The History of Folk Music

by MB on August 28, 2007

The term Folk music came from England, where they took the German word “volk”, meaning people, and applied it to mean the common people of England, the illiterate peasants who passed on stories and legends through song as they were unable to publish books. It is generally considered to be an expression of life in the communities in which the music was developed and is a great help to historians in discovering the way of life of a people. The term has been used since the 19th century, but Folk music has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Folk music was relatively popular at the beginning of the Romantic period. Josef Haydn and Beethoven were two famous composers who made arrangements of Folk music.  Many also composed traditional Folk dances which were virtually indistinguishable from the dances and songs sung by the common people. In recent times, however, Folk music did not have its revival until the 20th century. It is believed that the first Folk music festival took place in 1928, in Asheville, Carolina. Woodie Guthrie was one of the main contributors to the revival of folk music, and as many of the original folk music artists, grew up with Folk music, performing songs his mother had sung to him when he was a child.

Through the 30s and the 40s Folk music continued to rise in popularity. Stars like Jimmy Rodgers in the 30s and Burl Ives in the 40s helped to bring the genre to its peak in the 1950s, with the most popular groups and singers being The Weavers, Harry Belafonte and the Kingston Trio. Their style was an attempt to honour and reproduce the Folk music of the past. This style was popular until the mid-late sixties, when “folk rock” became popular and the Beatles mania swept the world.

In the 60s, the term “protest music” became popular, in which Folk music singers sang against the ideals of capitalism and the war in Vietnam, and in favour of movements such as the American Civil Rights Movement. Certain people call this type of music “antifolk” based on the idea that liberal politics reduces the importance of ethnicity, which is an essential part of Folk music, and that thus protest music is the opposite of true Folk music.

By 1975, the Folk music revival had mostly died out, and was not rejuvenated until the late 1990s, though that revival was to a much lesser extent than the previous one. Throughout the 70s and 80s, popular bands nonetheless took elements from Folk music, and today all over the world there are Folk music clubs and festivals. England’s Cambridge Folk Music Festival sells out in a couple of days, and Port Fairy Folk Music Festival in Australia is incredibly popular as well.

Folk music, while not in a peak revival stage, is still very popular today, and given as it has already progressed hundreds of years, it is not likely to be a form of music we will see disappear anytime in the near future.

Folk Music Lyrics

by MB on August 28, 2007

Folk music lyrics have changed tremendously over the years. Originally, in England, the lyrics told of stories, legends in the communities and about the ways of life of ordinary people.  The lyrics evolved with the times, leading into what we know as Folk music today, a blend of traditional Folk music and popular music.

Folk music originally told about the lives of common people in the 19th century, of the illiterate peasants who couldn’t write their stories and so sang them instead. When composers of the Romantic era such as Beethoven did some Folk music, there were no lyrics involved: they used a very Celtic music which often had no lyrics, and was simply told by tune. Some of the Romantic Era Folk musicians did include lyrics, and they were the traditional type: Benjamin Britten and Percy Grainer were two such musicians.

Woody Guthrie, who was one of the first popular Folk music musicians of the 20th century, and helped lead the revival of the genre, sang very traditionally as well, originally performing songs his mother had sung to him when he was a boy. Later, at the height of the Folk music revival in the United States, scholarly work references and philosophical references were often included in the lyrics. In the 1960s, the style changed, and when protest Folk music emerged, the lyrics were politically charged. They denounced the capitalist ideals of the United States, protested the war in Vietnam and spoke in support of the American Civil Rights movements, among other things. In the 1970s, humor and satire began to be incorporated into Folk music lyrics, and in the 80s, with heavy metal being all the rage, Folk music began leaning towards a pagan theme as well as the Neofolk style of music emerging. This style combined European Folk music with post-industrial music forms as well as historical references, philosophy and traditional songs.

It also included some paganism, making Folk music of the 80s generally a pagan style of music.
There has been much parody made of Folk music throughout the ages as well. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there is a folk ballad sung for “brave Sir Robin”. In more recent times is the song “I’m Sending and E-mail to Santa” by the group Artisan. As folk music has persevered throughout the ages, it is much easier to ridicule as everybody knows the style. Parodies of Folk music are relatively common, and the lyrics often quite amusing.

Folk music lyrics are quite varied, but in general they all come down to the same thing: telling stories of the way of life of ordinary people and their communities. For hundreds of years, this has been the case. From England in the 19th century to protests against the Vietnam War and capitalism to the modern day, Folk music has generally stayed true to its roots of telling the stories of ordinary people and ordinary lives.