Folk Music 101: What Is Folk Music?
It's hard to design a site dedicated to folk music when no one agrees on what
folk music is.
The question surfaces with the regularity of a whale after diving to various
depths.... It never gets answered, but whenever it comes up there are new people
who have never considered it before. They enter the fray with a passion and
enthusiasm that keeps the the rest of us thoughtful.
OK, but what is folk music? Here are a few "working" definitions
that I've heard people use:
- Songs that have no known author. (Anon.)
- Songs that have been passed down through generations via the oral tradition,
without being written out. (Trad.)
- Songs that no one owns - that have entered the "public domain"
- Songs that everyone in a community knows.
- Songs everyone's parents know.
- Ethnic music: songs by which a cultural group defines itself - or by which
it is defined.
- It's acoustic music - played on "traditional" instruments.
- Music that anyone can play and sing.
- Music played by amateurs, not career professionals (making "folk concert"
a contradiction in terms).
- No drums (formerly the working definition used by WUMB radio in Boston).
- The music that's suppressed when the fascists take power (think of Victor
- Songs of, by, and for "the people."
- Songs about the struggles of working people.
- Songs based on natural imagery, ancient lore and archetypal symbolism (ask
Jack Hardy for more info).
- Story songs. Ballads.
- Political songs.
- Songs where the lyrics "matter."
- Camp/campfire songs.
- Music that defies categories.
- Music that's not commercially successful.
- Music that is commercially successful (If folk music is the "music
of the people," then pop music is folk music and what we call "folk
music" is an elitist sentimentalizing of the past. For a reality check,
check out BMI's
top 100 songs of the last century).
One thing is clear - it's not just about the music. The definitions are political,
social, and economic as well as aesthetic. But if it can't be defined, we can
at least describe what people who consider themselves folk music fans generally
listen to. As of today, at the turn of the 21st century, here's what the American
"folk scene" looks like:
- In general, it is Anglo-American, embracing acoustic and/or
tradition-based music from the U.K. and the United States.
- Musically, it is mainly Western European in its origins; linguistically,
it is predominantly English-based. Other musical modes and languages, rightly
or wrongly, tend to get separated out and grouped under "World Music,"
even if they are considered traditional within their respective cultures.
- The few exceptions to the above are based mainly on prevailing political/historical
conditions in the Anglo-American world and the demographics of folk fans:
Celtic music, blues, some Central and South American music, Native American
music, and Klezmer.
Here's a list of useful categories, each of which has its own
page of netlinks on this site.
In the next article, I'll give a brief history of folk music,
tracing the folkways that start in Western Europe and Africa,
following particular immigration patterns to the New World.
next article: the shadowy Origins of Folk Music
Hugh Blumenfeld, Editor
© 2001 Hugh Blumenfeld/The Ballad Tree