Folk music

Folk music, in the original sense of the term, is music by and of the people. Folk music arose, and best survives, in societies not yet affected by mass communication and the commercialization of culture. It normally was shared and performed by the entire community (not by a special class of expert performers), and was transmitted by word of mouth.

During the 20th century, the term folk music took on a second meaning: it describes a particular kind of popular music which is culturally descended from or otherwise influenced by traditional folk music. Like other popular music, this kind of folk music is most often performed by experts and is transmitted in organized performances and commercially distributed recordings.

Table of contents
1 Defining folk music
2 Variation in folk music
3 The decline of folk traditions in modern societies
4 Fieldwork and scholarship on folk music
5 The emergence of popular folk artists
6 Pastiche and parody
7 See also
8 External links
9 Books

Defining folk music

Because of the changing meaning of "folk music", people asked to define it give widely varying answers. When Gene Shay, co-founder and host of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, was asked to define folk music in an April 2003 interview, he gave an answer similar to the definition above: "In the strictest sense, it's music that is rarely written for profit. It's music that has endured and been passed down by oral tradition. [...] And folk music is participatory—you don't have to be a great musician to be a folk singer. [...] And finally, it brings a sense of community. It's the people's music." The jazz performer Louis Armstrong, is famously credited with saying, "All music is folk music, leastwise I ain't never heard a horse sing". This emphasizes the universality of people's love for music (which folk music also attests), and aptly expresses Armstrong's warm personal connection to his audience, but it also misses a distinction. Armstrong was not a folk musician, but a gifted performer within a sophisticated popular music tradition, which by his time had evolved to be very different from its folk origins.

The English term folk, which gained usage in the 18th century to refer to peasants or non-literate peoples, is related to the German word Volk (meaning people or nation). 'Folk music' in the strict, original sense of the term covers only that music which arises from the speech and circumstances of the common people of a culture. It matters not whether that culture is 18th century rural Suffolk or 21st century inner-city Manchester; the material which can truly be identified as folk music (and especially folk song, because language is more important than musicality in expressing the condition of life) must be that music and song which is created by the common people in the process of expressing themselves.

Music which was created in this way before the rise of mass communications and mass media is now termed "traditional music," i.e., the traditional music of particular ethnic groups learned by ear, that is, as part of an oral tradition, and played on acoustic instruments or sung with unaccompanied voice. In those days (bygone, in most of the Western world, as we shall see), the motivating forces behind the creation of folk music were those of communication, teaching and entertainment. These needs of the community were met from within the community, through the medium of folk song in particular.

Variation in folk music

Music transmitted by word of mouth though a community will, in time, develop many variants, because this kind of transmission cannot produce word-for-word and note-for-note accuracy. Indeed, many traditional folk singers are quite creative and deliberately modify the material they learn.

Because variants proliferate naturally, it is naďve to believe that there is such a thing as the "authentic" version of a ballad such as "Barbara Allen." Field researchers in folk song (see below) have encountered countless versions of this ballad throughout the English-speaking world, and these versions often differ greatly from each other. None can reliably claim to be the original, and it is quite possible that whatever the "original" was, it ceased to be sung centuries ago. Any version can lay an equal claim to authenticity, so long as it is truly from a traditional folksinging community and not the work of an outside editor.

Cecil Sharp had an influential idea about the process of folk variation: he felt that the competing variants of a folk song would undergo a process akin to biological natural selection: only those new variants that were the most appealing to ordinary singers would be picked up by others and transmitted onward in time. Thus, over time we would expect each folksong to become esthetically ever more appealing--it would be collectively composed to perfection, as it were, by the community.

Many feel, examining the folksongs that Sharp collected from traditional singers, that there is something to this theory. The Sharp material often shows a very striking, simple beauty, and is there is little tawdry, cheap material that it might have temporarily picked up from external sources. This suggests that such material did indeed get "filtered out" by the collective efforts of the community. On the other hand, there is also evidence to support the view that transmission of folk songs can be rather sloppy. Occasionally, collected folk song versions include material or verses incorporated from different songs that makes little sense in its context. A perfect process of natural selection would not have permitted these incoherent versions to survive.

The decline of folk traditions in modern societies

Folk music seems to reflect a universal impulse of humanity. No fieldwork expedition by cultural anthropologists has yet to discover a preindustrial people that did not have its own folk music. It seems safe to infer that folk music was a property of all people starting from the dawn of the species.

However, the development of modern society--first literacy, then the conversion of culture into a salable commodity--created a new form of transmission of music that first influenced, then in some societies ultimately decimated the folk tradition. The decline of folk music in a culture can be followed through three stages.

Stage I: Urban influence

One of the first folk traditions impacted by modern society was the folksong of rural England. Starting in Elizabethan times, urban poets wrote broadsheet balladss that (thanks to printing) could be sold widely. The ballads probably didn't need musical notation, since they would have been sung to tunes that everybody knew, the folk tradition being very much alive at the time. These ballads heavily influenced the folk tradition, but did not override it. In fact, the folk tradition showed great resilience. Through the process of folk transmission, the urban ballads were modified, keeping the more vivid content and ironing out the less "citified" material. The resulting body of folk lyrics is widely considered to be a very appealing blend. Thus, the printing press and widespread literacy did not suffice to destroy the English folk tradition, but in some ways enriched it.

The English folk song legacy was probably affected by urban melodies as well as words. The clue here is that folk music in remote rural areas of the English-speaking world, such as Highland Scotland or the Appalachian mountains, abounds in tunes that employ the pentatonic scale, a scale widely used for folk music around the world. However, pentatonic music was rare among the rural English villagers who first volunteered their tunes to researchers in the late 19th century. A plausible explanation is that life in rural England was far more closely affected by the proximity to the urban centers. Music in the standard major and minor scales evidently penetrated to the nearby rural areas, where it was converted to folk idiom, but nevertheless succeeded in displacing the old pentatonic music.

Stage II: Loss of folk traditions

The pattern of urban influence on folk music was intensified to outright destruction, as soon as the capitalist economic system had developed to the point that culture could be widely bought and sold. It was around Victorian times that the common people of the Western world were offered music as a commodity which they could purchase, for example, in the phenomenon of Music Hall. This was happening simultaneously with the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, at a time of great change in lifestyle for the great body of the people. The forces of commercialism made sure that the people were persuaded of the need to buy this commodity; and between these commercial pressures, and the migration of the old agrarian communities to become the new industrial ones, the process of folk creation became lost to the people.

Several succeeding generations became enticed with ever more accessible and desirable forms of the commodity of music. Gramophone records became LPs and then CDs; the Music Hall gave way to radio, followed by television. The marketplace kept expanding and it generated an industry dedicated to the creation of a musical product by a paid elite of performers. This is the diametric opposite of 'folk creation', because its motivating force is individual or corporate profit rather than communal need, and also because instead of reflecting the lives of the people, commercial music tends to shape those lives.

The loss of folk traditions in favor of commercial culture is lamented by advocates of folk music. However, this loss clearly was due at least in part to choices made freely by members of the community. Sad as it may be for advocates of folk music, it seems that replacement of folk music by commercially-produced music is a very powerful, perhaps even irresistible force.

Stage III: Loss of musical ability in the community

The terminal state of the loss of folk music can be seen in the United States and a few similar societies, where except in isolated areas and among hobbyists, traditional folk music no longer survives. In the absence of folk music, many individuals do not sing. It is possible that non-singers feel intimidated by widespread exposure in recordings and broadcasting to the singing of skilled experts. Another possibility is that they simply cannot sing, because they did not sing when they were small children, when learning of skills takes place most naturally. Certainly it is very common for contemporary Americans to claim that they cannot sing.

There is anecdotal evidence that the loss of singing ability is continuing rapidly at the present time. As recently as the 1960's, audiences at American sporting events collectively sang the American national anthem before a game; the anthem is now generally assigned to a recording or to a soloist.

Inability to sing is apparently unusual in a traditional society, where the habit of singing folk song since early childhood gives everyone the practice needed to able to sing at least reasonably well.

Regional variation

The loss of folk music is occurring at different rates in different regions of the world. Naturally, where industrialization and commercialization of culture are most advanced, so tends to be the loss of folk music. Yet in nations where folk music is a badge of cultural or national identity, the loss of folk music can be slowed. For instance, it is generally believed that Ireland retains a living folk tradition to this day. In Europe, France (Brittany and Center-France) and Spain (Galicia), still transmit and make those traditions alive.

Fieldwork and scholarship on folk music

Starting in the 19th century, interested people - academics and amateur scholars - started to take note of what was being lost, and there grew various efforts aimed at preserving the music of the people. One such effort was the collection by Francis James Child in the late 19th century of the texts to over three hundred ballads in the English and Scots traditions. Contemporaneously came the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and later and more significantly Cecil Sharp who worked in the early 20th century to preserve a great body of English rural folk song, music and dance, under the aegis of what became and remains the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). Sharp also worked in America, recording the folk songs of the Appalachian Mountains in 1916-1918 in collaboration with Maud Karpeles and Olive Dame Campbell.

Around this time, composers of classical music developed a strong interest in folk song collecting, and a number of outstanding composers carried out their own field work on folk song. These included Ralph Vaughan Williams in England and Béla Bartók in Hungary and neighboring countries. These composers, like many of their predecessors, incorporated folk material into their classical compositions.

In America, during the 1930s and 1940s, the Library of Congress worked through the offices of musicologist Alan Lomax and others to capture as much American field material as possible.

Often, fieldworkers in folk song hoped that their work would restore folk music to the people. For instance, Cecil Sharp campaigned, with some success, to have English folk songs (in his own heavily edited and expurgated versions) to be taught to schoolchildren. Fieldworkers also played a role in the "folk revival", narrated in the next two paragraphs.

In 1950 Alan Lomax came to Britain, where at a Working Men's Club in the remote Northumberland mining village of Tow Law he met two other seminal figures: A.L.'Bert' Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, who were performing folk music to the locals there. Lloyd was a colourful figure who had travelled the world and worked at such varied occupations as sheep-shearer in Australia and shanty-man on a whaling ship. MacColl, born in Salford of Scottish parents, was a brilliant playwright and songwriter who had been strongly politicised by his earlier life, and who was already responsible for creating material - such as 'The Manchester Rambler' - which now is often viewed as folk song. MacColl - whose daughter Kirsty was later to become a well-known pop singer - had also learned a large body of Scottish traditional songs from his mother.

The meeting of MacColl and Lloyd with Lomax is credited with being the point at which the British roots revival began. The two colleagues went back to London where they formed the Ballads and Blues Club which eventually became renamed the Singers' Club and was the first of what became known as folk clubs - it was also the longest-running of them all. And as the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the folk revival movement built up in both Britain and America (it wasn't a 'revival' in Ireland, because Irish folk music never died).

One theme that runs through the great period of scholarly folk song collection is the tendency of certain members of the "folk", who were supposed to be the object of study, to become scholars and advocates themselves. For example, Jean Ritchie was the youngest child of a large family from Viper, Kentucky that had preserved many of the old Appalachian folk songs. Ritchie, living in a time when the Appalachians had opened up to outside influence, was university educated and ultimately moved to New York City, where she made a number of classic recordings of the family repertoire and published an important compilation of these songs.

The emergence of popular folk artists

In the twentieth century, a crucial change in the history of folk music began. Folk material came to be adopted by talented performers, performed by them in concerts, and disseminated by recordings and broadcasting. In other words, a new genre of popular music had arisen. This genre was linked by nostalgia and imitation to the original traditions of folk music as it was sung by ordinary people. However, as a popular genre it quickly evolved to be quite different from its original roots.

Confusingly, popular (i.e., commercially-disseminated) music based on a folk tradition is called "folk music", no matter how different it may be from a folk music rooted in the community. As a result, some individuals in a modern society are unaware that folk music of the original variety ever existed.

The rise of folk music as a popular genre began with performers whose own lives were rooted in the authentic folk tradition. Thus, for example, Woody Guthrie began by singing songs he remembered his mother singing to him as a child. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Guthrie both collected folk music and also composed his own songs, as did Pete Seeger. Through dissemination on commercial recordings, this vein of music became popular in the United States during the 1950s, through singers like the Weavers (Seeger's group) and the Kingston Trio, who tried to reproduce and honor the work that had been collected in preceding decades. The itinerate folksinger lifestyle was exemplified by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a disciple of Woody Guthrie who in turn influenced Bob Dylan. Sometimes these performers would locate scholarly work in libraries and revive the songs in their recordings, for example in Joan Baez's rendition of "Henry Martin," which adds a guitar accompaniment to a version collected and edited by Cecil Sharp.

Many of this group of popular folk singers maintained an idealistic, leftist/progressive political orientation. This is perhaps not surprising. Folk music is easily identified with the ordinary working people who created it, and preserving treasured things against the claimed relentless encroachments of capitalism is likewise a goal of many politically progressive people. Thus, in the 1960s such singers as Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan followed in Guthrie's footsteps and to begin writing "protest music", particularly against the Vietnam War, and likewise expressed in song their support for the civil rights movement. Such songs were newly written, but took their instrumentation and stanza forms from folk tradition.

In Ireland, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem (although the members were all Irish born, the group became famous while based in New York's Greenwich Village, it must be noted), The Dubliners, Clannad, Planxty, The Chieftains, The Pogues and a variety of other folk bands have done much over recent years to revitalise and repopularise Irish traditional music. These bands were rooted, to a greater or lesser extent, in a living tradition of Irish music, and they benefitted from collection efforts on the part of the likes of Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy, among others.

When rock and roll stars and singer-songwriters began to sing traditional songs and play traditional tunes, this music, and the leading characteristics of the performance genre in which the music was made, were changed. For example, bass guitar and drum kit were often added to express and satisfy popular tastes; traditional melody and song were placed into arrangements that scarcely resembled their original sources.

As less traditional forms of folk music gained popularity, there grew to be a tension between so-called "purists" or "traditionalists" and the innovators. For example, traditionalists were indignant when Bob Dylan began to use an electric guitar. His electrified performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival was to prove to be an early focal point for this controversy.

Sometimes, however, the exponents of amplified music were bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span who saw the electrification of traditional musical forms as a means whereby to reach a far wider audience, and their efforts have been largely recognised for what they were by even some of the most die-hard of purists.

Other examples of this transformation have occurred with bluegrass (a development of American old time music), which is often referred to as a kind of folk music, as well as with the use of traditional music in country music (itself a development of both bluegrass and old time music). In recent times, bluegrass has been revitalised by its central role in the Coen brothers' cult movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

Since the 1970s a genre of "contemporary folk", fuelled by new singer-songwriters, have continued to make the coffee-house circuit and keep the tradition of accoustic music alive in the United States. Such artists include Steve Goodman, John Prine, Cheryl Wheeler, Bill Morrisey, and Christine Lavin. Lavin in particular has become prominent as a leading promoter of this musical genre in recent years. Some, such as Lavin and Wheeler, inject a great deal of humor in their songs and performances, although much of their music is also deeply personal and sometimes satirical.

Traditional folk music forms also merged with rock and roll to form the hybrid generally known as folk rock which evolved through performers such as The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, and many others. More recently the same spirit has been embraced and expanded on by performers such as Ani Difranco. At the same time, a line of singers from Baez to Phil Ochs have continued to use traditional forms for original material.

In addition to the direct descendants of traditional folk music, many have identified the street evolution and the overtly political lyrics of rap music as being strongly in the folk tradition.

Folk music is still extremely popular among some audiences today, with folk music clubs meeting to share traditional-style songs, and there are major folk music festivals in many countries, eg the Port Fairy Folk Festival is a major annual event in Australia attracting top international folk performers as well as many local artists.

A similar stylistic shift, without using the "folk music" name, has occurred with the phenomenon of Celtic music, which in many cases is based on an amalgamation of Irish traditional music, Scottish traditional music, and other traditional musics associated with lands in which Celtic languages are or were spoken (regardless of any significant research showing that the musics have any genuine genetic relationship; so Breton music and Galician music are often included in the genre).

Pastiche and parody

Popular culture sometimes creates pastiches of folk music for its own ends.

One famous example is the pseudo-ballad sung about brave Sir Robin in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (see External Links, below, for lyrics and sound file). Enthusiasts for folk music might properly consider this song to be pastiche and not parody, because the tune is pleasant and far from inept, and the topic being lampooned is not balladry but the medieval heroic tradition. The arch-shaped melodic form of this song (first and last lines low in pitch, middle lines high) is characteristic of traditional English folk music.

Another instance of pastiche is the notoriously well-known theme song for the television show Gilligan's Island (music by George Wyle, words by Sherwood Schwartz; see Links below for lyrics and sound files). This tune is also folk-like in character, and in fact is written in a traditional folk mode (modes are a type of musical scale); the mode of "Gilligan's Island" is ambiguous between Dorian and Aeolian. The lyrics begin with the traditional folk device in which the singer invites his hearers to listen to the tale that follows. Moreover, two of the stanzas repeat the final short line, a common device in English folk stanzas. (However, it should be noted that the raising of the key by a semitone with each new verse is an unmistakable trait of commercial music and never occurred in the original folk tradition.)

Folk music is easy to parody, and it is not hard to see why: at present, it is a popular music genre that relies on a traditional music genre. As such, it is likely to lack the sophistication and glamour that attach to other forms of popular music. Exponents in the field of folk music satire range from the worst excesses of Rambling Syd Rumpo and Bill Oddie to the deft and subtle artistry of Sid Kipper, Eric Idle and Tom Lehrer. Even "serious" folk musicians are not averse to poking fun at the form from time to time, for example Martin Carthy's devastating rendition of the "All the Hard Cheese of Old England", to the tune of "All the Hard Times of Old England", Robb Johnson's "Lack of Jolly Ploughboy," and more recently "I'm Sending an E-mail to Santa" by the Yorkshire based harmony group Artisan.

The 2003 film A Mighty Wind is a particularly deft and cutting send-up of commercial folk music circa 1960.

See also

External links

Folksong material:

  • http://ingeb.org. A list of folksongs from all over the world
  • http://www.smsu.edu/folksong/maxhunter/. The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection is a set of about 1600 field recordings made by Max Hunter between 1956 and 1976 in the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri. The recordings are downloadable.

Pastiche and parody:

Books

  • Cecil Sharp's Folk song: some conclusions (1907; reprinted 1977; Charles River Books) is an early theoretical account of folk song by a pioneering collector. Similar ideas are presented from a later perspective in Maud Karpeles, An introduction to English folk song (1973; reprinted 1987; Oxford: Oxford University Press).

  • The introductory chapter of English folk songs from the southern Appalachians, collected by Cecil J. Sharp (1932, ed. Maud Karpeles; London: Oxford Univ. Press) contains a vivid account of the lives and folk singing of the Appalachian mountain people around 1916, at a time when outside influences were few and folk songs were sung by the entire community. This book--which also contains hundreds of beautiful songs that Sharp and Karpeles collected--is out of print but can be found in university libraries.



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