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Folk music
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Folk music

Folk music, in the original sense of the term, is music by and of the people. Folk music arose, and best survives, in societies not yet affected by mass communication and the commercialization of culture. It normally was shared and performed by the entire community (not by a special class of expert performers), and was transmitted by word of mouth.

During the 20th century, the term folk music took on a second meaning: it describes a particular kind of popular music which is culturally descended from or otherwise influenced by traditional folk music. Like other popular music, this kind of folk music is most often performed by experts and is transmitted in organized performances and commercially distributed recordings. However, popular music has filled some of the roles and purposes of folk music where it has replaced it.

Table of contents
1 Defining folk music
2 The appeal of folk music
3 Variation in folk music
4 The emergence of popular folk artists

Defining folk music


Armenian Folk Musicians

Because of the changing meaning of "folk music", people asked to define it give widely varying answers. When Gene Shay, co-founder and host of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, was asked to define folk music in an April 2003 interview, he gave an answer similar to the definition above: "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. [...] And folk music 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."

The jazz performer Louis Armstrong, is famously credited with saying, "All music is folk music, leastwise I ain't never heard a horse sing". This emphasizes the universality of people's love for music (which folk music also attests), and aptly expresses Armstrong's warm personal connection to his audience, but it also misses a distinction. Armstrong was not a folk musician, but a gifted performer within a sophisticated popular music tradition, which by his time had evolved to be very different from its folk origins.

The English term folk, which gained usage in the 18th century to refer to peasants or non-literate peoples, is related to the German word Volk (meaning people or nation). The term is used to emphasize that folk music emerges spontaneously from communities of ordinary people.

The appeal of folk music

The appeal of folk music is of a special kind, distinct from the appeal of classical or popular music. Typically, folk music lacks the technical sophistication and complexity that is often found in classical music and (to a lesser extent) in popular music. Yet the musical inventiveness of ordinary people, especially when acting together in a tight-knit musical community, should not be underestimated. Works of folk music are often experienced by modern listeners as extraordinarily beautiful or stirring. A particular virtue that often stands out in folk music is its purity: it often obtains exceptional aesthetic results from the simplest of musical means.

Variation in folk music

Music transmitted by word of mouth though a community will, in time, develop many variants, because this kind of transmission cannot produce word-for-word and note-for-note accuracy. Indeed, many traditional folk singers are quite creative and deliberately modify the material they learn.

Because variants proliferate naturally, it is na´ve to believe that there is such a thing as the "authentic" version of a ballad such as "Barbara Allen." Field researchers in folk song (see below) have encountered countless versions of this ballad throughout the English-speaking world, and these versions often differ greatly from each other. None can reliably claim to be the original, and it is quite possible that whatever the "original" was, it ceased to be sung centuries ago. Any version can lay an equal claim to authenticity, so long as it is truly from a traditional folksinging community and not the work of an outside editor.

Cecil Sharp had an influential idea about the process of folk variation: he felt that the competing variants of a folk song would undergo a process akin to biological natural selection: only those new variants that were the most appealing to ordinary singers would be picked up by others and transmitted onward in time. Thus, over time we would expect each folksong to become esthetically ever more appealing — it would be collectively composed to perfection, as it were, by the community.

Many feel, examining the folksongs that Sharp collected from traditional singers, that there is something to this theory. The Sharp material often shows a very striking, simple beauty, and there is little tawdry, cheap material that it might have temporarily picked up from external sources. This suggests that such material did indeed get "filtered out" by the collective efforts of the community. On the other hand, there is also evidence to support the view that transmission of folk songs can be rather sloppy. Occasionally, collected folk song versions include material or verses incorporated from different songs that makes little sense in its context. A perfect process of natural selection would not have permitted these incoherent versions to survive.

Stage II: Replacement of folk music by popular music

The pattern of urban influence on folk music was intensified to outright destruction as soon as the capitalist economic system had developed to the point that music could be packaged and distributed for the purpose of earning a profit--in other words, when popular music was born. It was around Victorian times that ordinary people of the Western world were first offered music as a mass commodity, for example, in the phenomenon of Music Hall.

The introduction of popular music was simultaneous with the latter part of the Industrial Revolution. This was a time of great change in lifestyle for the great body of the people, notably the migration of the old agrarian communities to the new industrial ones. It is likely that the resulting social disruption helped cut people's emotional bonds to their old folk music, and thereby helped the shift in taste toward popular music.

As technology advanced, succeeding generations became enticed with popular music in ever more accessible and desirable forms. Gramophone records became LPs and then CDs; the Music Hall gave way to radio, followed by television. With the ever-increasing success of popular music, the musical life of many individuals eventually ceased to include any folk music at all. Moreover, since popular music for most people is passive music (that is, listened to, but not created or performed), the overwhelming success of popular music also entailed a sharp decline of music as an active, participatory activity.

The emergence of popular folk artists

During the twentieth century, a crucial change in the history of folk music began. Folk material came to be adopted by talented performers, performed by them in concerts, and disseminated by recordings and broadcasting. In other words, a new genre of popular music had arisen. This genre was linked by nostalgia and imitation to the original traditions of folk music as it was sung by ordinary people. However, as a popular genre it quickly evolved to be quite different from its original roots.

Confusingly, popular (i.e., commercially-disseminated) music based on a folk tradition is called "folk music", no matter how different it may be from a folk music rooted in the community. As a result, some individuals in a modern society are unaware that folk music of the original variety ever existed.

The rise of folk music as a popular genre began with performers whose own lives were rooted in the authentic folk tradition. Thus, for example, Woody Guthrie began by singing songs he remembered his mother singing to him as a child. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Guthrie both collected folk music and also composed his own songs, as did Pete Seeger. Through dissemination on commercial recordings, this vein of music became popular in the United States during the 1950s, through singers like the Weavers (Seeger's group) and the Kingston Trio, who tried to reproduce and honor the work that had been collected in preceding decades. The itinerate folksinger lifestyle was exemplified by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a disciple of Woody Guthrie who in turn influenced Bob Dylan. Sometimes these performers would locate scholarly work in libraries and revive the songs in their recordings, for example in Joan Baez's rendition of "Henry Martin," which adds a guitar accompaniment to a version collected and edited by Cecil Sharp.

Many of this group of popular folk singers maintained an idealistic, leftist/progressive political orientation. This is perhaps not surprising. Folk music is easily identified with the ordinary working people who created it, and preserving treasured things against the claimed relentless encroachments of capitalism is likewise a goal of many politically progressive people. Thus, in the 1960s such singers as Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan followed in Guthrie's footsteps and to begin writing "protest music", particularly against the Vietnam War, and likewise expressed in song their support for the civil rights movement. Such songs were newly written, but took their instrumentation and stanza forms from folk tradition.

In Ireland, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem; (although the members were all Irish born, the group became famous while based in New York's Greenwich Village, it must be noted), The Dubliners, Clannad, Planxty, The Chieftains, The Pogues and a variety of other folk bands have done much over recent years to revitalise and repopularise Irish traditional music. These bands were rooted, to a greater or lesser extent, in a living tradition of Irish music, and they benefitted from collection efforts on the part of the likes of Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy, among others.

The blending of folk and popular genres

The experience of the last century suggests that as soon as a folk tradition comes to be marketed as popular music, its musical content will quickly be modified to become more like popular music. Such modified folk music often incorporates electric guitars, drum kit, or forms of rhythmic syncopation that are characteristic of popular music but were absent in the original.

One example of this sort is contemporary country music, which descends ultimately from a rural American folk tradition, but has evolved to become vastly different from its original model. Rap music evolved from an African-American inner-city folk tradition, but is likewise very different nowadays from its folk original. A third example is contemporary bluegrass, which is a modified development of American old time music.

As less traditional forms of folk music gain popularity, one often observes tension between so-called "purists" or "traditionalists" and the innovators. For example, traditionalists were indignant when Bob Dylan began to use an electric guitar. His electrified performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was to prove to be an early focal point for this controversy.

Sometimes, however, the exponents of amplified music were bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span who saw the electrification of traditional musical forms as a means whereby to reach a far wider audience, and their efforts have been largely recognised for what they were by even some of the most die-hard of purists.

Since the 1970s a genre of "contemporary folk", fuelled by new singer-songwriters, has continued to make the coffee-house circuit and keep the tradition of accoustic music alive in the United States. Such artists include Steve Goodman, John Prine, Cheryl Wheeler, Bill Morrisey, and Christine Lavin. Lavin in particular has become prominent as a leading promoter of this musical genre in recent years. Some, such as Lavin and Wheeler, inject a great deal of humor in their songs and performances, although much of their music is also deeply personal and sometimes satirical.

Traditional folk music forms also merged with rock and roll to form the hybrid generally known as folk rock which evolved through performers such as The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, and many others. More recently the same spirit has been embraced and expanded on by performers such as Ani Difranco. At the same time, a line of singers from Baez to Phil Ochs have continued to use traditional forms for original material.

A similar stylistic shift, without using the "folk music" name, has occurred with the phenomenon of Celtic music, which in many cases is based on an amalgamation of Irish traditional music, Scottish traditional music, and other traditional musics associated with lands in which Celtic languages are or were spoken (regardless of any significant research showing that the musics have any genuine genetic relationship; so Breton music and Galician music are often included in the genre).

Folk music is still extremely popular among some audiences today, with folk music clubs meeting to share traditional-style songs, and there are major folk music festivals in many countries, eg the Port Fairy Folk Festival is a major annual event in Australia attracting top international folk performers as well as many local artists.