A Brief History of British 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 origins and evolution of British folk music, from its Celtic roots to its modern form.


Music has always been an important part of British culture. Folk music is particularly significant, as it is often seen as the music of the people. It is passed down from generation to generation, and each region has its own unique style. Let’s take a look at the origins of British folk music.

Celtic music

Celtic music is a broad grouping of music genres that evolved out of the folk music traditions of the Celtic people of Western Europe. It refers to both orally-transmitted traditional music and recorded music and the styles vary considerably by region. Celtic music has been influenced by both native and foreign influences.

The term “Celtic music” is a rather vague one, as it covers such a wide range of musical styles that have developed over a long period of time in different parts of Europe. In general, however, Celtic music can be said to be characterised by its use of traditional melodies and harmonies, as well as its focus on the expression of emotions.

Celtic music has its roots in the folk music traditions of the Celtic people, who are thought to have originated in western Europe. The Celts were a group of tribes who occupied a large area stretching from present-day Spain to present-day Turkey. They are thought to have spoken a common language, which is now known as Celtic.

The first recorded mention of the Celts was made by Julius Caesar in his Commentaries on the Gallic War, which was written in the 1st century BC. In it, he described the Celts as “a race of people who are tall and fair-haired”.

Over time, the Celtic culture spread across Europe, and their music became popular in many countries. In Britain, for example, Celtic music was used by various military bands during World War I and World War II. In Ireland, meanwhile, it became an important part of the country’s national identity.

Today, Celtic music is enjoyed by people all over the world. It has been used in films such as The Lord of the Rings and Braveheart, and has been performed by many famous musicians including Bob Dylan and Enya.

Anglo-Saxon music

The music of the Anglo-Saxons is largely lost. What survives is mostly percussion instruments, such as the bone and wood Clapper sticks used for clog dancing, and a few other items such as a type of panpipe. Instruments were known by Anglo-Saxon names such as the scramasax (a type of sword), or the gemshorn (a type of horn made from an animal horn), or even the lyre.

Anglo-Saxon music was tunes played on stringed instruments, flutes, or drums, and was probably accompanied by singing. One musical instrument that has survived is the Anglo-Saxon harp which was very similar to Celtic and Germanic harps. The harp had between 19 and 26 strings and was held in the lap while being played. The player would use both hands to pluck the strings.

The Middle Ages

Folk music has been around since the Middle Ages. It was originally sung by peasants and workers as a way to pass the time and to tell stories. The songs were about everyday life and were often passed down from generation to generation. Folk music was a way for the people to express their feelings and emotions.


In the medieval era, professional musicians were known as minstrels. They performed songs that told stories of chivalry and romance and often accompanied their singing with instruments like the lute, harp, or pipe. Minstrelsy was extremely popular in England, and some of the most famous minstrels were known as “ wandering minstrels.” These musicians would travel from town to town, entertaining people with their music.

During the Middle Ages, many different types of folk music began to develop in different parts of Britain. In Scotland, for example, people began to play the bagpipes, a type of instrument that is still popular today. In Ireland, traditional folk music often includes the sound of the tin whistle. And in Wales, people have been singing folk songs in the Welsh language for centuries.

Troubadours and trouvères

Troubadours and trouvères were educated aristocrats who composed and performed lyric poetry about courtly love. They travelled from town to town, entertaining audiences with their music. Many of their songs were about unrequited love, and the pain of separation.

Their lyrics were often set to music, and some of the most famous troubadours wrote their own melodies. The most famous troubadour was Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300 – 1377). Troubadours and trouvères influenced the development of romantic music in the centuries that followed.

The Renaissance

Though often overshadowed in the popular imagination by the country’s classical and rock traditions, British folk music is a rich and vital part of the island’s musical heritage. Like folk traditions everywhere, British folk music has its roots in the music of the people, developed over centuries of oral tradition. In the late Middle Ages, as the first stirrings of the Renaissance began to be felt in England, the old folk traditions began to change.


Madrigals were a type of Renaissance music that was popular in England. They were usually written for four or five voices, and they often had a lot of complex counterpoint. Many of them were quite beautiful, and they were often about love or nature.

The English lute

The English lute is a type of plucked string instrument with a long neck and a body shaped like a half-pear. It is similar to the modern guitar, and was used in medieval and Renaissance Europe. The English lute was especially popular during the Elizabethan era, when it was used for both secular and sacred music.

In the early 1600s, the English lute began to fall out of favor, replaced by the more versatile viola da gamba. However, some lutenists continued to play the instrument, and it remained popular in England until the 18th century. By the 20th century, interest in the English lute had been revived, and today there are many players of the instrument around the world.

The Baroque era

English folk music is a musical tradition which dates back to at least the 13th century. It has been influenced by many other genres of music, including classical, rock, and pop. Folk music has been distinctively different from most other genres of music, due in part to its focus on storytelling and its use of traditional instruments.

The English Civil War

The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of connected conflicts in England, Scotland and Ireland. The main conflict was between the supporters of King Charles I (the Royalists or Cavaliers) and those of the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads). It also had a strong element of religious rivalry, as many Protestants supported Parliament, while Charles I and his family were strong Catholics.

The war began in England in 1642, when Parliament raised an army to oppose the king. In 1643, the royalists raised their own army in Scotland, and in 1644, they were joined by an Irish Catholic army. The three armies fought each other to a standstill until Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army won a decisive victory at the Battle of Naseby in 1645. This victory led to the collapse of the Royalist cause, and Charles I surrendered to the Scots in 1646.

The Scots then handed Charles over to Parliament, and he was tried and executed for treason in January 1649. Parliament then declared England to be a republic, known as the Commonwealth. This lasted until 1653, when Cromwell seized power and proclaimed himself Lord Protector.

The Protectorate was ended by Cromwell’s death in 1658, and his son Richard succeeded him. However, Richard was unable to control the army, which forced him to resign in May 1659. This led to a brief return to power for Charles II (the son of Charles I), but he was ousted by another army coup in December 1660. Parliament then passed an Act restoring land ownership to its pre-war levels, which effectively ended the era of absolutist monarchy in England.

The Restoration

The Restoration was a time of great change in England. The country had been through a civil war, the executions of King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, and the rule of Cromwell’s Puritan government. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, there was a mood of optimism and hope for the future.

One manifestation of this new mood was a revival of interest in music and the arts. The court composer Henry Purcell (1659-95) wrote some of the most beautiful and expressive music of the era, including his Fantasias for viols (a type of early string instrument) andhis operas Dido and Aeneas (1689) and King Arthur (1691).

Another notable figure from this period is John Playford (1623-86), who published The English Dancing Master in 1651. This book contained instructions for dances such as ‘The Gay Gordon’, ‘Grimstock’, ‘Old Wife behind the Fire’, ‘Sprigs of Thyme’ and many others. It went through 27 editions over the next hundred years and did much to popularize folk dancing in England.

The 18th century

Though often overshadowed in popular memory by the flashier sounds of Irish and Scottish traditional music, the English folk music scene has a long and storied history of its own. The 18th century was a particularly important time for the development of English folk music, as it saw the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the working class. This new social class brought with it a new wave of music, often adapted from existing songs and dances.

The rise of the glee

In the 18th century, the glee became a popular form of folk music. A glee is a song for multiple voices, usually three or more. The word “glee” comes from the Old English glīwan, which means “to sing.” Glees were originally sung by all male voice groups, but by the end of the century, mixed-gender groups were also singing glees. Many glees were written for special occasions, such as Christmas or harvest time. The Christmas carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is an example of a glee.

The Scottish Enlightenment

In the 18th century, Scotland experienced a period of significant social, economic, and intellectual change, known as the Scottish Enlightenment. This was a time when Scotland’s leading thinkers developed new ideas in science, philosophy, and art that had a profound impact on the Western world. A major factor in the Scottish Enlightenment was the country’s close links with France, which allowed for the free exchange of ideas between the two nations.

One of the most important aspects of the Scottish Enlightenment was its focus on reason and logic. This led to advances in many fields of knowledge, including medicine, mathematics, and engineering. The Scottish Enlightenment also stressed the importance of education and democracy. These ideals helped to shaping the modern world.

The Scottish Enlightenment had a strong influence on British folk music. Many of the songs that were popular during this period were written by Scottish poets and songwriters such as Robert Burns and Walter Scott. These songs often dealt with subjects such as patriotism, love, and nature. The folk music of this period was highly emotional and deeply moving. It continues to be an important part of Scottish culture today.

The 19th century

Folk music has been around since the beginning of time, with its roots in the oral tradition. In the 19th century, folk music was used as a way to express the working class experience. The Industrial Revolution had a big impact on folk music, as it brought about new technology and new ways of working. This led to a decline in traditional folk music, but also gave rise to new forms of folk music, such as Industrial Folk and Urban Folk.

The folk revival

The origins of the folk revival in Britain can be traced back to the 18th century, when a fashion for collecting and publishing folk songs began. This continued in the early 19th century with publications such as Joseph Ritson’s ‘Ancient Songs and Ballads’ (1790) and Thomas Percy’s ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’ (1765). However, it was not until the latter part of the century that the folk revival really began to take off.

One of the key figures in the revival was Cecil Sharp, who did much to popularize folk music through his work collecting and arranging traditional songs. Sharp’s work culminated in the publication of several important collections of folk songs, including ‘English Folk Songs’ (1907) and ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ (1911).

Another important figure in the revival was Vaughan Williams, who incorporated traditional tunes into his own compositions and also collected and edited several volumes of traditional music.

The folk revival reached its peak in the inter-war years, when there was a great surge of interest in traditional music. This was partly due to cultural factors, such as a yearning for a simpler way of life in the aftermath of World War One, and partly due to political factors, such as the rise of fascism and communism.

After World War Two, interest in folk music declined sharply, although there was a slight resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s. In recent years, there has been something of a renaissance in British folk music, with a new generation of performers taking inspiration from the traditions of the past.

The Victorian ballad

Although the Victorian period (1837-1901) is often associated with prudishness and a general feeling of repression, in reality, it was a time of great social change and creativity. One of the most popular forms of entertainment during this time was the ballad, which was often sung in pubs and music halls.

The Victorian ballad was usually about love, loss or betrayal, and was often quite sentimental. Many of these songs were based on traditional folk tunes, but with new lyrics added to reflect the changing times. The popularity of the ballad helped to spread the influence of folk music throughout Britain.

One of the most famous Victorian ballads is “The Wreck of the Titanic”, which was written by American songwriter Charles Taze Russell. This song became a massive hit in Britain after the Titanic sunk in 1912, and it remains popular to this day.

The 20th century

The 20th century was a time of great change for British Folk music. With the Industrial Revolution came new technology and new ways of living, and traditional Folk music began to change. The twentieth century saw the rise of new Folk styles, such as the music of the Mods and the skinheads.

The Second World War

The outbreak of the Second World War halted the recording of British folk music for the duration, although a few commercial recordings were made, such as George Formby’s “My Ukelele and Me” (1941) andexcerpts from A.L. Lloyd’s radio show “Down Home” (1942). Lloyd continued to perform and record during the war years, often with Ewan MacColl; they appeared together in the films Millions Like Us (1943) and Meet Me on Saturday Night (1944), both of which included traditional songs. Fellow folk singer Burl Ives also achieved mainstream success during the war years with his recordings of American folk songs and his appearance in the film settings of two John Steinbeck novels, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Our Town (1940), as well as playingBig Daddy in the original stage production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

The folk rock movement

The folk rock movement began in the late 1960s, when British and American musicians began to combine traditional folk music with rock music. Folk rock quickly became popular in both Britain and America, and by the early 1970s, it had become one of the most successful genres of popular music. Some of the most famous folk rock bands include Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and The Eagles.

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