A Brief History of Folk Music

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Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Folk music has been around for centuries, and it’s still going strong today. Here’s a brief history of this genre of music.

Origins of Folk Music

Folk music has its roots in the oral tradition, and refers to music that is passed down from generation to generation. It is often based on a particular region or culture, and can be used to tell stories or to simply provide entertainment. Folk music often has a strong sense of community, and can be used to bring people together.

Traditional Folk Music

Traditional folk music has its roots in the oral traditions of the cultures that create it. This means that the music is passed down from generation to generation, often without being written down. Many traditional folk songs are about the everyday lives of the people who sing them, and they often have a message or story to tell.

Folk music is usually based on simple melodies and harmonies, and it often uses traditional instruments like acoustic guitars, fiddles, and harmonicas. The music is usually meant to be played and sung by groups of people, rather than performed by professional musicians.

In recent years, traditional folk music has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity. This is due in part to the fact that many people are now interested in learning about the cultures and traditions of their ancestors. Additionally, traditional folk music has been adapted and re-interpreted by modern musicians, giving it a new lease on life.

Modern Folk Music

Modern folk music is a genre that emerged in the early 20th century primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom. It developed out of older folk traditions, merging elements of various regional and international styles, including traditional Folk music, Celtic music, Blues, Country Music, and Gospel Music.

The term “folk” generally refers to the traditional songs and musical styles of a particular culture or region. These melodies and lyrics are usually handed down orally from one generation to the next, and are often about topics such as love, work, or daily life. Folk music often tells stories about real people and events, making it a valuable source of historical information.

Folk music was an important part of everyday life in early America, and was used for both entertainment and practical purposes. Farmers would sing while working in the fields, and families would gather around the fireplace at night to sing songs together. Folk music was also an important part of religious ceremonies and social gatherings.

As America began to grow and change in the 19th century, so did its folk music. New styles were created by blending traditional folk tunes with elements of blues, jazz, and country music. This new type of folk music became known as “roots” or “Americana.”

In the mid-20th century, America experienced another wave of immigration from countries all over the world. This wave brought with it a wide variety of new musical traditions that blended with existing American folk styles to create an even more diverse musical landscape.

Today’s folk musicians continue to draw inspiration from these diverse traditions while creating new sounds that reflect our modern world.

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 associated with the common people of a region or country, and is often used to preserve the cultural heritage of a particular group. Folk music is typically characterized by its simple melody and chord structure, as well as its content, which often reflects the daily life of the people it represents.


Folk music is traditionally based on oral traditions, which means that the songs were passed down by word of mouth. This also means that there was a lot of variation in the lyrics from one singer to the next, and that many of the lyrics were improvisational. As folk music became more popular and more performers began to sing the same songs, the lyrics became more standardized. However, there are still many variations of traditional folk songs, and new versions are always being created.

The lyrics of folk songs often deal with topics such as love, loss, work, and nature. Many of the songs are about real life events that have happened to the people who sung them. The lyrics often tell stories about these events, and they sometimes offer advice or wisdom about life. Folk songs can be sad, happy, or anywhere in between.

The music of folk songs is usually quite simple. The melodies are often easy to remember and sing along with. The instruments used in folk music are usually acoustic instruments such as guitars, banjos, and fiddles. The music is often intended to be danced to, and many folk dances have developed over the years to go along with specific songs.


Folk music is largely defined by its melody. The majority of folk songs have a simple melodic line that is easy to remember and sing. This makes them perfect for group singing, which is often how they were performed in their traditional settings. The melody is usually carried by the vocalist, with the accompaniment serving to support and embellish the tune. In many cases, the melody is so well-known that people will sing it even without any accompaniment.


Folk music is the music of the people and is often passed down orally from generation to generation. It is typically simple in form and melody, and often has regional roots. The instruments used in folk music are often acoustic, and the music often has a rustic feel.

Folk music has been around for centuries, and has been shaped by the various cultures it has come into contact with. In the United States, folk music was brought over by immigrants from Europe, and later influenced by the music of African slaves. This resulted in a unique blend of styles that we now know as American folk music.

Folk music continued to evolve in the twentieth century, as artists like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger sought to use it as a way to address social issues. In more recent years, folk music has seen a resurgence in popularity, thanks in part to artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

Notable Folk Musicians

Folk music has its roots in the music of the people, and it has been around for centuries. Folk music is usually passed down from generation to generation, and it has a wide variety of styles. It is usually acoustic, and it often tells a story. Some notable folk musicians include Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

Woody Guthrie

Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter, one of the most significant figures in American folk music; his music, including songs, such as “This Land Is Your Land”, has inspired several generations both politically and musically. He wrote hundreds of political, folk, and children’s songs, along many of them album towards the America during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression era. Many of his songs are about his life as a wanderer, hobo and migrant worker during those times, although he also wrote passionately about political issues such as the labor movement and anti-fascism. He frequently performed with the slogan “This machine kills fascists” displayed on his guitar. His best-known song is “This Land Is Your Land”.

Lead Belly

Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was an American folk and blues musician notable for his strong vocal delivery, his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar, and the songbook of folk standards he introduced. He is credited with popularizing the music of the American south to a national audience and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame in 2006.

Joan Baez

Joan Baez is a renowned singer, songwriter, and activist, often referred to as the “Queen of Folk.” Born in 1941 in Staten Island, New York, Baez grew up in a musical household – her mother was a singer, and her father was a highly respected professor of mathematics and physics. When she was just ten years old, her family moved to Southern California, where she began to develop her musical talents.

Baez became involved in the burgeoning folk music scene in the early 1960s, and soon gained notoriety for her exceptional vocal abilities. She released her self-titled debut album in 1960, which featured traditional folk songs as well as some of her own compositions. The album was an instant success, and helped to propel Baez to national stardom.

Over the course of her career, Baez has released more than 30 albums and has toured extensively throughout the world. She is also a noted political activist, and has been involved in various social justice campaigns throughout her life. In recent years, she has been especially active in supporting environmental causes.

The Revival of Folk Music

Folk music has seen a revival in recent years, thanks in part to the success of artists like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers. But what is folk music, exactly? In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of folk music and how it’s making a comeback in the 21st century.

The Folk Revival of the 1950s and 1960s

The folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s was a time when traditional folk music began to regain popularity in the United States. The genre had been in decline since the early 20th century, but it experienced a resurgence thanks to the work of artists like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger. These musicians helped to popularize folk music through their performances and recordings, which led to a new generation of fans.

The Folk Revival coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, and many folk songs became anthems for the movement. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” became rallying cries for those fighting for equality. The Folk Revival also had an impact on popular culture, as folk-influenced bands like The Beatles and The Byrds rose to prominence in the 1960s.

The Folk Revival was a time of great creativity, as traditional folk songs were adapted and reinvented by new artists. The genre continues to evolve today, and its influence can be heard in many different types of music.

Contemporary Folk Music

In the United States, folk music enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. This was partially due to the work of artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez, who helped to popularize traditional folk songs among a new generation of Americans. Folk music also became an important part of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, as young people began to turn away from mainstream pop music in favor of more traditional and authentic sounds.

During the 1970s and 1980s, folk music experienced something of a decline in popularity, as audiences increasingly turned to other genres such as rock, punk, and disco. However, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in folk music, with many young people rediscovering the genre’s simple beauty and emotional power. Contemporary folk musicians such as Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and Iron & Wine have found critical and commercial success by bringing new sounds and sensibilities to this time-honored tradition.

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