American Roots: A History of American Folk Music

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


American Roots is a comprehensive history of American folk music, from its origins to the present day. This book covers the music’s evolution, performers, and major influences.


Music has been a part of the human experience for as long as there have been people. It is a part of our everyday lives and has been used to express every emotion imaginable. American folk music is a genre that began in the 18th century with the settlers of North America. These settlers were primarily of British and Irish descent, and they brought with them the music of their homeland. This music was adapted to the new land, and it eventually developed into its own unique style.

The first American folk music was based on the traditional songs of the British and Irish cultures. These songs were passed down from generation to generation, and they often told stories of love, loss, death, and other aspects of life. They were sung at work, at play, and during religious ceremonies. As time went on, African Americans began to develop their own form of folk music. This music was heavily influenced by the music of Africa, and it often featured call-and-response singing, rhythmic dancing, and intricate guitar work.

Folk music continued to evolve in America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. It absorbed influences from other genres like blues, gospel, and country music. In the mid-20th century, a new form of folk music known as “protest music” began to gain popularity. This type of folk music was used to promote social change and protest against issues like war, racism, and poverty.

Today, American folk music is more diverse than ever before. It incorporates elements from all over the world, and it continues to evolve as new artists add their own unique perspectives.

The Origins of American Folk Music

American folk music is a genre that has its roots in the music of the American people. It is a genre that is defined by its history and its influences. American folk music has been shaped by the events and the people of the United States.

The British Isles

The origins of American folk music can be traced back to the songs of the English, Irish, and Scottish immigrants who settled in the United States during the colonial period. These songs were brought over with them and passed down through the generations. Many of these songs are still sung today.

The British Isles have a long history of folk music. It is said that the first folk song was written in England over a thousand years ago. Folk music has always been an important part of the British culture. It was used as a way to tell stories and pass down traditions from one generation to the next.

Folk music first began to gain popularity in America during the 18th century. At that time, many people were moving away from their homes in Europe and settling in America. They brought their traditional folk songs with them, and these songs soon became popular in America as well.

During the 19th century, American folk music began to evolve and change. A new style of folk music called “blues” began to emerge, and this style would go on to have a profound impact on American culture.


The origins of American folk music can be traced back to the music of Africa. African American slaves brought their musical traditions with them when they were brought to the Americas, and these influences can still be heard in modern American folk music. slave songs were often about religious or personal topics, and they were often used as work songs or for entertainment. Many of these songs were later adapted by white Americans, and they became popular folk songs that are still sung today.

The Americas

The first American folk music was brought over by the earliest settlers from England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. This music was a mix of religious and secular songs that were sung at work, during leisure time, or as part of religious ceremonies. As the population of the Americas grew, so did the variety of musical styles. African slaves brought their own musical traditions, which were incorporated into the folk music of the Americas. Native Americans also contributed to the growth of American folk music with their own unique musical traditions.

The Development of American Folk Music

Folk music in America has its roots in the music of the British Isles and Africa. American folk music is also influenced by the music of the Native Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Hispanics. The development of American folk music is a result of the melting pot of cultures in America.

18th Century

The 18th century saw the rise of a new form of American folk music: the ballad. Ballads were originally folk songs from Britain that were brought over to the United States by immigrants. These songs were often about love, loss, or murder, and they were typically sung by sailors, farmers, and other working-class people.

As Americans began to develop their own cultural identity, they began to adapt these ballads to fit their own experiences. This process of adaptation continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, as American folk music evolved to reflect the changing times.

19th Century

The first American folk music collections were published in the 18th century, but it was in the 19th century that folk music became one of America’s defining genres. The Civil War (1861-65) and the industrial revolution both had a profound impact on the development of American folk music. After the war, many southerners moved to cities in search of work, and they took their music with them. This led to a new form of folk music known as “blues,” which combined elements of African and European musical traditions. The blues would go on to have a profound influence on all forms of American popular music, from jazz to rock ‘n’ roll.

The industrial revolution also had a major impact on folk music. The rise of factories and the growth of cities led to a new form of folk music known as “industrial folk.” This type of folk music was characterized by its use of factory sounds, such as machines and steam whistles, as well as urban themes. Industrial folk would go on to have a significant influence on country music.

The late 19th century also saw the rise of another important form of American folk music: Mormon spirituals. These songs were religious in nature and were designed to be sung by large groups. Mormon spirituals would go on to have a significant influence on gospel music.

20th Century

In the early 20th century, with the rise of commercial recording and radio, a new kind of folk music began to develop. This new music was created by professional songwriters and composers who wrote songs that were intended to be published and recorded. This music was often very different from the traditional folk music of the previous centuries, and it did not always reflect the experiences or values of ordinary people. Nevertheless, it became very popular, and many of these songs are still sung today.

American Folk Music in the 21st Century

American folk music has been around for centuries, evolving and changing as the times dictate. In the 21st century, folk music has taken on a new meaning and is now more popular than ever. With the help of technology, folk music has been able to reach a wider audience and is now enjoyed by people all over the world.

The Revival of Folk Music

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, folk music enjoyed a resurgence due to its topicality (songs about hard times) and its message of hope. This was due in part to the work of folklorists like John Lomax and Alan Lomax, who collected and popularized traditional songs from across the country. The most famous performer of the period was Woody Guthrie, who sang songs about the Dust Bowl migration and labor rights. In 1940, he wrote “This Land Is Your Land,” which would become one of the most iconic American folk songs.

The 1950s saw a new wave of folk performers, including The Weavers, Lead Belly, Burl Ives, Odetta, and Pete Seeger. Seeger was a particularly important figure in the revival of folk music; in addition to performing and recording his own music, he founded The Folkways Recordings label, which helped to disseminate traditional music from around the world. He also co-founded The Newport Folk Festival, which became an important showcase for both established and up-and-coming talent.

The 1960s were a hugely influential period for American folk music, as performers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul & Mary helped to popularize “protest songs” that spoke out against social injustice. Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, while his “The Times They Are A-Changin'” captured the zeitgeist of counterculture youth. Music festivals like Woodstock featured folk performers alongside rock bands, further blurring the lines between genres.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in American folk music; artists like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes have incorporated elements of folk into their own unique sound. Meanwhile, traditionalists like Nanci Griffith and Iris DeMent continue to carry on the legacy of American folk music into the 21st century.

The Evolution of Folk Music

Folk music has been around since the beginning of American history, and it has evolved over time to reflect the changing cultural landscape. The term “folk music” is used to describe a wide range of musical genres, including old-time music, bluegrass, country, blues, and even rock and roll. Folk music is often passed down from generation to generation, and it has a strong tradition of being adapted and reimagined by each new generation of performers.

Folk music was traditionally used as a way to express social and political messages, and it continues to be used for this purpose today. Many folk songs have been adapted to fit the needs of contemporary performers, and new songs are constantly being written to reflect the concerns of modern society. Folk music is an important part of American culture, and it plays a significant role in the 21st century musical landscape.

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