What Is Folk Music?


I was sitting on a bus travelling home when I overheard a snippet of conversation about a current, well-known acoustic guitar picking singer-songwriter. One of the two in conversation described him as ‘folky’. This got me thinking. What does folk actually mean these days? Is it fair to lump hundreds of years of traditional music in with the electric guitars or acoustic strumming of current chart-topping pop singers?

Folk music takes its name from folklore, which was coined by the English antiquarian William Thomas to describe “the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes”. If you look at the characteristics of conventional folk music then we see a legitimate derivation.

Due to the fact its early performers were largely illiterate, folk music grew out of a strong oral tradition; songs were learned by heart and passed down generations. This led to inevitable adaptation, interpretation and change - and means that as a genre it has an inherent lack of stagnation. Its protean nature has led to songs being continually presented in new ways and its movement with the times is no radical modern phenomenon.

One of the main stages for folk songs was the workplace – in fields and amongst tradesmen. Agrarian workers often sung while they worked as a way of passing the time. It is in this rural backdrop that the hoe toting farm hand wailed out ballads about Robin Hood or an ill-fated fair maiden. Here too lies the archetypal lute playing inn frequenter who entertains alongside an ale soaked piper, tooting out tunes he learned from his father.

Folk was the music of the poor, and of the working classes. This raises the question of whether this contrast in lifestyle invalidates the millionaire starlets of the genre today. Well… In the early days of folk, music was class specific. This was down to a lack of social mobility and an inability of the lower classes to access more expensive instruments. It wasn’t a choice. There was also a rigid separation in the recreational pursuits of different classes that doesn’t exist today. People played either the instruments they had access to, or were confined to playing. I don’t think this really applies today.

The subject matter is dominated by historical events and personal plight. This is one way in which modern folk music is still true to its roots. Lyrically, ‘folk’ music has retained its characteristic simplicity and romanticism – a tonic to the ego-swollen songs that fill the charts and thump from radios in the 21st-century.

Folk music was hugely regional. The musical traditions of South England differ greatly to those in Scotland and even the northern counties, let alone Europe. Once recording was possible the development of folk music accelerated. Musicians were then able to draw inspiration from music that was different to their own and integrate foreign techniques into their compositions.

The fact that folk songs were historically learnt by heart and passed on through generations made the genre non-commercial. It was rarely performed on stage and there was no market for printed sheet music. For while the classical musician was compelled by convention to perform music exactly the way the composer intended, which entails the need for costly printed music, the folk musician was afforded liberties to adapt songs.

These criteria are what define traditional folk music: a genre played and performed for hundreds of years, and still performed today in its traditional and purest form. It is also the background for the word used to describe current variations.

The transition from traditional folk music to the commercially successful genre today began around 1890. Known as the first British folk revival, this period was characterised by a renewed interest in, and transformation of, the genre, led by British Intellectual, Cecil Sharp. He travelled around the world and collected, by way of recordings, examples of indigenous folk music. A great deal of his time was spent recording music in America. These recordings would prove to be a major influence on future folk compositions and made the songs accessible to the masses for the first time.

Sharp made an insightful prediction. He believed that folk music would undergo a process akin to natural selection - that competing variants would be whittled down according to the taste of listeners and players.

The second revival simmered through the 50’s and climaxed in the 60’s. In 1959 the Grammy Awards even created a ‘folk’ category. Here again Britain and American artists are at the forefront. Folk still embraced traditional music, but for the first time songwriters left the well-trodden path and explored virgin territory. It was from here that new sub-genres were created. Folk-rock was born, and the passage was epitomised by Bob Dylan. He began his career playing traditional songs, and some of his own compositions in a similar mold, but in 1965 he released ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ which saw the introduction of an electric guitar. ‘Going electric’ was seen as a bastardisation by his fans, and it lit a raging beacon in the music world. It was during this period that the contemporary folk music movement started, and when folk music began to become harder to define.

If you asked most current ‘folk’ artists who their inspirations were I expect that their list would be littered with greats from this era - probably nothing before. Bob Dylan will be high up. His once lover Joan Baez would be another strong candidate alongside Bert Jansch, Roy Harper and Paul Simon. Amongst these names were the first to use electric instruments in folk.

It wasn’t until the early 80s that traditional folk tunes began to appear in the charts. This was achieved by The Pogues, and later in the 90s by The Corrs – both inspired by Irish folk music.

Singer songwriters like the country-tinged Emmylou Harris and lyrical marvel Joni Mitchell dominated the 70s. By the 80s, folk had ventured far from its origins with genres like folk-punk appearing. Easy-listening artists like Kate Rusby and Canada’s best-selling band Great Big Sea took over the following decade. Despite some enthusiasm throughout this era, folk did not enjoy the popularity of its 60s hey-day.

Since the millennium, however, folk music has enjoyed a monumental turn if favour. This is particularly striking in light of the fact in this period the genre has undergone its greatest transformations yet. Indie-folk has been ever-present in the charts and giants such as Fleet Foxes, Noah & The Whale, Bon Iver and, most emphatically, Mumford & Sons, have driven the movement. The latter even won the Mercury Prize for best album in 2013, attesting to the genre’s mainstream popularity.

The rise of singer-songwriters - including the popstar whose ‘folk’ label inspired my initial pondering – have also characterised the past decade. These include chart-toppers like Laura Marling, Ben Howard and Ed Sheeran. Certainly the last two would raise the heckles of traditionalists. It has also seen synthesisers become almost de rigueur in certain corners.

Is it right for folk to appear in the genre classification of such artists? I think so. Music is not static. As Cecil Sharp correctly noted it is something that grows, develops and adapts. As we see in its past, it is a genre that has a history of willful bastardisation, welcomed change and where there is no standard. Modern folk has held onto the elements of traditional music that work. We still hear instrumentation that harks to a time without electricity. The banjo has seen a huge turn in favour (often accompanied by an unwashed white vest), fiddles are commonplace and, of course, acoustic guitars are in vogue. The songs tend to have simple rhythms that allow for a hearty foot thump, and vocally things have stuck too. Close and rich harmonies still provide the blood for folk music’s veins. These go alongside a lack of materialism in lyrics – the modern singers may not have just laid down their scythes, flopped down wearily after a long sunny days apple picking or fought a dragon, but that certainly won’t stop them fantasising, or pretending.

I think that the simplicity of folk music is a tonic to the stresses and relentless commercialisation of modern life. So, as it did in the beginning, it represents the mood of the people. Its development into incorporating modern musical methods is a natural and inevitable progression. If they had been able to surmount an immediate presumption of witchcraft I am sure that the early folk musicians would have been thrilled to put an electric guitar or a synthesiser to good use.

A revival is classified as a renewed interest and has always seen transformation. Folk music has seen a meteoric rise in popularity in the past decade and its boundaries have been pushed to a degree never seen before. Not yet has this movement been given such classification. Perhaps it is hard to get perspective while on the crest of a wave.