What Is Folk Music?

folk music what is it

Many who identify with folk music nowadays forgo academic definitions in favor of taking a broader view. They subscribe to magazines dedicated to folk music, listen to radio programs dedicated to folk and attend folk-related events.

Contemporary folk songs draw upon both traditional music and rock influences to craft songs that address social issues or express common experiences, or celebrate specific occasions like birthdays and holidays.


Folk music has its roots in oral traditions passed on orally from generation to generation, while popular music is typically produced by professional musicians with mass media distribution as its means. Folk music can often be found in rural communities but is also widely popular in urban environments; its genre can encompass both traditional and contemporary forms.

Folk music has historically served as a means of preserving and commemorating culture, from America and England, as well as being used to protest social injustices or war. Since its inception, several artists have adopted and brought folk music into contemporary times.

Folk music consists of ballads and narrative songs accompanied by instruments or simply sung without accompaniment. Harmonies often use simple chord progressions while the lyrics often explore love, myths or legends. Examples of folk music include sea shanties, jigs and hornpipes; it has even been integrated into other genres for creating musical fusions.

Folk music in the United States emerged through a convergence of cultures. Beginning with work songs performed by African slaves in the South that later transformed into gospel spirituals after emancipation, folk music spread by way of frontier settlement and lumbering operations up through Canada and even into modern-day pop music.

Folk music gained widespread acclaim during the Great Depression, giving hope and encouraging workers to leave rural areas for cities where there would be an end to poverty. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger played key roles in leading this movement.

While some may consider folk music to be outdated, its resilience has proven otherwise. Even now, small venues still host performances and younger audiences have taken an interest in its songs, singing about similar themes as 100 years ago like climate change and diversity.


Folk music varies greatly by culture. Over time, its style also tends to change as members of a community create their own versions of existing songs and modify existing lyrics to fit specific melodies. Although its precise method remains unknown, often combined words and musical lines from existing songs into one song by altering phrases or adding or subtracting lines from existing songs as well as rearrange lyrics in order to fit melodies specifically chosen for folk songs which often share characteristics like common scales or tune families and standard opening and closing formulas are employed in folk songs created in communities over time.

Folk music styles are typically shared between small groups of people and are an expression of everyday life in society. Less formal than art or popular music forms, folk songs tend to be used for community celebrations, work activities, games, enculturation and folk religion; folk songs may contain messages with social significance or are passed along from one generation to the next.

Folk songs differ from classical or popular music in that their musical lines are transmitted orally and learned through listening, which explains why many songs feature stories or verbal narratives as accompaniment. Furthermore, the lyrics tend to use simple language with repetitive rhymes.

As urban populations increased, folk songs gradually began incorporating elements from other cultures and musical genres. Immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland helped shape Appalachian folk music; on the other hand, African Americans developed their own form of folk music known as blues.

At the turn of the 20th century, folk music experienced a revival in America. A newly emerging genre called contemporary folk music combines acoustic instruments with emotive lyrics while drawing influence from different forms such as blues, country, and rock music.

Contemporary folk music has long been used as an activist vehicle. Pete Seeger’s “Wash the Damn Spoon” serves as a call-to-action on various social issues including environmental protection and racial equality. Additionally, songs have been created specifically to support political movements such as civil rights movements or antiwar protests.


Folk music has many influences that shape its style, from other musical genres and cultures, to political events and social changes – this can be seen through songs that incorporate themes of peace or civil rights into them.

Tradition dictated that folk music be passed along orally, through listening and copying from others who performed it. This type of learning would typically occur in small close-knit groups composed of family, friends, or co-workers – this method allowed songs to continually develop over time.

Example: Originally about mourning the death of someone close, a song may eventually evolve to include themes related to world peace or add more information regarding its circumstances of demise. This process makes defining what folk music actually entails so difficult.

However, the early 20th century saw a movement to collect and document folk music that began influencing composers who sought to incorporate folk elements into their compositions. Additionally, folk music also had a significant effect on modern forms of music like rock and roll which itself had its origins in traditional folk songs.

Folk music has experienced a resurgence of late. This trend can be attributed to its accessibility and enjoyment by all types of listeners, particularly working class people who share its appeal as entertainment and as an effective form of protest against economic and social changes such as war or peace, for instance Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger wrote songs criticising war while advocating peace; other folk singers such as James Taylor and Cat Stevens write songs about relationships, religion and the ever-shifting political climate – while many musicians support local independently owned businesses while supporting social change movements such as LGBT rights and civil rights campaigns against abuse as social change movements against oppression of any kind – both types are integral parts of society.


Folk musicians often connect with audiences by singing about issues that directly affect them and their communities, or being inspired by older musicians they’ve heard or even seen perform. Folk musicians also tend to write their own songs using traditional tunes or melodies as inspiration, often joining together in groups to sing traditional or compose new ones.

Folk songs encompass an expansive spectrum of subjects, from love and work to family relationships and funerals. Folk songs typically reflect the culture of a particular region or nation and often mark special moments such as birthdays, weddings and funerals with traditional tunes from that locale or nation. People also sing certain tunes during holidays such as Christmas or May Day to mark special events in their lives.

Traditional folk music was passed along orally within small communities such as families or tribes, until modern technology allowed recording and broadcasting music, leading to commercial artists adopting folk materials without changing its lyrics but maintaining its aesthetic qualities in order to promote themselves musically. This phenomenon took place throughout the 19th century with recordings and broadcasts becoming accessible, giving commercial musicians an avenue for using it for personal gain while using its foundation for future creations.

Folk music has long been an immensely popular form of musical expression in the 20th century. It has attracted musicians across genres and been influential on other forms. Renowned figures like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger embraced folk as their main medium; others, such as Joan Baez adopted its political leanings while performing it passionately; together these musicians advocated for peace, environmental concerns and labor rights.

Modern folk bands are highly talented groups who can craft beautiful music using acoustic instruments such as guitar and banjo, often adding traditional melodies as well as their own lyrics and harmonies to create stunning soundscapes. Furthermore, some folk musicians act as political activists by advocating for issues such as race and LGBT equality.

Folk music is transmitted by word-of-mouth and evolves over time through this communal re-creation process, according to researchers.

This musical tradition, commonly referred to as “traditional music”, was revitalized through the folk revival movement in the 1960’s. Urban professional singers such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger & Joan Baez popularized acoustic guitar performances of this style of traditional music through performances like those by urban professional singers Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger & Joan Baez who helped popularize it further.


Folk music can be broadly defined as tradition-based music passed down from generation to generation within a community, whether that community is local, regional, or national in scope. It often draws upon stories and legends with religious or spiritual meaning as well as political messages; traditionally many folk songs were performed by amateurs rather than professional performers but these days folk music industry professionals hold many positions including singer-songwriters, record label employees/agents/promoters etc…

Folk music’s origins can be difficult to pinpoint due to its long history of creation before recorded history could exist. Melodies were passed along orally while melodies learned ear by ear; lyrics created and changed over time through “communal re-creation”, making the genre truly unique.

Instrumental folk music was traditionally composed for dancing and made use of various instruments depending on its region and time of creation, including drums and other percussive devices. Sometimes polyphonic singing took place – multiple voices singing together – something still practiced by some countries today.

As the twentieth century neared, folk music gained in popularity and more professional artists got involved, spawning groups such as Weavers, Jimmie Rodgers and Burl Ives to gain widespread acclaim. Additionally, Hootenanny on ABC television network became commercialized, as did various folk-revival record companies that emerged.

In 1995, interviews and e-mail discussions were conducted with musicians, venue operators, record labels, managers and the moderator of the folk_music listserv – an e-mail discussion forum dedicated to folk music business professionals – for an examination of this community of folk music that transcends its appreciation of its music through business relationships as well as love of it. A common thread emerged: this folk music community connects individuals who love it not only through love for its sound but also business ties that unite its members.


Folk music serves a number of important purposes, from conveying cultural values and history, marking important events or celebrations (like weddings, funerals or births) or simply passing down traditions (it can easily be transmitted without written documents).

Many musicians use folk music as an expressive outlet and to connect with their audiences. Some musicians compose original tunes while others rely on classic melodies to share a story or relay a message – this direct communication with audiences makes folk music truly distinctive and often powerfully transformative in terms of communication and expression.

Folk music may feature songs with lyrics depicting historical or cultural events, like John Henry, a steel-driving hero who helped construct America’s railroad network. These tales aim to inspire listeners while creating positive social change; additionally, folk songs may share tales from everyday struggles within classes or cultures.

Folk songs are distinguished from one another not only by their lyrical content, but also by their melodic structure. Traditional tunes may feature short phrases with 8 bar repetition or more extensive melodies that are easy to remember and play – an essential characteristic of folk music as it allows its singer to share it with members of his community or other parts of the world.

Folk music generally features acoustic instruments like guitar and banjo; other possible accompaniment includes harmonica, dulcimer, fiddle or fiddle fiddle. On occasion however, electric instruments such as piano or synthesizer may also be employed.

Folk music, much like other forms of music, has always evolved and adapted with the times. This is particularly evident today thanks to streaming platforms that give folk musicians new platforms from which they can reach their audiences. Furthermore, this sudden popularity has allowed folk music to find new generations of fans that continue its legacy.


Folk music is an expansive genre that encompasses traditional songs and the reinvention of old tunes into new forms. Folk songs tell tales from everyday life with universal themes like love, death, rainstorms, sunbeams and hard work as its basis. Folk music can also serve as a form of political protest and often represents its performers’ political opinions; it’s an age-old tradition passed down through generations that speaks to its values beliefs and history in its performance.

Modern music has long incorporated folk styles, known as folktronica, freak folk or alternative folk. This amalgamation was especially prevalent during the 1970s due to popular singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young; thus this period is also known as the second folk revival.

Folk music has traditionally been spread orally through singing around camp fires, gathering places or living quarters. Traveling minstrels, settlers and migrant workers would bring it from region to region; schools, churches and community leaders often sang it as well, often sharing stories or imparting moral lessons through song.

At present, much of folk music can be heard both live in concert venues and broadcast radio stations, and recorded onto CDs or other media formats. While its styles differ considerably, folk typically includes acoustic instruments with simple chord progressions; its influence comes from traditional harmonies as well as speech rhythm. Folk singers include everyone from high and tense mountain singers to throaty black gospel vocalists with rough voices – they all contribute different vocal textures that add their own flavor.

Folk is derived from a Scandinavian word meaning ordinary people and is used to distinguish traditional music from elitist classical or religious art at this time. This movement gave ordinary people an outlet to express their emotions and beliefs through music – eventually evolving over time as society and politics changed, becoming part of our cultural heritage and offering insight into its past, present, and future.


Folk music draws influence from many genres of music, often being acoustic-based with traditional melodies mixed in with rock or jazz influences. Modern folk artists may perform solo or with other musicians; some write political protest songs while others compose love songs or stories about everyday life. Folk communities serve to support this musical genre – its members may include singer-songwriters, agents, record label employees and venue operators among many other positions.

Urban professional singers such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez popularized folk music during the 20th century through guitars, banjos and other traditional instruments; this revival only traced its roots further back; original folk tunes had long been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Folk music became increasingly influential as part of Civil Rights and trade union movements that utilized modified folk songs to further their goals. Additionally, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy used folk music as propaganda; modern socialist states used folk music as an unifying force that promoted patriotism.

Though folk music’s popularity may have diminished over the years, it remains alive and kicking today. Many singer-songwriters now perform folk songs; others have created hybrid genres combining elements of bluegrass, Celtic and country with folk. These fusion genres remain popular both within North America and Europe.

Great Big Sea from Newfoundland has released several albums that have garnered both critical and commercial success, mixing folk, celtic and country with modern pop.

Folk music may have diminished in its overall popularity over time, yet many younger people continue to embrace it. The 1990s witnessed a revival of folk music resurgence with performances by groups like Washington Squares, Suzanne Vega and the Knitters as well as singer-songwriters Miranda Stone and Steve Earle writing and recording folk inspired songs – not quite fitting the strict definition of folk but nonetheless part of an expansive folk community that extends well beyond most people’s expectations.