What Is Folk Music For Short?

Folk music originated from oral tradition within communities or families and generally had rural origins.

Francis James Child and Cecil Sharp were legendary folk musicians of their day who collected songs for future generations to hear, although today this definition is much looser: any song which tells a tale and is played live by amateur musicians can be considered folk music.


Folk music aims to promote community rather than entertainment or profit. It typically relies on acoustic instruments like guitar, banjo, piano or fiddle (folk word for violin) for accompaniment and uses simple melodies and narrative verse with themes including love, work history and politics as well as themes relating to love, work, history and politics as well as nonsense or satire. Folk music can be an important political force; for example it has advocated peacekeeping, environmental protection, workers rights protection and minority rights issues among other issues; in America folk singers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie continue singing their songs about working people, poverty and social injustice which are still being performed today.

Folk musicians were once an attractive form of entertainment, garnering wide acclaim as they roamed villages, camps and living quarters performing folk songs that people came out to hear or pass through. Travellers from other areas or countries would also hear these musicians perform. Folk music’s flexibility makes it adaptable and allows it to evolve or even be reinvented with every group that hears and sings it – making the genre perfect for its time period and audience!

Re-creation is one of the hallmarks of folk music that gives it its unique sound, setting it apart from other genres of music. Folk themes have even crept their way into classical compositions like Antonin Dvorak’s works.

Music of this genre is also highly versatile, readily combining with different genres – an example being the legendary 1960s Laurel Canyon scene that saw folk combined with rock, jazz, world music and psychedelia to great effect – Joni Mitchell, Crosby Stills and Nash all hailing from this timeframe.


Folk music can be defined in various ways, with one popular definition being traditional music that has not been written down and therefore lacks an identifiable composer. This differs significantly from classical or commercial music genres. Furthermore, this genre often evolves organically through communal re-creation with songs or tunes evolving over time due to accidental or creative modifications by performers.

Folk music was first popularly understood to refer to a group of tunes that originated with the folk revival movement, although its roots go much deeper back. Examples can be found all across the world from traditional Indian music and choral singing a cappellas, to Celtic fiddles and African tribal drumming.

Folk music conjures images of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez or Neil Young when most people think about its creators; however, contemporary musicians also create folk music, with influences being found across genres of music. Their themes tend to focus around personal experiences as well as universal truths or social comment.

Performers of these songs usually employ some form of acoustic instrumentation such as guitar, ukulele, banjo or flute to add authenticity to their sound. Other instruments may include vocals and acoustic percussion.

Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Buffy Sainte-Marie were among the earliest and best-known folk musicians. More recently, artists like Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom and Bon Iver have expanded upon folk traditions while remaining true to it – one example being Joanna Newsom’s soprano voice floating gently above a harp while creating an entrancing dreamscape filled with poetic metaphors and fantasies on “Sprout and the Bean” from Joanna Newsom’s song.


Folk songs, whether written decades ago or updated to address contemporary issues, remain deeply pertinent today. A modern rendition of an older folk classic such as Blaze Foley’s ‘Clay Pigeons’ — who tragically passed away just months after recording this track celebrating life’s ups and downs — offers another reminder.

Folk music serves as an oral history for its community, preserving their history, beliefs, and customs through storytelling, moral teachings, historical events reenactment and creating a sense of belonging among its listeners. It serves as an oral history repository that keeps family traditions alive while serving to foster identity among its listeners.

Many songs from different regions share similar harmonies while featuring unique tunes that differ based on where they originate, due to various modes available on musical instruments like tetratonic scale (four notes per octave) and pentatonic scale (5 notes per octave). As time progresses, variants of one song develop further becoming part of its tune family.

Folk music has often been employed as part of movements for change or nationalist ideology in modern times. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy used folk music extensively; similarly civil rights activists in America and trade unionists in Britain employed it.

Contemporary folk musicians utilize an assortment of instruments in their performances, such as an acoustic guitar, banjo, violin or fiddle and other stringed instruments such as mandolin or mandola to perform their art. While some performances remain entirely acoustic others incorporate elements of rock music or other styles into their performances. A new wave of folk artists has reinterpreted older tunes for 21st-century audiences through albums like ‘Songs Without Authors Vol 1’ by artists such as Molly Linen Katy J Pearson Junior Brother Yorkston Thorne Khan Rosa Zajac and Lankum among many others.

Protest songs

Folk songs have long been associated with social and political movements. From Robin Hood ballads to hip hop tunes, folk songs often express an expressed plea for justice or fairness while also rallying the masses against oppressive governmental or corporate power structures.

Though many of these songs may seem outdated by modern standards, they remain effective at raising awareness to important issues. While three-minute tunes won’t change the world overnight, they can help increase consciousness and give voice to those who may otherwise remain voiceless.

Folk music offers songwriters great room for experimentation and creativity. This genre can range from subtle, haunting pieces to boisterous songs that bite, giving musicians plenty of room to express themselves while drawing upon an ancient musical history. Furthermore, while some folk artists may be considered politically conservative or traditionalist; others can be liberal or progressive; this was especially evident during the last “Folk Revival,” when artists like Bob Dylan refocused pop music’s focus onto pertinent current crises.

Although it can be hard to define what makes music “folk”, most agree that any tune which conveys a story or takes a stand on an issue can fall under this genre. Folk music continues to remain popular today among a diverse set of listeners and has left an indelible imprint on our collective cultural memory and lives of its listeners. Nick Noble currently serves as Communications Manager and School Historian for St. Mark’s School (SM Class of 1976) while simultaneously publishing seven books such as Brantwood Camp History and The Town of Southborough History as well as hosting The Folk Revival Show on WICN (Worcester Public Radio).


Folk music can be difficult to describe; most will agree that you simply know it when you hear it. Yet there are some key characteristics shared among all folk songs: an emphasis on community involvement and storytelling ability as well as political statements or topics of controversy. Harmonies add another dimension that makes the music beautiful and emotionally impactful; these harmonies may come from multiple singers layering their voices or simply by using echo effects with vocal chords for added effect.

Start creating a folk song by crafting its melody. Make sure that its sound complements the lyrics and can easily be sung. Lyrically, folk songs often use vivid images or metaphors to convey their messages about social issues or cultural phenomena.

Many folk musicians are focused on issues related to environmental protection, labor rights, racial equality and sociopolitical issues that impact larger society like poverty and war. Additionally, folk music often forms part of rituals or festivals – for instance choral folk music can bring family and friends closer together at weddings or funerals by performing at these occasions.

If you’re new to folk music, finding and joining a folk session near you is an excellent way to learn an instrument and meet like-minded folkies. Websites such as UKSessions provide useful searches by location; Google will also likely help you locate one near your location – you are bound to find something suitable!