The Folk Music Timeline

folk music timeline

Folk music has its roots in oral tradition and can be found all across the world.

Folk music in America first made its debut as ballads, telling stories about different subjects. Over time, this style became an integral part of American culture during the late 1800s and early 1900s.


The ballad is a form of poetry which describes events through rhymed lines and is generally accompanied by music. These old forms can be found all around the world.

Ballads have been part of oral tradition for centuries. Used to communicate important messages or express strong emotions, ballads can also be tailored to various genres of music and sung as songs.

Geoffrey Chaucer is widely credited with popularizing ballads in English history. These ballads were often transmitted orally over thousands of years, becoming part of its cultural fabric and part of England’s cultural legacy.

Ballads stand out as unique pieces due to their narrative structure, which often centers on an epic event. This allows audiences to easily follow along and comprehend its message; unlike other poems, ballads may even be performed using various musical genres.

During the American Revolution, many people sang ballads about its events. One such ballad by Sam Hinton entitled “The Bombardment of Bristol” is particularly memorable and describes Bristol, Rhode Island being bombed on April 22, 1775. This ballad likely has historical relevance since it is thought to have been written shortly after this event and may contain true tales within its lyrics.

Historical ballads often serve to advance a particular viewpoint on an event in history. While these ballads may be difficult to date accurately, they still make for useful tools in historical research.

Historians have linked Warde Ford’s ballad “Custer’s Last Charge” to George Armstrong Custer and his attack against Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes at Little Bighorn in 1876 – an event which historians consider an event which led to military defeat; yet Warde Ford’s song celebrates their heroism while further promoting an interpretation that implies the battle was won by Union forces.


Play-parties, a folk music term for gatherings of people to sing and dance, originated in America during the 1830s as an alternative way of circumventing strict religious laws that forbade dancing or musical instrument use.

To bypass this ban, participants adapted children’s games and used songs as instructions for choreographed movements, resulting in healthy recreation that lasted long periods and served as a form of community bonding.

Although primarily associated with Anglo-Americans, African Americans and Native Americans also took part in play parties. Each culture learned their own style of song that often-included folk dancing elements.

Play parties were named such due to their practice of using singing and clapping to convey folk songs without using instrumental music, instead learning these songs by way of oral transmission from family or community sources.

Folk music enthusiasts still practice this oral tradition today and it serves as an excellent way to teach children the principles of footwork and movement that make up traditional folk dances.

Another benefit of this practice is encouraging self-expression through movement and voice, and children develop motor skills and coordination by participating in these games.

At the close of the 19th century, a movement emerged in America to promote and preserve folk song and dance traditions. Scholars began collecting and studying this genre of music – eventually this trend spread throughout the entire country.

As a result, music educators began using play-party songs to teach musical concepts and dance moves to their students. This trend was further encouraged by a rise in interest for ethnomusicology – the study of traditional cultures.

Kenneth Munson, who had attended play parties as a youth in Hope, Texas, wrote down all of the songs and games he remembered from these play parties so his town could revive this traditional practice. A few years later, Texas Folklore Society published this booklet entitled A Lost Art: Play-Party Songs and Games of Hope Texas.


Protest refers to any event or action undertaken with the purpose of making a statement about something happening in society. Protest can be used to influence public opinion, share information on an issue, push forward public policy or legislation and provide inspiration and support for people passionate about specific causes.

Music has long been used as a form of political protest, and activists continue to use music today as an effective form of motivation and inspiration for change in their society. Successful protest songs utilize various instruments while being performed by musicians who are committed to political engagement.

In the 1960s, protest music enjoyed increasing popularity due to both civil rights movements and anti-war protests. Artists like Bob Dylan and the Byrds played an instrumental role in making folk music more approachable for wider audiences; their influence from rock and roll also helped make folk music more appealing among young people.

Protest artists from the 1960s often wrote songs about politics and social justice; these songs provided a way for people to connect during times of national or international tension, providing comfort.

During the civil rights movement, musicians frequently sang about issues like racism and poverty in America. These songs created a sense of unity among individuals while giving hope that change was possible.

Some of the greatest protest songs ever written were composed in the 1960s and remain influential to our culture today. Many of these songs focus on racism or feminism while also exploring more general topics pertinent to modern life.

Black Lives Matter movement has inspired numerous protest songs in recent years that tackle issues of racial injustice and criminal justice system inequity.

Norway’s protest movement was ignited by events like the mass killing of right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011. These songs demonstrate that protesting through music can make an effective contribution to society.

Union Songs

Union songs have long been an integral component of class struggle, uniting workers through collective chants and songs of inspiration. Some were written over 100 years ago yet continue to inspire strikers today as a source of strength against corporate power.

At the close of the 19th century, working people gathered in churches and union halls to sing protest songs that helped them cope with harsh working conditions. Many songs adapted from Baptist hymns or folk tunes still echo this tradition today, providing union members a means of finding unity while also commemorating heroes who made an impactful statement through song.

Songs about women and children’s plight were often featured in these songs. A textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in January 1912 became known as the Bread and Roses Strike after Helen Todd made a speech which included this phrase.

“Which Side Are You On?” is one of the enduring symbols of American labor movement, originally written by Florence Reece from Kentucky and popularized by Freedom Singers to reflect civil rights battles. Initially depicting a boy asking his mother which side she is on in a civil war conflict, later revised by Freedom Singers reflect their fight for Civil Rights.

Folk music also experienced a revival during the 1930s following the stock market crash and workers being dislocated from their homes. Migrant workers from the dust bowl found work opportunities in California and New York State and used folk music as entertainment as they sought employment opportunities elsewhere.

At this time, folk artists and musicians were predominantly concentrated in Greenwich Village; its community was comprised of individuals representing diverse races, cultures, classes and traditions. Folk music served as a counterculture movement that sought more authentic forms of expression; this was also when Sing Out! was established with its resource center that collected recordings, books, periodicals photos etc to preserve and foster folk tradition for everyone involved in its community.