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  • What is "folk music"?

    9 mars 2010, 23h05m

    I am sometimes asked about the different terms used for "" or "" music. Behind any explicit definitions of these terms, there are a lot of connotations that bring in, among other things, musicology, academic history, popular culture, corporate culture, and politics. I was originally going to write a single journal entry on this topic, but I decided to break it down into at least two. This one will be concerned with "" and the second will be on "". These articles will be painted with a broad brush - i.e., they will include many generalizations. As with any generalization, there well could be specific counter-examples to what I say.

    The whole idea of folklore is a western (European and North American) concept. When the discipline of folklore was established in the 2nd half of the 19th century, folklore was concerned with the collection and preservation of peasant and rural culture. Folk culture, as opposed to middle/popular or elite culture, was seen as the product of uneducated people and consisted of anonymous items (be they houses, coffee pots, quilts, folktales or songs). The crafts to create the physicals items and the oral items (songs, stories, charms, riddles, jokes, etc.) were seen as having been passed down from one generation to the next. Over time, academic folklore expanded to recognize urban, occupational, ethnic, academic, and other types of folklore as well as the interaction and cross-fertilization of folk, popular, and elite cultures.

    Folk music was thus seen to be the music of rural populations which was learned orally and passed down from one generation to the next. This was opposed to popular music written by specific composers and made popular by singers, sheet music, concerts, radio, tv, etc., or elite music created by composers of classical music, opera, etc. Of course, it is now known that folk items are only apparently anonymous. The creators are often known to the people within the creator's community, although knowledge of a creator may be lost over time.

    A thumbnail difference between popular and folk cultures is that popular culture varies over time but is consistent over space while folk culture varies over space but is consistent over time. Pop music on the charts today was not on the charts 10 years ago and will not be on the charts 10 years from now, but it can be heard on radios and (now) the Internet the world over. A folk song, such as Barbara Allen, which is still popular among contemporary folk singers, was first mentioned by Samuel Pepys in the mid-1600s, but there are several variants of this English folksong. Although in most variants Barbara Allen dies after her spurned lover, there is at least one version in which she does not.

    Some collectors of folk music would only collect what they perceived to be genuine folksongs - songs handed down over time through an oral tradition whose original author was unknown and which was sung or played within the community of the person who had learned it. They would purposely not collect popular songs in a singers repertoire - songs that had learned from records or from over the radio. However, over time, it was recognized that many English folksongs, for example, were originally songs peddled on single-sided sheets of paper called broadsides and that the popularity of some of these songs was strongest where some of these broadsides were sold. Other songs, such as Wildwood Flower which once was thought to have been a folk song, have been discovered to have been the composition of specific people. In the case of "Wildwood Flower", it was discovered that it had been written by Maud Irving to music by Joseph Philbrick Webster in 1860. Its original name was "I'll Twine 'Mid the Ringlets". However, many of the broadside songs and other composed songs, including "Wildwood Flower" did enter the oral tradition, being passed down over time, and variants in words or tunes did appear over time.

    Folklorists raised questions about when something was a folk event and what things were created by a member of a folk community, i.e., what is a folk song. For example, Doc Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina. As a child he picked up the music surrounding him in that community. This included music from members of that community and music popular at the time on the radio and on records. He played and sang within the community. Many folklorists considered him a folk musician and singer at that point. But was he a when he left North Carolina to give concerts across the United States to people who were not part of his community and, for the most part, had not grown up with that music? Or was he now a popular musician like any other performer on the radio or records? What of the music itself? Did Barbara Allen cease being a folk song because Doc Watson sang it in his concerts and recorded on one or more of his albums?

    Tommy Makem is another example. He said he learned many of his songs from his mother, Sarah Makem and others in Darkley, County Armagh, Ireland, the community where he grew up. He went on to be a member of The Clancy Brothers And Tommy Makem.

    Although the view of folk music has evolved, folklorists have tended to have the strictest definitions of folk music and folksongs. However, some folklorists and students of popular culture have wondered if rock and roll were not the folk music of contemporary youth.

    The folk music revival, which started in the 1930s but really took off in the starting the in the late 1950s reaching a peak in the 1960s (some simply call it the 1960s folk revival), was a movement that existed at least in North and South America and in Europe. Many people who became popular performers during the revival were popularly called folksingers. Some, like Woody Guthrie had grown up in a folk community, but performed music not associated with their native communities. Some, like Doc Watson, had started out as local folk musicians, but ended up on the "folk music circuit". Others, such as The Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were products of the folk music revival and were not seen as real folksingers by academics. However, a modern style of performance evolved which can still be heard today. Mick Moloney, referring to Irish folk music, called this the "Revival" style of folk music.

    Over time, the term "" appeared to describe people like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson or any other performer related to the folk music revival who performed mostly or completely songs they composed.

    Commercially, "Folk Music" became a bin at the record store. If a record company labeled you a folk singer or musician, you ended up in the Folk Music bin. Artists found there were from both actual folk traditions and from the revival movement. In some ways, the Folk Music category became a catch-all for acoustic music that was not country, western, bluegrass, hawaiian, or other specific "genre". (Although the idea of genres is downplayed on Last.fm - for good reason - the term does have specific, useful meanings for musicologists.)

    I have noticed a shift in the commercial usage of terms. The iTunes Music Store, the world's largest retailer of recorded music, has dropped the "folk" category and replaced it with "singer and songwriter". These two terms had co-existed for decades in common usage, but each have some problems with specific artists. Singer-Songwriters were not always seen as folksingers. Now, people performing songs they did not compose, that they may have learned from on or both their parents or other relatives or neighbors, are being put in the "singer-songwriter" category. Will other commercial concerns follow? Time will tell.

    Then there is common usage - the way the terms "folk music" and folksinger" are made by everyday people. While some academics try to downplay common usage as sometimes being at least just a fashion trend or at most simply incorrect, the common usage meaning of terms have a vital and essential role in a words meaning, history, and evolution. This is where the readers of these ramblings come in. How do you view what folk music is? What is a "folksinger"? How would you define boundaries - if any - between folk and non-folk? Also, what questions do you have? Please keep your comments polite and on-topic.

    The next installment will be on "traditional music". Where I go from there will depend, in part, on the response the first two essays receive.

    ** Edited to fix typos and add links.