The Best of British Isle Folk Music

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Looking for the best of British Isle folk music? Look no further than our latest blog post. We’ve gathered together a selection of the finest folk tunes from across the UK and Ireland, so you can enjoy the very best of traditional British Isles folk music.

The Origins of British Folk Music

Though often overshadowed by the country’s rock and pop output, British folk music is a genre with a long and rich history. Dating back to the Middle Ages, folk music has been a vital part of British culture for centuries, with the genre evolving and changing as the country itself has changed. In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in folk music, with a new generation of musicians helping to keep the genre alive.

The Celtic Influence

The Celtic Influence is one of the most significant aspects of British Folk Music. It is thought to have originated in the 6th century with the arrival of Celtic tribes from Central Europe. These people brought with them their own musical traditions, which were then combined with the music of the native Britons. This created a new genre of music, which became known as Celtic Folk.

The Celtic influence can be heard in many traditional British folk songs, such as “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “The Parting Glass”. It is also evident in the work of modern folk musicians such as Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention.

The Celtic sound is characterized by its use of traditional instruments such as the fiddle, accordion and penny whistle. It often has a lively, upbeat sound and is perfect for dancing. If you want to experience British folk music at its best, then you should definitely check out some of the Celtic-influenced bands and artists mentioned above.

The Roman Influence

After the Roman Conquest of Britain in 43AD, the Roman Empire occupied the country for nearly 400 years. During this time, a distinctive Romano-British culture emerged, blending aspects of Roman and native traditions. This can be seen in the music of the period, which incorporated Roman instruments and melodies with Celtic themes.

One of the most famous examples of this fusion is the song “Horo My nut browne dame” (c. 12th century), which retains a distinctly Celtic feel despite its use of Roman instruments.

After the Romans left Britain in 410AD, the country was divided into several smaller kingdoms, each with its own culture and traditions. This period saw the rise of Celtic Christianity, which had a significant impact on British music. Ancient Celtic music was adapted to fit the new religion, and hymns and chants were written in both Latin and Celtic languages.

In later centuries, as Britain was slowly unified under one monarchy, its music began to share commonalities with other European traditions. However, the influence of Celtic music can still be heard in many British folk songs to this day.

The Anglo-Saxon Influence

The Anglo-Saxon period in Britain was one of great change. Not only were the Anglo-Saxons a completely different people to the Celts who they replaced, but they also brought with them a different language and culture. This is reflected in the music of the time, which has a very different feel to that of the Celtic music which came before it.

The Anglo-Saxon influence can be heard in many of the folk songs which are still sung today. For example, the song ‘Lord Bateman’ is about an English knight who goes on a quest to Ireland and Scotland. This song would not have been possible without the Anglo-Saxon influence, as it is written in Old English.

Other songs which show the Anglo-Saxon influence include ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’ and ‘Edward’. These songs all have a very different feel to Celtic folk songs, and this is due to the fact that they were written in a different language and by people with a different culture.

The Evolution of British Folk Music

The Medieval Period

The medieval period in Britain was a time of great change. The Roman Empire fell, and the country was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons, who brought their own culture and traditions. Christianity began to take hold, and monasteries became important centres of learning. This was also a time of great violence, as different kingdoms fought for control of the land.

During this period, music was used to communicate religious messages. Gregorian chant was the main form of church music, and it was often used to accompany the Mass. This type of music was usually sung in Latin, so it wasn’t accessible to the general population.

Outside of the church, people sang folk songs about topics like love, nature, and religion. These songs were passed down from generation to generation, and they were often adapted to fit the needs of the singer. Many of these songs are still sung today.

There were also travelling minstrels who would sing about current events or popular tales. These songs were usually quite light-hearted and helped to entertain people during difficult times.

The Renaissance Period

The Renaissance period saw a huge flourishing of the arts, and music was no exception. British folk music underwent a radical transformation during this time, becoming noticeably more complex and varied. This was due in part to the influx of new musical ideas from Continental Europe, as well as the growing popularity of instruments like the lute and viola da gamba.

One of the most important developments in Renaissance folk music was the increasing influence of the Church. Many folk songs from this period are about religious subjects, and even those that aren’t often make use of Christian symbolism. This is a far cry from the pagan-influenced music of earlier centuries!

Another notable trend in Renaissance folk music is the increasing use of English as a language. Prior to this period, most folk songs were sung in Anglo-Saxon or Celtic languages like Welsh or Gaelic. However, as the Renaissance progressed, more and more people began to adopt English as their primary language. This led to a corresponding increase in the number of English-language folk songs being written and performed.

Some of the best-known British folk songs from the Renaissance period include ” Greensleeves,” ” The Two Magicians,” and ” Sir Patrick Spens.”

The Modern Period

The British folk music scene experienced a revival in the mid-20th century, spurred on by a number of factors. The first was the increase in interest in and visibility of American folk music, particularly after the release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. This led many British musicians to explore their own country’s musical traditions, and to develop a new appreciation for traditional folk music.

In addition, the 1950s and 1960s saw a number of political and social changes in Britain that also helped to create an environment more conducive to the resurgence of folk music. These included the rise of the Labour Party and the fight for social justice; the growth of the youth movement and the counterculture; and increased interest in world music. All of these factors led to a greater openness to different kinds of music, including traditional folk tunes.

The British folk music revival was also spurred on by a number of key figures, including Ewan MacColl, A. L. Lloyd, Peggy Seeger, Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, and Anne Briggs. These artists helped to popularize traditional folk songs through their recordings and performances, and they also encouraged younger musicians to keep the tradition alive.

Today, British folk music is enjoying something of a renaissance: there are more festivals and clubs dedicated to traditional tunes than ever before, and young people are once again taking an interest in learning about and playing this important part of their cultural heritage.

The Characteristics of British Folk Music

British Folk music is a genre of music that is steeped in history and tradition. The music is often based on stories and legends that have been passed down through the generations. British Folk music often has a strong sense of community and is often played at festivals and gatherings.

The Instruments

British Folk music is unique in its sound and has been around for centuries. The music is often passed down from generation to generation, and each new generation puts their own spin on it.

Folk music is typically associated with acoustic instruments, such as the violin, accordion, penny whistle, and bagpipes. These instruments are often played together in a band or ensemble.

The lyrics of British Folk songs often tell stories of love, loss, and work. The songs are usually about everyday life and the human experience. They often have a sense of humor, and some of the songs are even considered light-hearted drinking songs.

British Folk music is enjoyed by people of all ages, and it is not uncommon to see folk bands performing in pubs or at festivals.

The Vocals

Vocals are an important part of British folk music, with many songs featuring solo vocalists or harmonies. The lyrics are often based on traditional stories or poems, and they may be in a regional dialect. The vocal style is usually straightforward and simple, without much embellishment or vibrato.

Instrumentation in British folk music is often quite minimal, with just a few instruments used to create the melody and accompaniment. The most common instruments are the violin, accordion, guitar, and mandolin. Other instruments may also be used, including the penny whistle, bodhran (Irish drum), upright bass, and piano.

The Dance

Dance has always been an important part of British folk music, with tunes and songs often written specifically for dancing. The type of dances performed to folk music vary widely, from the energetic Morris dance to the more sedate country dances such as the Cumberland Square Eight.

There are also many different types of dances within the British folk tradition, from those that are purely for entertainment to those that have a more practical purpose. For example, many harvest festivals in Britain involve traditional dances that were once used to help bring in the crops.

While some British folk dances are still performed regularly, others have fallen out of use over the years and are now only danced on special occasions. However, there is a growing interest in traditional British folk dancing, and many dance clubs and groups have been formed in recent years to keep these dances alive.

The Popularity of British Folk Music

British Folk music has been around for centuries, and it’s no surprise that it’s still popular today. There are many different types of British Folk music, from traditional ballads to more modern, upbeat tunes. Folk music is a great way to relax and unwind, and it can be enjoyed by people of all ages.

The Folk Revival of the 1960s

In the United States, the British Folk Revival began in the late 1950s and reached its height in the early 1960s. The movement had a profound influence on American folk music, influencing such artists as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez.

The revival in Britain was led by a number of young musicians who were influenced by American folk and blues music. These include such figures as Lal Waterson, Michael Chapman, Ashley Hutchings, and Richard Thompson. The revival also gave rise to a number of important folk clubs, including the Cambridge Folk Club and the Troubadour Club in London.

In the late 1960s, the British Folk Revival began to wane, but its influence can still be seen in the work of many contemporary folk musicians.

Contemporary British Folk Music

Contemporary British folk music has undergone something of a revival in recent years. More and more people are rediscovering the joys of traditional songs and tunes, as well as the work of modern artists who are keeping the folk flame burning bright.

There are now folk clubs and festivals being held all over the country, celebrating the very best of British Isles folk music. If you’re looking to get involved in this great British tradition, then here are some of the best contemporary British folk artists that you should check out.

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