study of folk music, and musicologists transcribed and later recorded performances of traditional folk music from all over the world. In 1931, the first international folk festival was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. Many such festivals are now held in almost every country in the world. Internationally, folk songs and music are studied and published by the International Folk Music Council, founded in 1947, and the Society for Ethnomusicology, founded in 1956.
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