Folk songs are commonly seen as songs that express something about a way of life that exists now or existed in the past or about to disappear (or in some cases, to be preserved or somehow revived). However, despite the assembly of an enormous body of work over some two centuries, there is still no certain definition of what folk music (or folklore, or the folk) is.
Gene Shay, co-founder and host of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, defined folk music in an April 2003 interview by saying: "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. [...] Also, what distinguishes folk music is that it 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."
Recent research has suggested that the "folk process" may not be so simple to distinguish from other popular music processes. Early folk music was often written down and transformed by experts, even though they may have been amateurs.
Some consider "folk music" simply music that a (usually) local population can - and does - sing along to. Much modern popular music over the past few decades falls into this category. Jack Knight, a modern songwriter, defines a "folk song" as any song that when played or performed gets people's lips moving in unison. Jazz musician Louis Armstrong and blues musician Big Bill Broonzy have both been attributed with the remark, "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."
The terminology used for the Grammy Awards first included the word "folk" in 1959. In 1970 this was changed to "Ethnic or Traditional", to make a distinction from protest song or singer-songwriter. The phrase "singer-songwriter" has never been used by them. Instead they have used the phrase "male pop vocal" to include everything from James Taylor to Stevie Wonder. In 1969 the "Songwriters Hall of Fame" was set up. Their website identifies the Brill Building songwriters as the earliest singer-songwriters. In Europe, however, there is some awareness that Jacques Brel was an important pioneer of angst-ridden confessional songs, years before Carole King was successful.
There was a vogue for folk music during the start of the Romantic period. One of the first to use it was Josef Haydn (see Haydn and folk music). Beethoven made arrangements of Irish, Welsh and Scottish folk songs (over 150 settings) (see List of compositions by Ludwig van Beethoven). Later composers used the material more liberally. Liszt, Brahms, Bruch, Tchaikovsky and Dvorak wrote folk dances that are often indistinguishable from tunes that come from the authentic tradition. Percy Grainger particularly enjoyed Morris dance tunes, and made many keyboard settings of them. Ralph Vaughan Williams made choral arrangement of English folk songs. Holst composed pseudo-folk dance tunes, as did Malcolm Arnold. Benjamin Britten made voice-and-piano arrangements of folk songs, though the chromatic harmonisation probably makes them hard for a folk enthusiast to enjoy. Using early types of recording equipment Bartok and Grainger made field recordings of folk singers and musicians. Bartok also arranged Magyar dances for keyboard, though they tend to be remote from the originals.
As folk traditions decline, there is often a conscious effort to resuscitate them. Such efforts are often exerted by bridge figures such as Jean Ritchie. Folk revivals also involve collaboration between traditional folk musicians and other participants (often of urban background) who come to the tradition as adults.
The folk revival of the 1950s in Britain and America had something of this character. In 1950 Alan Lomax came to Britain, where at a Working Men's Club in the remote County Durham 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. MacColl 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 possibly the first of what became known as folk clubs. It closed in 1991. As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the folk revival movement built up in both Britain and America. It is sometimes claimed that the earliest folk festival was the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, 1928, in Asheville, Carolina, founded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Sidmouth Festival began in 1954, and Cambridge Folk Festival began in 1965.
Another example is the Hungarian model, the táncház movement. This model involves strong cooperation between musicology experts and enthusiastic amateurs, resulting in a strong vocational foundation and a very high professional level. They also had the advantage that rich, living traditions of Hungarian folk music and folk culture still survived in rural areas, but also in Romania (especially Transylvania). The involvement of experts meant an effort to understand and revive folk traditions in their full complexity. Music, dance, and costumes remained together as they once had been in the rural communities: rather than merely reviving folk music, the movement revived broader folk traditions. Started in the 1970s, tanchaz soon became a massive movement creating an alternative leisure activity for youths apart from discos and music clubs—or one could say that it created a new kind of music club. The tanchaz movement spread to ethnic Hungarian communities around the world. Today, almost every major city in the U.S. and Australia has its own Hungarian folk music and folk dance group; there are also groups in Japan, Hong Kong, Argentina and Western Europe.
The Balkan folk music is a type of folk music distinct from others in Europe. This is mainly because it was influenced by traditional music of the Balkan ethnic groups and mutual music influences of this ethnic groups in the period of Ottoman Empire. The music is sometimes characterised by complex rhythm. It comprises the music of: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Turkey and other countries including the historical states such as the Ottoman Empire, Yugoslavia or the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro and the geographical regions such as Thrace. An important part of the whole Balkan folk music is the music of the local Romani ethnic minority.
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 collected folk music and also composed his own songs, as did Pete Seeger, who was the son of a professional musicologist. Through dissemination on commercial recordings, this vein of music became popular in the United States during the 1930s (Jimmie Rodgers), the 1940s (Burl Ives), but more significantly, in the 1950s, through singers like the Weavers (Seeger's group), Harry Belafonte, The Kingston Trio, and The Limeliters, who tried to reproduce and honor the work that had been collected in preceding decades. The commercial popularity of such performers probably peaked in the U.S. with the Hootenanny television series and the associated magazine ABC-TV Hootenanny in 1963–1964, which was cancelled after the arrival of the Beatles, the "British invasion" and the rise of folk rock.
The itinerant 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. Publications like Sing Out! magazine helped spread both traditional and composed songs, as did folk-revival-oriented record companies. Although forever associated with folk/protest music of the 1960s, Bob Dylan never thought of himself solely as a folk musician.
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 Baez, Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton, followed in Guthrie's footsteps and to begin writing "protest music" and topical songs, particularly against the Vietnam War, and likewise expressed in song their support for the American Civil Rights Movement. The influential Welsh-language singer-songwriter, Dafydd Iwan, may also be mentioned as a similar example operating in a different cultural context. Some critics, especially proponents of the ethnocentric Neofolk genre, claim that this type of American 'progressive' folk is not folk music at all, but 'anti-folk'. This is based on the idea that as liberal politics supposedly eschews the importance of ethnicity, it is incompatible with all folkish traditions. Proponents of this view often cite romantic nationalism as the only political tradition that 'fits' with folk music.
Simultaneous to the American folk movement was the Canadian folk movement, exemplified by artists Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, all three of whom would become the only singers to receive an Order of Canada, and all of whom would achieve varying degrees of lasting international success.
In Ireland, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem (although the members were all Irish-born, the group became famous while based in New York's Greenwich Village), The Dubliners, Clannad, Planxty, The Chieftains, The Pogues and a variety of other folk bands have done much over recent years to revitalise and re-popularise Irish traditional music. These bands were rooted, to a greater or lesser extent, in a living tradition of Irish music, and they benefited from collection efforts on the part of the likes of Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy, among others.
In the United Kingdom, the folk revival didn’t create any popular stars (although Ewan MacColl's “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” would eventually prove to be a hit for other artists), but it helped raise the profile of the music, and folk clubs sprang up all over, a boon to young artists like Martin Carthy and Roy Bailey who emerged. It also inspired a generation of singer-songwriters, such as Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell (whose “Streets Of London” would become a hit), Donovan, Roy Harper and many others. Bob Dylan came to London to check out the growing folk scene of the early 1960s, Paul Simon spent several months there and Tom Paxton stayed even longer; Simon's version of “Scarborough Fair” owed a lot to Carthy's take on the song.
Also in the UK, the electric folk groups of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span took old songs and mixed their tunes with rock. Both bands had hit singles and albums that sold well, bringing a new audience to traditional music.
The revival of the fifties and sixties had mostly died out by 1975. There was another revival in the second half of the 1990s. Once more folk music made an impact on mainstream music. There was a younger generation of artists, in some cases children of revival-inspired artists; (Eliza Carthy, for example, is the daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson). This time, notably, the instrumentation was largely acoustic, rather than electric. The skill level of players and singers was as high as before. As the number of summer folk festivals increased, so more talented performers have come in, and folk music has found at least a toehold in the mainstream with artists like Kate Rusby and Spiers and Boden featured in the press.
One example of this sort is contemporary country music, which descends ultimately from a rural American folk tradition, but has evolved to become vastly different from its original model. Rap music evolved from an African-American inner-city folk tradition, but is likewise very different nowadays from its folk original. A third example is contemporary bluegrass, which is a professionalised development of American old time music, intermixed with blues and jazz.
Sometimes, however, the exponents of amplified music were bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Alan Stivell, Mr. Fox and Steeleye Span who saw the electrification of traditional musical forms as a means 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. But if this may be true for some, for others, it's a musical concept by itself to build new kinds of music (as is the case for Alan Stivell. 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 and The Mamas and the Papas. Since the 1970s a genre of "contemporary folk", fueled by new singer-songwriters, has continued to make the coffee-house circuit and keep the tradition of acoustic non-classical music alive in the United States. Such artists include Chris Castle, Steve Goodman, and John Prine. While from London The Pogues and Ireland The Corrs brought traditional tunes back into the album charts.
In the 1980s a group of artists like Phranc and The Knitters propagated a form of folk music also called country punk, cowpunk or folk punk, which eventually evolved into alt country. More recently the same spirit has been embraced and expanded on by performers such as Dave Alvin, Miranda Stone and Steve Earle. At the same time, a line of singers from Joan Baez to Tom Paxton have continued to use traditional forms for original material.
The appropriation of folk has even continued into hard rock and heavy metal, with bands such as Korpiklaani, Skyclad, Waylander and Finntroll melding distinctive elements of folk styles from a wide variety of traditions, including in many cases traditional instruments such as fiddles, tin whistles, accordions and bagpipes as an element of their sound. Unlike other folk-related genres, folk metal shies away from monotheistic religion in favour of more ancient pagan inspired themes. Folk inspirations are a massive part of subgenres of black metal, with genres such as viking metal being defined on their folk stance, and many a band incorporating folk interludes into albums (eg, Bergtatt and Kveldssanger, the first two albums by once-black metal, now-experimental band Ulver). There is also a Metal band that uses medieval instruments along with guitars.
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 (a significant research showing that the musics have any genuine genetic relationship is still to be done - at this point, only a book in French written by Alan Stivell studies a bit the subject of Celtic Music-); so Breton music and Galician music are often included in the genre).
Neofolk music is a modern form of music that began in the 1980s. Fusing traditional European folk music with post-industrial music forms, historical topics, philosophical commentary, traditional songs and paganism, the genre is largely European. Although it is not uncommon for neofolk artists to be entirely acoustic, playing with entirely traditional instruments.
Another trend is "anti-folk", begun in New York City in the 1980s by Lach in response to the "confined" American folk music revival. It now has a home at the Antihootenany in the East Village, where artists like Beck, Regina Spektor, the Moldy Peaches and Nellie McKay got their starts, and artists continue to push the envelope of "folk."
Folk music is still 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. Indeed, even for those who consider themselves hip, the arrival of Americana and Naturalismo including the music of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Devendra Banhart, Tin Pan Caravan, Moses Atwood and many others have shown that folk music can still be cutting edge.
The Cambridge Folk Festival in Cambridge, England is noted for having a very wide definition of who can be invited as folk musicians. The "club tents" allow attendees to discover large numbers of unknown artists, who, for ten or 15 minutes each, present their work to the festival audience.
In Germany Ougenweide is a well-known folk band.
In the magazine fRoots there was a long-running parody of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). They were called "Dance Earnestly and Forget About Song Society" (DEAFASS). DEAFASS supporters favored the accordion over the melodeon and the string bass over the electric bass.
Another instance of pastiche is the notoriously well-known theme song for the television show Gilligan's Island (music by George Wyle, lyrics by Sherwood Schwartz). 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, 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 because it is, at present, 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. Folk music satire ranges 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 "All the Hard Cheese of Old England" (written by Les Barker), 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. Other musicians have been known to take the tune of a traditional folk song and add their own words, often humorous, or on a similar-sounding yet different subject; these include The Wurzels, The Incredible Dr. Busker and The Mrs Ackroyd Band.
Filk music originated in the 1950s as science fiction and fantasy oriented parodies of popular folk songs. While it eventually developed into a different style of folk music entirely, it still retains its fair share of parodies.
Folkies is the popular term for folk music enthusiasts. While the term itself is neutral and is used by some folk music enthusiasts in an informal and friendly manner, it has at times been used by the popular press at least since the late 1950s, as part of a light-hearted beatnik stereotype.