Some of the earliest music to remain is either church music, or else is in the form of carols or ballads dating from the 16th century or earlier. Troubadours carried an international courtly style across Western Europe. It was common in times before copyright for melodies to be interchangeable, and the same melodies have often been used (with differing words) for secular and religious purposes. Melodies like those of the Sussex Carol or Greensleeves have had a long history of eclectic use over the centuries.
During the 15th century, a vigorous tradition of polyphony developed in England, as exemplified in the music of composers such as Leonel Power, John Dunstaple and Robert Fayrfax. The music of this school was famous on the continent, and occasionally rivalled the music of the contemporary Burgundian school in expressiveness and renown; indeed Dunstaple is recognized as one of the strongest influences on the early development of the music of the Burgundians. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of English music manuscripts from this period were destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries carried out by Henry VIII in the late 1530s; only a few isolated survivals remain, including the Old Hall Manuscript, the Eton Choirbook, the Winchester Troper, and a handful of scattered sources from the continent.
The Renaissance influence also internationalised courtly music in terms of both instruments and content: the lute, dulcimer and early forms of the harpsichord were played; ballads and madrigals were sung; the pavane and galliard were danced. Henry Purcell became court composer to King Charles II and wrote incidental music to plays and events.
For other social classes instruments like the pipe, tabor, bagpipe, shawm, hurdy gurdy and crumhorn accompanied folk music and community dance. The fiddle gradually grew in popularity. Differing regional styles of folk music developed in geographically separated areas such as Northumbria, London and the West Country.
Also at the end of the century and into the early years of the 20th was a period when composers and musicologists took an renewed interest in collecting the music of the common people; recording and transcribing songs hitherto passed down from earlier generations only by ear, and occasionally arranging them for performance. The pioneers were Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood, Frank Kidson and Anne Gilchrist. Later, major figures in this movement were Cecil Sharp (who in 1911 founded the English Folk Dance Society, which later merged with the 1898 Folk Song Society to form the English Folk Dance and Song Society), Ralph Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth, Gustav Holst, Percy Grainger and Frederick Delius. These composers' art music is frequently tinged with the sounds and cadences of English folk music, even where the melodies are freely composed and are not arrangements of pre-existing folk tunes. Maud Karpeles collected both folk songs and folk dances.
Frank Bridge made the arrangement "Old English Songs" in 1916. Ernest John Moeran composed "Six Folk Songs from Norfolk" in 1923. Eric Coates adapted "Eight Nursery Rhymes" in 1924. By 1950 this particular tendency among composers had come to an end. The only composer who made a direct link with recent professional folk singers was the Hungarian Mátyás Seiber, who collaborated with Alan Lomax, Peggy Seeger and Shirley Collins in 1960. Folk-song collectors who continued after the death of Percy Grainger and Cecil Sharp include Maud Karpeles, A.L. Lloyd and Stan Hugill.
A regular BBC Home Service radio program called "As I Roved Out", broadcast field recordings made by Peter Kennedy and Seamus Ennis from 1952 to 1958. This was mostly Irish material rather than English, but the sound of traditional singers, rather than concert performers, was new to most listeners.
A significant factor in the early growth of folk clubs was Topic Records. A. L. Lloyd wrote many of the sleeve notes for the records for the next 20 years and sang on several of their albums. Ewan MacColl toured widely in England, and recorded many of the Child Ballads. Collet's Record Shop in New Oxford Street, London was the best place to find folk records and magazines. From the mid-fifties skiffle and rock and roll songs began to be home-produced by English performers.
The first traditional song to reach number one in the UK was "Cumberland Gap" (April 1957), by Lonnie Donegan. A few weeks later Lonnie's "Gamblin' Man" hit number one. The tune was written by Woody Guthrie. April 1957 also saw Chas McDevitt's memorable "Freight Train" in the top 10. The last traditional song, so far, to reach number one was "La Bamba" (Aug 1987) by Los Lobos. Cliff Richard reached number 1 in 1999 with "The Millennium Prayer". The tune ("Auld Lang Syne") can be classed as traditional, dating back to 1687.
Peter Paul and Mary were the first group (1963) to have a top-20 album of mostly traditional songs. Among the non-Americans, The Dubliners were the first to have a hit album with traditional songs ("A Drop of the Hard Stuff" 1967). There were also the last, so far, to have a hit album of folk songs ("Spirit of the Irish" 2003). Among traditional English bands, the biggest chart successes were Steeleye Span's "All Around My Hat" and Fairport Convention's "Angel Delight", which got to number 7 and number 8 respectively.
Traditional instrumental tunes were less successful. Johnny Dankworth was first, with "Experiments With Mice (Three Blind Mice)" at number 7 in 1956. The biggest instrumental folk hit was "Amazing Grace" (no 1 in 1972) by The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Among instrumental folk albums, the biggest success was "The Long Black Veil" by The Chieftains, which got to number 17 in 1995. Bob Dylan, unsurprisingly, is the most successful writer of songs that might be described as "folk-rock".
The most consistent source of folk music on radio, was BBC Radio 2. In 1967 "My Kind of folk" was broadcast on Wednesdays. In 1970 "Folk on Friday" began, presented by Jim Lloyd. In 1972 it became "Folk on Sunday". "Folkweave" was presented by Tony Capstick 1975 - 1978. "Folk on Two" (Wednesdays) began in 1980. In 1998 Jim Lloyd retired from the program and was replaced by Mike Harding. In 2007 it was renamed "The Mike Harding Folk Show". Ian A. Anderson, editor of "fRoots", also presented the occasional series for Radio Two. He hosted a World music program on "Jazz FM" and then spend 10 years broadcasting on the BBC World Service. He now hosts "fRoots Radio" on the web fRoots radio For over 20 years Charlie Gillett presented World music on BBC London, until 2006. Although it is rarely mentioned, John Peel frequently included folk music of his "Top Gear" show on Radio One from 1968, but dropped it suddenly when punk arrived.
The main dancing organisations are the Morris Ring, the Morris Federation, Open Morris and the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The top dancing events in the calendar are Dancing England Rapper Tournament, Inter Varsity Folk Dance Festival and the Morris Ring day of dance in Thaxted. Locally organised dances (See English Country Dance, Barn dance) occur, and most folk festivals have dances and displays of Morris dance, Rapper sword or Long Sword dance. May Day folk dance events in Padstow and other places are free, provided you avoid the collectors who pass the hat around. There is even a following for the historial dances of John Playford.
The seventies were probably the heyday for Folk Music Publications. The popularity of English folk declined in the later 1970s, however, losing ground to glam rock, disco, punk rock, heavy metal and lovers rock. In the mid-1980s a new rebirth began, this time fusing folk forms with energy and political aggression derived from punk rock. Leaders included The Men They Couldn't Hang, Oyster Band, Billy Bragg and The Pogues. In the 80s, reggae influenced English country music due to the work of Edward II & the Red Hot Polkas. In the 21st century, Oxford produced a young duo, Spiers and Boden, and Northumberland produced Rachel Unthank and the Winterset.
Northumbria is known for its long history of border ballads, such as The Ballad of Chevy Chase, and dances, including social ones like the Elsdon Reel and others, like rapper dancing and Northumbrian clog dancing, more typically seen in concert halls.
Northumbrian pipe music has seen a recent revival due to the touring of artists like Kathryn Tickell, and uses in songs by artists such as Sting. Many of the Shires of England had their own unique form of bagpipe; some mouth blown and others bellows blown, like the Northumbrian smallpipes, the Cornish bagpipes, the Lancashire great-pipe and the ancestor of the Uilleann pipes, the pastoral pipes. Unfortunately, many local variants of pipe have ceased to exist. For example the English great pipe, the English double-pipe and the Marwood double-pipe are known only from 16th century carvings and manuscripts . Modern craftsman have attempted reconstructions, but these can only be conjectural. John Hunsley, the last of the players of the Lincolnshire pipes, died in the nineteenth century. No actual examples of the Lincolnshire bagpipe have survived.
In the 1970s the West Country became noted for its Scrumpy and Western music, invented by bands such as the Wurzels and The Yetties, much of it fusing comical folk-style songs with affectionate parodies of more mainstream musical genres, but delivered in the local West Country dialects.
The Cornwall Fiddle Orchestra is a large group of string players playing traditional fiddle tunes from the Celtic nations – Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. Their musical director, Hudson Swan, was an original member of Scots traditional band, The Tannahill Weavers.
From a different tradition The Lakeman Brothers have achieved considerable success in the 1990s and 2000s.