History of Folk Music
The generally accepted definition of folk music, (I believe), has changed considerably over time. Folk music, in the strictest definition, is a traditional style of music, that is music performed and passed on from one generation to the next. The content was more of local tradition; customs, history, folklore, lesson oriented, the occasional slightly glamorized story of a larger than life local character, and later protest music. In this sense folk music has been around as long as people have inhabited the planet.
One definition (from 1980) states that folk music is simple music by simple people, while that may have been true of this genre at some point in the past, (probably when we were all "simple"), I believe this definition is a little condescending in the wake of the changes that have occurred over the generations, a more generally accepted definition is "the music of the working class".
Gene Shay, co-founder and host of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, defined folk music in an April 2003 interview by saying: "In the strictest sense, it's music that is rarely written for profit. It's music that has endured and been passed down by oral tradition. Also, what distinguishes folk music is that it is participatory—you don't have to be a great musician to be a folk singer. And finally, it brings a sense of community. It's the people's music."
All music regardless of the genre can be traced back to folk music, as this was the original form that music took on at the beginning and everything since has merely been an evolution of sorts. Jazz musician Louis Armstrong and blues musician Big Bill Broonzy have both been attributed with the remark, "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song." The only real difference is that "folk" music does not generally enjoy the same commercial success as the other genres, success being measured in "Air time and Record Company Promotion. This lack of commercial success may be due in part to that "simple" tag, or the fact that anyone, regardless of musical prowess, can express themselves in the realm of folk music, thereby lending an mistakenly amateurish atmosphere to the style.
No one can deny that Folk music, lacking the glamour and glitz, is still an extremely popular form of music, as can be witnessed by the abundance of coffee houses throughout the world, whether they be the traditional "hole in the wall, or an avante garde Starbuck-esque cafe". Another possible reason for the lack of acknowledged commercial success for the genre is due partly to the fact that as soon as a "folk musician" gains popularity, they are quickly whisked away to the realm of Pop Music, shedding the Folk Musician tag for Pop Artist, Country, Alternative, Soft Rock/Easy Listening, even Punk. These genres are heavily populated with folkies who made the crossover from the coffee house to the larger venues.
The origin of Folk Music is in the distant past, but its evolution has been affected by multi-cultural influences spanning the globe, and while each culture still maintains its own unique local flavor, they all in turn contributed to the recipe that brewed the current folk scene. This brewing of cultural influences started when the modes of travel became more accessible and less time consuming, allowing for a greater range of cultural exchange in an ever decreasing span of time. It reached its culmination with the advent of radio and television, which virtually eliminated the constraints of time and distance. This was the case in the 1920's when radio allowed for a wider audience and the content of the music went from localized to nationalized, and it's content began encompassing the more socially pressing issues of the time.
In the 1920s through the '30s the struggle of the American workforce for decent working conditions, child labor laws, and, of course, the great depression, all gave rise to a surge in folk music as a means to protest these conditions and get the word out through song. Workers and folk-singers would gather in the churches and union halls and sing this protest music as a way of proclaiming unity, or to help them cope with the difficult times.
Joe Hill, an early folk-singer, and union organizer, combined old religious hymns with new verses that were pertinent to the current labor struggles, and these became the rallying cries of the striking workforce. Joe Hill was born October 7, 1879 as Joel Emmanuel Hägglundand. He was a Labor activist, songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. He died by firing squad on November 19, 1915 for murder committed during an armed robbery. There are serious doubts that he was actually guilty of the crime, and he proclaimed his innocence until the end. His only crime mayhave benn being a member of the IWW.
The stock market crash and the hard times that followed gave birth to singers like Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Pete Seger, all of whom furthered the use of folk music as a medium for social protest, and as a rallying cry for those seeking social reform. One could literally gauge social conditions by the popularity of folk music, as the next big surges in the genre came with the struggle for civil rights, the protest of US involvement in Viet-Nam, and the current middle eastern wars.
While the '30s, '40s brought us Guthrie, Rodgers, Seger, Hill, the social issues of the '50s '60s' and '70s, brought us Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley, Bill Spence, Tom Paxton and many others, each following Guthrie's footsteps and writing "protest music" and socially pertinent songs.
Phil Ochs was a singer-songwriter during the 1960's. He was a contemporary musician, (and friend), of Bob Dylan. He was a prolific writer of protest songs such as Draft Dodger Rag, and Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends. His writing diminished by the end of the 60's after 7 albums. He wrote little in the 70's and, sadly, took his own life in 1976.
Bob Dylan probably did more than anyone to bring folk music to the forefront during this period by transcending the genre barrier and receiving a great deal of air-play on the radio stations. By the mid '60s folk music had gained such a following that TV aired shows like "Hootenanny", and "The Smothers Brothers" which helped popularize Folk Music even more.
Many of Bob Dylan's songs were re-recorded by bands such as the Byrds, who electrified the music and were at the forefront of the Folk-Rock movement which also gave us Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, The Mamas & Papas, and others who brought a fresh approach to the music.
Groups like The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver, Poco, and CSN&Y all found a niche in this arena by playing older traditional songs with a new sound and new songs with the older styling's of folk, bluegrass, and country. Bluegrass and Country themselves having roots planted firmly in the traditions of folk music.
As the American folk movement grew so did the Canadian folk movement, bringing us performers like Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, and Stan and Garnet Rogers, to name a few. The European Folk movement, not to be left behind, gave us Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Jorma Kaukonen, Richard Thompson and the like.
The current Folk music scene is quite active with revivals and festivals appearing around the US, Canada, and Europe, and many of the performers achieving the notariety they richly deserve for carrying on and adding to the immense body of folk music available today.
The Indigo Girls, Nanci Griffith, Richard Thompson, Christine Lavin, Ferron, Floggin Molly, Enter The Haggis, Greg Brown, Judy Collins, and many, many others are keeping the music alive and well.
Folk continues to evolve in the current Alternative Music scene, and through the recycling influence of the "matured" music styles to which it originally gave birth. Folk Music has had it's highs and lows in popularity, but has always remained as a foundation of the music scene, from the original appearance of American folk music in the slave fields, through the protest music decades and into the future, it will always be a part of us, and if the world collapsed tomorrow, Folk Music would be the first to arise like the Phoenix from the ashes.
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