The Best of 19th Century Folk Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


A look at the best of 19th century folk music, including artists like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger.

The Origins of Folk Music

Folk music has been around since the 19th century and has continued to evolve and change throughout the years. The term “folk music” is used to describe a wide variety of music that is passed down orally from person to person. Folk music is usually created by people who have a strong connection to their culture and heritage.

The British Isles

The folk music of the British Isles has been shaped by a number of factors, from the energy of its people to its long and varied history. The diverse nature of the Isles, with numerous languages and dialects, has also played a role in shaping the music.

The folk music of the British Isles is often divided into two categories: Celtic and Anglo-Saxon. Celtic folk music includes the music of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, while Anglo-Saxon folk music encompasses the music of England and Scotland. There is also a strong influence from the United States, particularly in the Celtic-influenced music of Appalachia.

The United States

Folk music in the United States is often associated with Appalachia and the music that comes from that region. Appalachian folk music is a blend of many different influences, including English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and African-American music. This type of folk music is usually played on acoustic instruments, such as guitars and banjos, and often uses simple melodies with lots of repetition.

One of the most iconic American folk songs is “Down in the valley,” which was first recorded in the early 1900s. This song is about a young woman who is waiting for her lover to return to her.

“Down in the valley”

Down in the valley where the green grass grows
There’s a young maiden waiting for her true love
She’s been waiting for him all of her life
And she’ll wait forever more

If you go down to the valley you will find her there
She’s looking for her love who has gone away
And she’ll wait forever more

The Development of Folk Music

The 19th century was a time of great transition for the world of folk music. With the Industrial Revolution came new technology and new opportunities for music to be heard by a wider audience. This led to the development of new styles of folk music, such as the blues and country music.

The 18th Century

The 18th century was a time of great change in Europe. The feudal system began to break down and the middle class began to grow. This led to a rise in nationalism and individualism. People were no longer content to be part of a community; they wanted to express their own identity.

This individualism was reflected in the music of the time. Composers began to write music that was more personal and expressive. The focus shifted from communal music-making to individual performance.

One of the most important changes was the development of public concerts. Previously, music had been mostly private, performed in people’s homes or at religious events. But now, thanks to the rise of the middle class, there was a new market for public concerts. This gave composers an incentive to write more accessible, pleasing music that would appeal to a wider audience.

The most popular genre of the time was the opera. Opera was a combination of drama, scenic effects, and music. It was originally developed in Italy, but it quickly spread throughout Europe. Opera became increasingly elaborate and expensive, and it soon became clear that only the wealthy could afford to see it performed.

As opera became more inaccessible, people turned to other forms of entertainment, such as Punch and Judy shows, acrobats, and street musicians. These performers were often from humble backgrounds, and their music reflected their everyday lives. This is how folk music began to develop in the 18th century.

The first folk songs were probably simple ballads that told stories about love, loss, or heroism. These songs were passed down from generation to generation by oral tradition. As they were handed down, they changed and evolved over time.

During the 19th century, folk music continued to evolve and change. New instruments were introduced from other cultures, such as Africa and Asia. And as people increasingly moved to urban areas in search of work, they brought their folk songs with them

The 19th Century

The nineteenth century was a time of enormous change in the world of folk music. With the Industrial Revolution came new opportunities for travel and cultural exchange, and folk music began to evolve into new styles.

One of the most important changes was the development ofprint culture. For the first time, song lyrics and melodies could be widely distributed in printed form, which had a profound impact on the way folk music was spread and disseminated. This period also saw the rise of professional songwriters, who began to create songs specifically for commercial purposes.

During the 19th century, folk music underwent a significant transformation from its largely rural origins to become an integral part of urban popular culture. This process was driven by socioeconomic changes such as industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

As folk music became increasingly commercialized and commodified, it also began to lose some of its traditional associations with rural life and working-class culture. Nevertheless, folk music remained an important part of people’s lives throughout the 19th century and continues to be enjoyed by many people today.

The Characteristics of Folk Music

Folk music is a genre of music that is typically passed down orally from generation to generation. Folk music is usually related to the traditions and culture of a certain group of people. The 19th century was a time of great change and Folk music reflected this.


Folk music often contains elements of the everyday lives of the people who compose and sing it. This is especially true of the lyrics, which are usually about love, work, play, and other aspects of daily life. Many folk songs are also about important events in history, such as wars, famines, and emigration. The best folk songs are those that combine all of these elements to create a vivid picture of the lives of the people who sing them.


Folk music, like any other type of music, is made up of melody, harmony and rhythm. But what distinguishes folk music from other genres is its emphasis on the individual voice and the importance of the melody.

The melody in folk music is usually simple and repetitive, making it easy to remember and sing. This is one of the reasons why folk songs have been passed down through the generations. Many traditional folk songs are based on a “call and response” format, where the singer or a group of singers will sing a line or phrase and then be answered by another singer or group.

The melody is often improvised or embellished as it is being sung, giving each performance its own unique flavor. This spontaneity is one of the things that makes folk music so special. It’s also one of the reasons why it can be difficult to transcribe a folk song from memory – there are often no two versions that are exactly alike.


Folk music is usually based on a single melody, with simple or no harmony. This is because folk musicians typically improvise or compose as they play, rather than performing a piece they have memorized. In some cases, a folk musician will learn a song from another musician and add his or her own twists to it, making it slightly different each time it is performed. This improvisation and reinterpretation is part of what gives folk music its unique character.

The Influence of Folk Music

During the 19th century, folk music was a way for people to express their culture and heritage. The music was passed down from generation to generation, and it was often used as a form of entertainment. Folk music has had a significant influence on the development of other genres of music, and it continues to be popular today.

On Other Genres of Music

It would be impossible to overstate the influence of folk music on other genres, particularly rock and roll. Early rock musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez were all heavily influenced by folk music, and the genre has continued to exert a significant influence on popular music in the ensuing years. Folk music has also been an important source of inspiration for classical composers, with many famous pieces being based on traditional folk tunes.

On Society

Folk music has had a profound influence on the development of Western society. It has been a major force in shaping the social, political, and economic institutions of our world.

Folk music has been used to promote and celebrate the values of social groups, to build community spirit, and to give voice to the concerns of marginalized groups. It has also been used as a tool of protest and change. In recent years, folk music has been used to promote peace and tolerance, and to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Folk music is an important part of our heritage, and it continues to play a vital role in our world today.

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