Folk Music: Songs of the People

a banjo and guitar musicians playing together

Music has been a part of the human landscape since before written histories began. Images of musical instruments can be found among some of the earliest cave paintings and are a prolific theme for many of these prehistoric galleries. This was the earliest form of folk music.

Today, folk music represents many points of view and groups around the world. From inspiring protest songs to patriotic Americana, folk music captures hearts and ignites the passions of those it embodies.

What is Folk Music?

Merriam Webster defines folk music as “the traditional music of the people in a country or region.” Commonly, it’s any style of music that can be sung or played by amateurs and professionals alike on whatever instruments are available to them and represents a community of people.

These broad definitions embody the spirit of folk music, all-encompassing and all-inclusive, it’s a genre that can be a little hard to pin down.

Where It All Began

Folk music is the earliest genre of music in that it’s the music of the people. Every culture had songs that represented their place in the world as they saw it. From the Norse epics to the ballads of Ireland, folk music has always been a part of the human experience.

black and white picture of man sitting on stool playing guitar

Origins & Influences

The earliest folk songs were not meant for enjoyment or entertainment but held ceremonial meaning. They were most often associated with events and activities like:

  • Calendar-based events
  • Religious holidays
  • Life cycle rituals like marriages
  • Working
  • Teaching the young the customs and mores

Spreading

Folk music spread much like folk stories did, orally from person to person. Many were passed down through families. Others were disseminated throughout the community and into neighboring groups. This is the earliest way that folk music spread.

Often, as time passed and the songs traveled to new groups in new cultures, they evolved to become new songs altogether. For example, a study conducted on the English ballad Barbara Allen found that there were 198 versions of this well-known story song.

As radio transmission and recordings became popular, folk music found a new way to spread. What was once an intimate song shared only by a few groups, became an anthem for all who identified with its message around the world.

Folk Music in the 20th Century

This rampant spread led to a resurgence of folk music in the mid-20th century that changed music forever. The American folk music revival cemented American folk music as a part of mainstream musical tradition and introduced a whole new generation of musical innovators to folk music. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) assembled its Collection of Traditional Music to preserve folk music from around the world for generations to come.

woman playing vintage lute instrument

The Advent of American Folk Music

Folk music was nothing new to the U.S. People sang songs about their lives on the prairie, settling the west and farming the fertile fields of this country for generations. Slaves in the southern states sang beautiful songs of sorrow and pain and hope that carried them through their life in chains. Some even helped them follow the road to freedom in the north as guides along the Underground Railroad.

However, as New York heard music native to those in the Gulf states and Seattle discovered fiddle tunes from the lower Appalachian folk traditions, popular American folk music was born.

Protest Songs of the 60s

The 1960s in the United States saw an enormous resurgence in folk music fueled by a generation of dissatisfaction and exploration. What evolved was a new form of folk music with a familiar yet new sound. The protest song was born.

Folk music had always brought attention to social issues of the communities from which it sprang. Like the slave songs of the American south, they shed light on the injustices and problems plaguing humanity. However, this time around they were speaking to the whole world, and people were listening.

It’s hard to tell whether the music started the movement or if the movement started the music, but the season of discontent that was the 60s and 70s in America is synonymous with the folk music of the time. Songs about war and peace, love and hate, tuning out and tuning in.

Famous Names in Folk Music

Some of the most influential American folk artists in history came out of the 20th-century revival. Among them are names like The Grateful Dead and Johnny Cash as well as many more.

Woody Guthrie

Often borrowing from traditional melodies and popular rhythms of the times, Guthrie’s original songs set the precedent for American folk music with their breadth of subjects. His lyrics encapsulated all the important issues of the time and America in general. The plain and simple language he used put words to what so many across the country were feeling. His extensive catalog includes songs like This Land Is Your Land and House of the Rising Sun.

Bob Dylan

A name that goes hand in hand with American folk music in the 60s and 70s is Bob Dylan. His unique voice fit well with the messages of his folky songs. Considered the darling of the folk revivalists in the early 60s, he ignited controversy by playing an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He enjoyed a 30-year career with hit songs such as Subterranean Underground Blues and A Hard Rain’s Gonna’ Fall.

The Carter Family

This family of musicians and entertainers is known for inspiring many great folk, country and rock singers alike. Their blend of traditional folk melodies and gospel music created a unique and popular sound for folk music in America. Listen as this talented family sings the folk classic Wildwood Flower at The Grand Olde Opry.

Ani DiFranco

The new face of American folk music, DiFranco debuted in 1990. Her popularity and respect in the industry have grown ever since and today her name is synonymous with modern folk music. Her songs include Both Hands and Swan Dive.

Folk music has evolved and changed with humanity, but it still retains its base concept as music that represents the stories of people who sing them. This close connection to the human condition has kept folk music in the hearts and playlists of generations.