Folk music has long been considered the music of the masses, a musical tradition with no known composer and one that is played in common areas, like town squares, festivals, taverns, and saloons. Folk music is traditionally thought of in European terms, yet it can be traced to towns, villages and communities around the world. In America, we usually think of folk music in terms of eras, like Woodie Guthrie and Leadbelly in the beginning, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in the 1960s, and Tracey Chapman, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls, John Gorka, and other contemporary folk and folk rock artists from there. But, a timeline does little justice to the rich tradition of American folk music and talented folk artists over the years.
To understand American folk music, you have to consider where American folk music began, how it evolved and where it goes from here. Traditional American Folk songs have long thrilled audiences for its unique way of reflecting the character of America itself. Likewise, Contemporary American Folk music offers audiences a blend of folk traditions, styles and lyrics sure to please and provoke. The sheer number and unique qualities of American folk artists down through the ages is staggering.
Defining Traditional American Folk Music
Traditional folk music is hard to pin down. It defies the rules and refuses to by type-cast. But, you can apply some common characteristics to American traditional folk music. Among them, American traditional folk music
1. Has no known composer and, in some cases, has been adapted from a poem or other writings.
2. Contains simple words, phrases or melodies.
3. Is not written down, rather passed on through the generations by word-of-mouth.
4. Can be likened to oral tradition and storytelling.
5. Originates in a particular town, community, region or with respect to a particular cultural or ethnic group.
6. Has long given the common folk in a particular community a form of group expression.
American Patriotic Folk Music
American Patriotic is a form of folk music whose music and lyrics appeal almost exclusively to the American spirit and patriotism. Indeed, American Patriotic Folk music was written and performed to inspire and move “We the People.”
Each American Patriotic Folk song is rooted in an event or period of American history. For example, American the Beautiful was a song that was adapted from a Katharine Lee Bates poem that she wrote while on a trip to Colorado, reportedly after a visit to the mighty Pike’s Peak. The Star Spangled Banner was also a song adapted from a poem, this time by Francis Scott Key. Yankee Doodle Dandy was originally a pre-Revolutionary War drinking song sung by the British to mock their American subjects. This Land is Your Land is a modern classic, written by Woody Guthrie on his travels across the American continent. These songs and many others formed the core of patriotic folk songs that describe the American spirit and beautify of our country.
American Traditional Folk Music and the Emergence of the Folk Artist
Everything changed for American traditional folk music in the 20th century as America modernized and traditional life collided with modern living. No longer could traditional music stay silent amid widespread war, poverty and joblessness. After World War I, the glaring excesses of the Roaring 20s and Prohibition, the inequities and strife resulting from racial segregation and class divides, a Great Depression set in and traditional folk music took on a decidedly serious tone.
Sure, patriotic folk songs were still played to rally the troops and people at this time, or in conjunction with American holidays, celebrations and sporting events. But, people like American folk artist Woody Guthrie marked a departure for folk music when the artist emerged as the song’s equal, the knowable, human conduit of this great American tradition. Of course, recordings, radio and, later, television facilitated the association of folk song with artist. No indeed, no longer would folk music be associated with the town square, rather the folk artist became inseparable from the form and message.
Who were some of the distinctive American folk artists, down through the ages? The Carter Family promoted traditional and country forms of folk music. Townes van Zandt put country and folk on the map and ranks among America’s top singer-songwriters ever. Austin singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith’s harmonies help her cross over from country to folk audiences. The Kingston Trio found ways of taking folk and connecting it to a popular audience. Harry Belafonte put calypso and island music on the map. The Highwaymen advanced a folk revival in the 1960s. Peter, Paul and Mary demonstrated the very best in a folk ensemble whose message is still relevant today. Bob Dylan wrote and performed songs that moved an entire generation in a different direction. Phil Ochs’ music stirred the conscience of the American people during the turbulent 1960s and Vietnam War. Simon and Garfunkel demonstrated that folk music had commercial viability as well as personal regard. The Chieftains kept Irish folk on the map in in the minds of American folk singer-songwriters. Sweet Honey’s a capella folk music never goes out of style.
Contemporary Folk Music Today
American Contemporary Folk music and folk rock blends musical traditions down through the ages, and the sound evokes rhythm and blues (R&B), bluegrass, country, soul, gospel, and, even, Indie rock. Contemporary folk draws from the solid American folk tradition and makes it more interesting and captivating to American audiences everywhere. American Contemporary Folk music is acoustic, electrified, and everything in between, as its blends the very best in American folk music, jazz, gospel and blues, down through the ages. From Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie in the early years, to Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie and beyond, American folk music pulls the very best from its roots into contemporary styling, lyrics and form today.
Who typifies American Contemporary Folk music? There are too many to name, each important in their own, unique way. Artists like Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Ani DiFranco come to mind for their contributions down through the years, through times of great struggle and, later, prosperity. James Taylor continues to tour and move people with his incredible folk songbook. Given her unique sound, Tracey Chapman typifies what’s meant by contemporary folk music. Legendary singer-songwriters Emmy Lou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez continue to inspire and wow their audiences. John Gorka reminds audiences that Love is Our Cross to Bear, a classic song that typifies the sound and lyrics of contemporary folk music today.
Folkways, Smithsonian Institution
Official Website for Woodie Guthrie Foundation & Archives
Official Website for Leadbelly Foundation
3 Sensational Female Folk Artists Perofrming Today
By Mary G. Hardiman for Associated Content, 2010
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