A Brief History of Folk Music

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Folk music has been around for centuries, and it’s still as popular as ever. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at the history of folk music and how it has evolved over the years.

Origins of Folk Music

Folk music is a genre of music that is passed down orally from generation to generation. It is usually based on a particular region or culture. Folk music typically has a simple melody and is easy to sing. The lyrics are usually about real life issues such as love, loss, and work.

Pre-19th century

Folk music can be defined in many ways, but one common denominator is that it is music by and for the people. It is passed down orally, through playing and singing, and exists in many different cultures all over the world.

Folk music often reflects the traditions and values of a community. The songs can be about love, work, politics, or religion – anything that is important to the people who sing them. Many folk songs are passed down from generation to generation, and each singer adds their own unique interpretation.

Folk music has its roots in the oral traditions of every culture. In pre-literate societies, these traditions were used to pass down stories, news, and history from one generation to the next. As cultures began to develop writing systems, some of these oral traditions were preserved in writing. For example, Old Icelandic literature contains many folk songs that were originally passed down verbally.

The first written mention of folk music comes from Ancient Greece. The philosopher Plato wrote that Athenian youths would sing ballads while accompanying themselves on the lyre. Plato also said that these ballads contained moral lessons that could teach young people about virtue and vice.

During the Middle Ages, folk music was often used as a tool of political protest or social commentary. For example, the English ballad “Sir Patrick Spens” is about a Scottish nobleman who is sent on a dangerous mission by King Alexander III. The ballad criticizes Alexander for putting his own interests ahead of those of his people.

In America, folk music has its roots in the songs of European settlers as well as the music of Native Americans and African slaves. These early American folk songs were often about love, loss, work, or nature. One of the most famous American folk songs is “The House of the Rising Sun,” which tells the story of a brothel in New Orleans.

19th century

The term “folk music” came into use in the 19th century, but what we now call folk music has a long history that predates that label. For centuries, rural people in Europe and later North America sang songs for their own entertainment at work or play, or to accompany dance. These “folk” songs were usually about topics that were important to the everyday lives of the people who sang them: love, work, religion, and death. Many of these songs were passed down from generation to generation, and became an important part of the cultural heritage of the communities where they were sung.

Folk music began to be collected and documented in the 19th century by city-dwellers who were interested in the music of rural people. These “urban folklorists” often came from privileged backgrounds, and their collections reflect their biases and aesthetic preferences. Nonetheless, these collections are an important record of the musical traditions of ordinary people in Europe and North America before the advent of recorded sound.

One of the most influential folklorists of the 19th century was Francis James Child, who compiled a massive collection of more than 300 ballads from oral tradition. Child’s collection shaped subsequent understandings of what folk song was and how it should be performed. In general, folklorists of this period favored simple ballads with clear narratives over more complex songs with multiple characters or repeating refrains.

During the 20th century, with the rise of recording technology and mass media, traditional folk music began to change. Some folk musicians turned to commercial forms like country music or blues; others began to experiment with electric instruments and amplification; still others started to write new songs about modern life using traditional musical styles. These developments led some people to argue that “true” folk music no longer existed—that it had been corrupted by outside influences. Others argued that folk music was always evolving, and that these new versions were simply the latest stage in its development.

The Revival of Folk Music

In the 1960s, there was a renewed interest in folk music, which had been largely neglected since the early 20th century. This was partly due to the political climate of the time, as folk music was seen as a way to express protest or dissent. The popularity of folk music continued into the 1970s, with artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez becoming household names.

20th century

The first folk music revival began in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, and focused mainly on the music of rural whites of Appalachian and Ozark regions. This revival, which was inspired by a need to preserve traditional music as well as by a growing interest in things rustic and handmade, resulted in the creation of various folk festivals, such as the famous Grand Ole Opry, and helped to launch the careers of popular folk musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers and Woody Guthrie.

The second major folk music revival occurred in the United Kingdom during the 1950s and 1960s. This so-called “British Invasion” saw a wave of popular music groups, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, bringing British culture to America. At the same time, American folk musicians such as Bob Dylan were significantly influenced by British Invasion bands. The result was a cross-pollination of styles that resulted in some of the most influential music of the 20th century.

21st century

In the early 21st century, folk music enjoyed a revival in popularity. Younger musicians began to experiment with the genre, updating it for modern audiences while still maintaining its traditional roots. Folk music festivals also became popular again, providing a platform for both established and up-and-coming folk musicians.

The popularity of folk music has continued to grow in the 21st century, with many different subgenres and fusion genres emerging. Some of the most popular folk musicians of the 21st century include Sufjan Stevens, Mumford & Sons, and The Lumineers.

The Influence of Folk Music

Folk music has been around for centuries and has been influential in the development of other genres of music. Folk music is typically passed down from generation to generation and often has regional origins. Folk music often tells stories about the culture and history of the people who created it.

Folk music has had a significant impact on popular music, both in terms of style and content. Numerous folk songs have become pop hits, while others have been incorporated into pop songs or even transformed into entirely new pieces.

The most obvious examples are those songs that have been “covered” by pop artists. A cover version is simply a new recording of a song that was originally recorded by someone else. The term can apply to both folk and pop songs, but it is most often used in reference to pop songs. Cover versions are usually released by different artists than the original performers, but they can also be released by the same artist.

One of the most famous examples of a folk song being covered by a pop artist is Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” The song was originally released on Dylan’s 1968 album John Wesley Harding, but it was later covered by Jimi Hendrix and became a massive hit.

Other examples of folk songs that have been covered by pop artists include Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn!” (covered by The Byrds), Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (covered by many different artists), and The Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (covered by many different artists).

On society

Folk music has had a profound influence on society. It has been used to express political and social commentary, as well as to simply entertain. Folk music has been an important part of many cultures, and has even helped to shape those cultures.

Folk music often reflects the values and beliefs of the people who create it. In many cases, folk music is passed down from generation to generation, and can be seen as a way of connecting with one’s heritage. Folk music can also be used to express dissatisfaction with society or to comment on current events.

Folk music has often been at the forefront of social change. In the United States, for example, folk music played a significant role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Folk musicians such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie used their songs to raise awareness of important issues and to rally people to action.

Today, folk music continues to be an important part of many cultures around the world. It is a genre that is both deeply rooted in tradition and constantly evolving, reflecting the changing times in which we live.

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