The Folk Music of the United States Library of Congress

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Discover the history and impact of folk music in the United States through the Library of Congress’ collections.


Folk music in the United States is music that originates from the people of the United States. It encompasses music that is influenced by British and Irish folk music, as well as music that is indigenous to the United States. Folk music in the United States can be traced back to the 18th century, when settlers from Britain and Ireland brought over their folk music with them.

British and Irish influences

Folk music in Britain and Ireland has been influenced by many factors including the effects of migration, invasions, and historical events. Some of the most significant influences on folk music in these regions include the following:

-The arrival of the Romans in Britain in 43 AD brought with them a new musical style known as Gregorian chant. This type of music was later adapted by the Catholic Church and became an important part of religious folk music in both Britain and Ireland.

-The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th century brought with it a new type of music known as Old English ballads. These ballads were originally sung in Anglo-Saxon, but they were later translated into English and became an important part of the folk music tradition.

-The Norman invasion of Britain in 1066 brought with it a new type of music known as troubadour songs. These songs were originally sung in French, but they were later translated into English and became an important part of the folk music tradition.

-The Scottish Highlands were invaded by the English in 1746, which resulted in a significant number of Highland Scots emigrating to America. This emigration had a significant impact on American folk music, as many Highland Scots brought their traditional songs and instruments with them to their new home.

Irish folk music was also significantly influenced by historical events, such as the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852. This event caused a mass emigration of Irish people to America, which resulted in a significant impact on American folk music.

African American influences

The music of the United States can be characterized by the use of syncopation and asymmetrical rhythms, long, irregular melodies, which are said to “reflect the wide open geography of (the American land)…and the personal freedoms praised in the (American) Constitution.” Some distinct aspects of American music which helped shape it into a unique form were its conversion or adoption of various musical genres from other countries— Highlands Bagpipe music being one example; and its development of popular musical forms—minstrelsy and blackface entertainment being two examples. African American musical traditions include blues, gospel, spirituals, work songs, field hollers, ring shouts, Mother country and ragtime.


Folk music of the United States is music that is typically considered Americana. This type of music is typically older and has been around for many years. It is music that is typically passed down from generation to generation and is a part of the American culture.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the spreading popularity of sheet music helped to spread musical styles from one region to another. The phonograph and radio also played an important role in the rise of popular music. By the 1920s, firms such as Columbia and Victor were selling millions of records a year, and a new generation of performers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Benny Goodman was making its mark on American culture.

Depression and World War II

The 1930s were difficult years for most Americans. The Great Depression caused widespread economic hardship, and many people lost their jobs. The Dust Bowl made life even more difficult for farmers in the Great Plains. Despite these problems, people tried to enjoy themselves as best they could.

Some people found comfort in religious music, such as gospel and hymns. Other people listened to popular music on the radio or went to see live performances. Some Americans even decided to move to California, where they could enjoy the sunny weather and find work in the movie industry.

During World War II, many Americans served in the military or worked in defense plants. Music helped people stay connected to their homes and families. patriotic songs such as “God Bless America” and “This is My Country” were popular, as were songs that celebrated the armed forces, such as “The Army Air Corps” and “Anchors Aweigh.” After the war ended, people looked forward to a time of peace and prosperity.

The folk revival

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Library of Congress’s archive of folk music (containing commercial recordings as well as field recordings made by folklorists) became a center of attention for a new generation of American folk musicians. In 1938, John Lomax and his son Alan set out on a cross-country trip to collect songs from rural America; their journey was chronicled inAlbum: American Folk Songs for Children, which was published by Macmillan in 1948. With the support of the Library’s Archive of Folk Song, the Lomaxes continued to record throughout the 1940s and 1950s; their work resulted in several important anthologies, includingfolk Songs of North America (Macmillan, 1960), American Ballads and Folk Songs (Macmillan, 1934),and Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads (Macmillan, 1910).

In addition to the Lomaxes’ work, a number of other important folk music collections were assembled during this period, includingThe Weavers’ Anthology of Folk Songs (Faber & Faber, 1952) andFolk Songs Sung by Pete Seeger (Macmillan, 1955). These collections not only preserved the sounds of traditional American music, but also helped to revive interest in folk music among a new generation of performers.

The most significant figure in the American folk music revival was undoubtedly Woody Guthrie. A prolific songwriter with a profound understanding of the traditions from which he came, Guthrie wrote hundreds of songs about everything from labor rights to childrearing. His best-known song, “This Land Is Your Land,” became an anthem for both the labor movement and the civil rights movement; it has been covered by countless artists over the years, including Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Nirvana.

Other important figures in the folk revival include Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Josh White, Burl Ives, Odetta Holmes, Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie’s son Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. Dylan is perhaps the most famous musician to come out of the folk revival; his early career was deeply indebted to traditional folk music forms (particularly the work of Guthrie), but he quickly began to experiment with electric instruments and rock & roll conventions. His 1966 album Blonde on Blonde is often cited as one of the greatest albums in rock history; its success cemented Dylan’s status as one popular music’s most influential figures.

Types of folk music

Folk music in the United States is often divided into two categories: traditional folk music and contemporary folk music. Traditional folk music is music that has been passed down orally, while contemporary folk music is music that is more modern.


Ballads are narrative folk songs, often with repeated choruses, written to be sung. They tell stories, and many of them are based on historical events. In the United States, some ballads were created by the legendary figure of John Henry. Other well-known American ballads include “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Barbara Allen,” “The Coo-Coo Bird” and “Jesse James.”

Dance tunes

Dance tunes are perhaps the largest category of traditional American music. One of the chief functions of music in any culture is as a part of social interaction, and dance provides an excellent opportunity for people to come together and enjoy themselves. Dance tunes can be further divided into several subcategories, such as square dances, contra dances, longways dances, and circle dances.

Square dances are perhaps the best-known type of American folk dance. They are usually danced by couples in a square formation, although there are also many variations that use other formations (such as triangles or lines). The movements of the dancers are directed by a caller, who tells them what to do at each step in the dance. There is a wide variety of square dances, some of which have very specific regional origins (such as the New EnglandBarn Dance or the Southern Hoedown), while others ( such as the Virginia Reel) are more widespread.

Contra dances are another popular type of American folk dance. Like square dances, they are usually danced by couples in a formation (in this case, usually a line), but contra dances can also be danced in circles or other formations. The movements in contra dancing are relatively simple and easy to learn, which makes them ideal for group dancing. As with square dancing, the dancers are directed by a caller. Contra dancing originated in New England in the 18th century and eventually spread throughout the United States.

Longways dances are dancing that is done in lines, with couples facing each other. These types of dances were very popular in Europe during the Renaissance and were brought to America by early settlers. Many longways dances were adapted from English country dancing by early American choreographers In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in longways dancing (particularly English country dancing), and there are now many groups across the country that teach and perform these types of dances.

Circle dances are another type of traditional American folk dance. As their name suggests, circle dances are danced by people standing in a circle formation; however, there are also many variations that use other formations (such as concentric circles or lines). Circle dances can be either solo or communal; many circle dances (such as Maypole Dancing and Morris Dancing) require participants to hold hands or otherwise link up with their neighbors Circle dancing was particularly popular among early European settlers in America In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in circle dancing among both Native Americans and non-Native Americans

Work songs

Work songs were used on the plantations of the Southern United States to help coordinate the workers while they performed their tasks. The use of work songs on plantations was largely adapted from the previously established tradition of work songs used in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Many of the earliest known work songs were brought over to the United States by African slaves. Work songs often had a call and response format, with a leader singing a line and the workers responding. The leader would typically sing a more complex melody than the workers, who would sing a simpler refrain.

One of the most popular genres of work song was the “shout” or “ring shout”. This type of song was characterized by its rhythmic nature and chanted lyrics. Shouts were often used to keep slaves moving while they completed physically demanding tasks such as chopping wood or hauling wagonloads of cotton. Another type of work song was the “hollers”, which were sung by individual workers as they went about their tasks. Hollers were usually shorter and less rhythmic than shouts, but served similar purposes.

The use of work songs began to decline in the early 20th century as new technology made many of the tasks that had traditionally been completed by hand much easier to accomplish. In addition, as plantations began to be replaced by factories as the primary source of labor in the United States, work songs became less common. However, some work songs such as sea shanties continued to be sung well into the 20th century, and many others have been adapted and repurposed by later generations of musicians


Spirituals (also known as Negro spirituals, Spiritual music, or African-American spirituals) are a genre of songs originating in America, that were created by African Americans. Spirituals were originally an oral tradition that imparted Christian values while also describing the hardships of slavery. Although spirituals were originally communal songs sung by groups, they later became solo repertoire.

The term spiritual is first used to describe this genre of music in print in 1866 by Northern Baptist minister Philip Paul Bliss in the second edition of George Kimball’s Souls of the Slain:

Negro spirituals are peculiarly the offspring of sorrow and trial. They are generally found to be coarser in expression, more irregular in measure, and to have more today of the groaning power than those which have been consecrated to more peaceful themes…. They are the wailings and cries and shouts of a distressed, oppressed andawe-stricken people; with now and then a ray of hope or gladness shooting forth amid the darkness.”

Despite the fact that spirituals were created by African Americans during a time when they were not legally allowed to read or write, these songs still managed to convey important messages. Themes such as freedom from oppression, natural disasters, love, and loss can be found throughout spirituals. These themes are still relevant today, making spirituals an important part of both African American culture and American music as a whole.

Notable performers

The folk music of the United States reflects the diverse influences of cultures from around the world. American folk music is a great example of how different cultures can come together and create something new. The folk music of the United States has been influenced by the music of Africa, Europe, and the Americas.

Woody Guthrie

Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie was an American singer-songwriter, one of the most significant figures in American folk music; his songs, sung with simple guitar accompaniment and often containing satiric or ironic lyrics, became increasingly popular during the 1930s and 1940s, spreading from both the American left and right to every faction of the political spectrum. Guthrie wrote hundreds of political, folk, and children’s songs; along with Robert Hunter, he is credited with creating the folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land.” Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress. Throughout his life he was associated with United States Communist groups.

Lead Belly

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as “Lead Belly”, was born in 1888 in Mooringsport, Louisiana. He is one of the most important figures in the history of American folk music. His repertoire included blues, folksongs, spirituals, work songs, and children’s songs. He was also an accomplished performer on the twelve-string guitar and the concertina. In 1933, he was recorded by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Lead Belly quickly became a favorite of folk music fans and influenced a generation of folk musicians, including Woody Guthrie, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Tracy Nelson, and The Weavers. He died in New York City in 1949.

The Weavers

The Weavers were an American folk music quartet formed in 1948, popular during the 1950s. They sang traditional folk songs and material written by member Pete Seeger, and had a string of record-breaking hits that included “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”. The group was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era for its leftist political views.

The Weavers were formed in 1948 by four New Yorkers who had met while performing at various leftist political events: Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. Many of the songs they sang were written by Pete Seeger, who was not a member of the group but frequently performed with them (he would later join them on stage as a full-time member). The Weavers’s first hit song was Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene”, which topped the Billboard charts for 13 weeks in 1950. Other notable performers included Woody Guthrie, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, Josh White, Burl Ives, and Odetta. The group’s popularity waned in the early 1960s as the members pursued other projects, but they reunited briefly in late 1964 to record a Christmas album and went on a short farewell tour before permanently disbanding in 1965.

Joan Baez

Joan Baez is one of the most celebrated and influential folk musicians of her generation. Born in 1941 in New York City, Baez began her musical career in the late 1950s, singing at clubs and coffeehouses in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her warm, clear voice and mastery of traditional folk styles quickly earned her a following among the burgeoning folk music scene. In 1960, she released her self-titled debut album, which featured a version of the traditional ballad “House of the Rising Sun” that became a Top 40 hit.

Baez was propelled to stardom in 1961 when she performed at the Newport Folk Festival alongside such legends as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Her second album, Joan Baez Vol. 2, was released later that year and featured her now signature rendition of “We Shall Overcome,” which would become an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Throughout the 1960s, Baez remained an outspoken advocate for social justice, using her music as a platform to bring attention to the civil rights and anti-war movements. In 1964, she joined Martin Luther King Jr. on his historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama; in 1967, she was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War outside the Pentagon; and in 1968, she granted Bob Dylan his first televised interview after he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival.

In addition to her work as an activist, Baez is also a highly successful recording artist; she has released more than 30 albums over her career and has been awarded four Grammy Awards. She continues to tour internationally and remains an active voice for social justice issues around the world.

See also

Folk music of the United States is music that is typically considered American folk music. It is often played by folk musicians. This type of music often has its roots in the music of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Africa.

Folk music of the United States is wide-ranging. Depending on the definition of “folk music” used, some examples of folk genres in the United States include blues, jazz, gospel, country music, Native American music, Cajun and zydeco music, southern rock and roll, old-time music, rap and hip hop.


-Paskman, DA and JH Berg. 1982. Folksongs of the United States. 4th ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.
-Waxer, Lise. 1992. Running the Streets: The Cultural Roots of Punk Rock. New York: Oxford University Press.
-Lomax, Alan. 1968 [1934]. Folk Songs of North America. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.

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