Folk Music

Folk music includes both traditional music and the genre that evolved from it during the 20th century folk revival. The term originated in the 19th century, but is often applied to music older than that. Some types of folk music are also called world music. Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by customover a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. Starting in the mid-20th century, a new form of popular folk music evolved from traditional folk music. This process and period is called the (second) folk revival and reached a zenith in the 1960s. This form of music is sometimes called contemporary folk music or folk revival music to distinguish it from earlier folk forms. Smaller, similar revivals have occurred elsewhere in the world at other times, but the term folk music has typically not been applied to the new music created during those revivals. This type of folk music also includes fusion genres such as folk rock, folk metal, electric folk, and others. While contemporary folk music is a genre generally distinct from traditional folk music, in English it shares the same name, and it often shares the same performers and venues as traditional folk music.

From a historical perspective, traditional folk music had these characteristics:

  • It was transmitted through an oral tradition. Before the 20th century, ordinary farm workers and factory workers were usually illiterate. They acquired songs by memorizing them. Primarily, this was not mediated by books, recorded or transmitted media. Singers may extend their repertoire using broadsheets, song books, or CDs, but these secondary enhancements are of the same character as the primary songs experienced in the flesh.
  • The music was often related to national culture. It was culturally particular; from a particular region or culture. In the context of an immigrant group, folk music acquires an extra dimension for social cohesion. It is particularly conspicuous in immigrant societies, where Greek Australians, Somali Americans, Punjabi Canadians, and others strive to emphasize their differences from the mainstream. They learn songs and dances that originate in the countries their grandparents came from.
  • They commemorate historical and personal events. On certain days of the year, such as Easter, May Day, and Christmas, particular songs celebrate the yearly cycle. Weddings, birthdays, and funerals may also be noted with songs, dances and special costumes. Religious festivals often have a folk music component. Choral music at these events brings children and non-professional singers to participate in a public arena, giving an emotional bonding that is unrelated to the aesthetic qualities of the music.
  • The songs have been performed, by custom, over a long period of time, usually several generations.

As a side-effect, the following characteristics are sometimes present:

  • There is no copyright on the songs. Hundreds of folk songs from the 19th century have known authors but have continued in oral tradition to the point where they are considered traditional for purposes of music publishing. This has become much less frequent since the 1940s. Today, almost every folk song that is recorded is credited with an arranger.
  • Fusion of cultures: Because cultures interact and change over time, traditional songs evolving over time may incorporate and reflect influences from disparate cultures. The relevant factors may include instrumentation, tunings, voicings, phrasing, subject matter, and even production methods

In folk music, a tune is a short instrumental piece, a melody, often with repeating sections, and usually played a number of times. A collection of tunes with structural similarities is known as a tune-family. America’s Musical Landscape says “the most common form for tunes in folk music is AABB, also known as binary form”. In some traditions, tunes may be strung together in medleys or “sets.”