What is folk music? A beginner’s guide

Folk music is a genre that is less easy to define than many others. Generally speaking, it is music derived from the common people of a given culture. Every region and nation has its own form of folk music. In this article, we will go over the history and makeup of folk music, particularly the genre as it is played and sung in North America.

A general definition of Folk music

Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, or as music with unknown composers. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. One meaning often given is that of old songs, with no known composers; another is music that has been transmitted and evolved by a process of oral transmission or performed by custom over a long period of time. Of course, with the commercialization of folk music beginning in the 1950s, new music was composed and copyrighted but still followed the forms of what had come before.

A brief history

That which we know as folk music in the US and Canada had its start in the manner listed above. In the1940s, contemporary folk began to emerge. Many artists who had been keeping the folk tradition alive began to compose their own songs using the same elements of the traditional folk form. This coincided with a rise in the commercial success of folk music, both on stage and in the studio.

Contemporary folk musicians such as The Weavers, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger took their cues from early folk legends such as Woodie Guthrie and became mainstays on US radio. In the 1960s, artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Woody’s son Arlo Guthrie took the folk revival to new heights of popularity by adding the political and social concerns of those heady times. It wasn’t long before folk cross-pollinated with rock, bringing such talents as The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Mamas & The Papas to international stardom.

The 1970s saw the emergence of folk artists such as Joni Mitchell, John Prine, and John Denver, all of them renowned singer-songwriters. The tradition continues to this day, with artists such as Mumford and Sons carrying the folk torch into the future.

Folk instruments

Among the commonly used instruments in North American folk music are guitars (usually acoustic), banjo, autoharp, accordion, drums, harmonica, and recorder. Of course, the human voice will always be they mainstay.

Making folk your own

Folk music can be a fun style to learn. It can be used on its own, or you can blend in elements of folk into your favorite genre using lyrics, instrumentation, or playing style for variety. Give it a try!