What Is Folk Music? - Definition, Artists & History

Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Explore the development of folk music, from the word 'Volk' to Dylan and beyond. We'll learn what folk was, what folk became, and what folk means today. Finally, we'll learn about who the important folks are in folk music.

Where Folk Came From

Folk music takes its name from the German word Volk, which essentially means 'the people.' Folk music came to be used derisively to refer to the music of the uncultured class of people. This differentiates folk music from the traditional European concert music, establishing the class conflict between the folk and the elite.

Woody Guthrie, 1943
Woody Guthrie

What is Folk?

The contemporary folk music genre is defined as a primarily English genre utilizing traditional, acoustic instruments. Commonly the topics involve the plight of the common people (folk), including depression, oppression, and war. As the genre developed from traditional folk music, the music came to be known more for its storytelling, regardless of instrumentation and musicality. Traditional folk music is commonly associated with folklore, and was transmitted orally. There is a strong nationalist component to the music, as it is largely associated with the national culture, rather than the artistic elite. Typical instrumentation includes acoustic guitars, banjo, fiddle, and accordion, accompanying a voice. More exotic (though equally common) instruments may include the dulcimer, a simple stringed lap instrument; the zither, another stringed lap instrument; and various percussive instruments.

Development of Folk Music From the 1930s to Early 1960s

The earliest folk musicians include Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jimmie Rogers, and Burl Ives. Of the four, Woody Guthrie in the 1930s is often seen as the first significant contributor to the genre. His earliest works focused on the plight of the working class in the Dust Bowl Midwest, and he and his music were largely associated with the far-left political spectrum (think socialists and communists).

One of the most prolific early folk musicians (prolific up until his death in 2014) was Pete Seeger. Much like Woody Guthrie, his music largely focused on the plight of protest music, aligning himself with the political left to the degree of being blacklisted as a Communist. Seeger was frequently associated with the civil rights movement as well, with his version of 'We Shall Overcome' becoming an anthem of the movement. Seeger was well known for involving the crowd (folk) in his performances, frequently turning 'concerts' into sing-alongs.

The Mid '60s to the 70s

Bob Dylan. Dylan's music wasn't particularly new or unique. It developed naturally in the genre, yet became truly transcendent. Dylan's primary importance to the genre was his ability to move it from a niche to the mainstream. His work was progressive, much like Seeger and Guthrie, to whom he was most frequently compared, yet he was not as controversial or even feared (by the establishment anyways) like they were. In 1965 Dylan broke from tradition and began using electric instruments (see his album Bringing It All Back Home). This marked an important transition into the use of electro-acoustic instruments, which though not entirely accepted at the time, continues to today.

The 60s had a number of musicians who, despite being largely successful within the genre, did not achieve the same mainstream notoriety that Dylan achieved. Joan Baez was Dylan's close friend and may have been one of the reasons he was so well known: she used to introduce him as the opening act at her shows. Donovan, the first of the popular folk musicians from England, came to be known as the London Dylan. Jody Collins was a powerful protest singer, though perhaps because of this she did not achieve the same commercial success. Her renditions of Seeger's Turn Turn Turn is well regarded, and she followed Dylan into electrics with her recordings of Beatles songs. Finally, there's Peter, Paul and Mary, whose renditions of Dylan's works, including Blowin' in the Wind and Don't Think Twice, It's All Right helped bring further recognition for Dylan and brought the genre further into the mainstream.

By the 70s folk music continued as a primary genre with both acoustic and electric acts, the most influential of which were Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas, Arlo Guthrie, and John Denver, though in reality each had taken the genre in entirely different directions, foreshadowing the subgenre development to come. The Mamas & the Papas were far more influenced by pop music than most of their predecessors, John Denver's music had a distinctly country sound, while Arlo Guthrie continued the traditional folk sound his father started in the early 30s.

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