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Folk music is a term that is synonymous with the term traditional music and encompasses many musical styles that are indigenous to a specific country or region. There are folk songs that date so far back; they could conceivably be considered as oral histories. One common element is that folk songs express something specific about a way of life that exists now or existed in the past or could be about to disappear.
To try and place a definition on folk music is like trying to define the automobile. There are so many models and variations that evolved over the years, is an auto a Model T or an SUV? Is it a Ford or GM, or even a Subaru? So if you utilize this analogy and think about how many different kinds of autos there are with all the different options that they may come with, this is how the folk music genre can be explained. Is folk music traditional Irish, German, French Polish or Hungarian songs? Is it traditional American folk songs from the South or songs from Canada? The answer is simple; folk music encompasses so many different variables, it would be impossible to name them all here.
But, there are several elements of folk music that are common to most forms of the genre. Gene Shay, who is the co-founder and host of the Philadelphia Folk Festival has a superb explanation and defines folk music as follows:
"In the strictest sense, it's music that is rarely written for profit. Its 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.”
So using this definition and adding our own conclusions, we can see that folk music is a very broad and complicated genre of music, there are so many different variables, and it is difficult to just put a specific definition to the genre. But, let’s explore the emergence of popular folk artists, musicians who brought folk music to the masses.
Folk music was adopted by many musicians who marketed themselves alongside other mainstream artists and they performed traditional folk music in concerts and recordings. We can trace the rise of folk music as a popular musical genre to early artists such as Woody Guthrie, who was an avid collector of folk music and he passed this knowledge to the public in the form of song. Another popular musician who helped to lay the foundation was Pete Seeger who also wrote and sang and recorded many traditional folk songs.
Through these recordings and many like them, the vein of music became quite popular in the US in the 1930’s with artists like Jimmy Rodgers, in the 1940’s with Burl Ives, in the 1950’s with the Weavers (Pete Seeger’s group) and into the 1960’s with Ramblin Jack Elliott. These artists then influenced other groups and musicians such as Harry Belafonte, the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters, to name a few. Folk music’s commercial peak and appeal can be traced to these seminal musicians and even spawned the widely popular Hootenanny television series in 1963-64.
Folk artists of the 1960’s were very influential in the evolution of the genre and included such folk pop artists as Peter Paul and Mary, Ian and Sylvia, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, just to name a few. When folk music turned electric, a whole new sub genre (folk rock) emerged.
Purists for the folk community regarded rock and roll as a somewhat vulgar and overly commercial form of music. The rock and roll musicians were somewhat ignorant of the folk traditions and unconcerned with broadening their lyrical content beyond the themes of romance and overindulgence. But the two genres were able to find middle ground and the success of the folk rock movement in music history cannot be underestimated.
Following in the footsteps that were established by their predecessors, folk musicians started to write relevant and topical songs, songs of protest about a number of topics (including the Vietnam War) and racial inequality. This ideology spread and took on many forms as artists from different countries joined the folk music movement.
Canadian folk musicians such as Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, among others, helped to bring an international flavor to the genre. Likewise, in Ireland, musicians like the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, along with the Dubliners, the Pogues, the Chieftains helped to revitalize traditional Irish folk music.
Artists from the UK followed suit with Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy, Roy Baily, Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and Donovan and many others helping to influence American songwriters like Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Paul Simon. Why even the Beatles, who utilized so many different genres of music in their songwriting, had some spectacular folk music recordings.
When the Searchers, Nick Drake, Donovan, Bob Dylan and the Byrds became popular, this spawned new groups into the folk rock explosion. Groups like the Lovin Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas and Simon and Garfunkel (among countless others) brought folk music to new levels never seen before in the mainstream music arena.
Traditional folk music is still popular among audiences today, with folk music clubs and major folk music festivals being held in many countries around the globe. Folk music is an institution, almost ethnic niches, whose roots are deeply imbedded in our society and psyche and will continue to influence musicians for generations to come.
Popular Folk Artists