The Folk Music Timeline

folk music timeline

Folk music usually refers to acoustic instruments like whistles and flutes; or perhaps something more exotic like West Africa’s talking drum or Australia’s didgeridoo comes to mind.

Bon Iver has created folk to weep along to on his album For Emma, Forever Ago; yet at the same time has taken elements from acoustic pop and alternative rock and fused them into his folk sound, creating something entirely new.


Folk music derives its name from being an artform that involves sharing melodies and lyrics collectively; often instruments like guitar are used to interpret these tunes. Folk music has also long been used as an outlet to express political and social ideologies; during the 20th century it experienced a revival, with songs like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Pete Seeger’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” becoming iconic songs in both civil rights and anti-war movements respectively. Today this form of expression continues with new artists finding creative ways to innovate while pushing boundaries further than ever.

Folk music and other forgotten elements of national culture tend to resurface when there’s fear they might vanish forever, as seen with the revivals in 20th-century Britain, drawn upon two landmark events like industrialization and world war.

Ralph Vaughan Williams collected ballads from English villages for his collection; Ewan MacColl focused on workers’ and industrial songs; The Watersons created pagan and seasonal music in stunning modal harmonies; while Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span added electric surges to traditional forms.

Folk music’s anonymity creates space for vivid imaginations to flourish freely, from its antique veneer and whiff of Britain’s heathen dark ages, to its “shabby chic” sonics reminiscent of England’s dark ages. Additionally, this genre is one of the rare exceptions that is both fashionable and unfashonable simultaneously – appearing on fashion magazine covers while simultaneously being derided as parochial and conservative by some critics – much like banjo music’s transition from chart top charts to being disparaged as parochial by critics a long time later on by these same critics. Folk music seems adept at going in and out of fashion like banjo music did years later on by fashion magazine covers to being used against it by critics alike.

Early collectors

Early collectors of folk songs were drawn to the variety of styles and melodies found in traditional music. They would collect songs directly from oral sources for transcription or recording on cylinder or disc records; sometimes even recording them themselves! Furthermore, these early collectors also collected stories and customs associated with particular songs – for example Samuel Pepys collected Roxburghe ballads during the mid-17th century, Langland published Piers Plowman in 1550 AD, and later broadside ballads including Greensleeves which became immensely popular during that period of time.

The 19th century witnessed significant expansion and change to folk music, from work songs sung during the Industrial Revolution to African American folk music developed at schools for former slaves such as Fisk University and Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) organizing singing groups to raise funds through Northern and European tours. Alice Mabel Bacon pioneered systematic folk song collection during this era with travels to Virginia to collect black spirituals as well as Anglo-American ballads.

Alan Lomax followed in the footsteps of his father, John Lomax, as he recorded folk songs and music from prisoners, prison camp inmates, laborers, cowboys, and other working people in the 1930s. Alan believed all cultures deserved to be heard and respected and promoted his work through radio and television broadcasts.

Other scholars and collectors like Bartok (who compiled large collections of Hungarian and Romanian songs), Cecil Sharp, and Walter Wiora assisted in further developing the concept of tune family while creating new research methods in folk song studies. WPA workers of the early 1930s even created “yellow song check lists” of sound recordings as well as scale drawings of folk instruments to be added into library collections.

19th-century revival

Cecil Sharp noted in the 1920s and 30s that traditional songs tend to improve over time through incremental processes similar to natural selection. According to him, only variants that appealed most strongly to local singers survived and spread, becoming aesthetically more pleasing as each generation passed.

Nevertheless, this phenomenon stoked interest in traditional music and inspired younger musicians to learn and perform these traditional songs. By the 1950s, an emerging folk-music audience had access to commercial 78 rpm race and hillbilly studio recordings produced by John and Alan Lomax and Kenneth S. Goldstein; additionally, small record labels began offering compilation albums featuring old folk songs.

Folk musicians such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger emerged both in urban centers and suburban settings during this era, drawing audiences from a broad socioeconomic range and using music to advocate social reforms or political activism. But during the Red Scare of 1950s America, these performers’ political leanings often put them at odds with mainstream opinion; this caused folk artists to be labeled with vaguely rebellious bohemian traits in places such as Greenwich Village or San Francisco North Beach as well as college and university communities nationwide.

As a result, folk-music performers such as Joan Baez and The Kingston Trio experienced increased popularity in the 1960s. While their musical styles drew heavily on folk, but also included elements from rock, pop, and country; their political concerns more closely aligned with leftist causes of their day (such as environmental protection, peace, labor unions and racial equality). Furthermore, comedian duo The Smothers Brothers worked within and lampooned folk conventions while helping bridge it to popular music by giving concerts alongside various artists.

20th-century revival

Folk music has long been used as a vehicle for cultural expression and social commentary, yet during its 20th-century revival its popularity skyrocketed as popular performers like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez became household names. Not only was there increased exposure; folk music itself underwent dramatic evolution during this time through individual singers evolving as performers as well as folk-rock/pop fusion styles that combined various musical genres.

Folk music also helped expose the limits of rural folk culture. For instance, The Weavers rose from backwoods enclaves to national pop phenomenon during the early ’60s as their popularity blossomed – showing they no longer could only preach to audiences through trade union halls and picket lines. Their growing mass appeal made them vulnerable to right-wing groups such as John Birch Society who used folk music as fuel for paranoia about communist infiltration and racism.

Folk music’s emergence into mainstream society during the ’60s coincided with major social, lifestyle and counterculture transformations that reinforced its status as the voice of growing discontent – as evidenced by songs that addressed issues like civil rights movements, nuclear disarmament and antiwar sentiment – while folk-rock of this period used its music to further these causes – with performers like Bob Dylan using it to voice his political viewpoints publicly.

While folk music began to diminish in popularity during the mid 1960s as more pop and girl group genres rose to fame, its influences and cross-pollinations continued through other styles that outlived its initial Folk Revival movement. For instance, The Byrds rock band developed out of coffee house scene included folk-influenced material and lyrics in their rock rock sound; singers like John Denver, Paul McCartney, and Rod Stewart who all played Skiffle with folk ensembles continued producing albums with folk-infused material as well as singers like John Denver, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart who all produced albums full of folk-influenced material throughout their careers.

Post-World War II revival

Folk music experienced a surge of popularity both during and after World War II, serving to express antifascist, pro-war, and social justice sentiments of citizens across America. Legendary figures like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie led this charge; other artists including Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, and Buffy Sainte-Marie contributed by writing songs with topical political lyrics.

At this point in time, folk music began influencing popular rock and roll, particularly for America’s working class. Musicologists who study traditional folk music tend to prioritize those songs or traditions that were uninfluenced by radio broadcasting – so you won’t find Alan Lomax or John Jacob Niles heading off into remote communities to record or transcribe folk songs, rather than those who had their ears opened to popular tunes through radio, CDs or MP3s.

Many groups and performers involved with this commercially oriented folk music revival were English-speaking; however, other foreign languages were sometimes utilized. Popular folk-oriented musical groups like the Weavers, Jimmie Rodgers, Burl Ives, The Limeliters and others included songs in Spanish (often from Mexico), French, Russian and Yiddish in their repertoires.

Britain experienced a similar revival of folk music during this era, as evidenced by artists like the Watersons, Martin Carthy and Roy Harper rising to prominence during this period. Meanwhile in America, Bob Dylan brought an entirely new wave of guitar-playing singer-songwriters such as his contemporary Bob Marley to prominence; these younger guitar players used by Dylan frequently included political and social commentaries within their songs that helped fuel this folk revival movement of the 1960s.