Folk Music of the United States

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The folk music of the United States is rich and varied, drawing on the musical traditions of many different cultures. From the traditional folk songs of the Appalachian Mountains to the modern folk sounds of the Pacific Northwest, there is a wealth of music to explore.


Folk music of the United States refers to the folk music traditions of the American people. It consists of a variety of musical genres, styles and influences from other cultures, including English, Scottish, Irish, German, African-American and Native American. Music has always been an important part of American culture, reflecting the history and diversity of the country. Folk music is an important part of the nation’s heritage, and is still performed and enjoyed by many people today.

The Origins of American Folk Music

Folk music in the United States has its roots in the music of the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh immigrants who came to the country during the colonial period. These musicians brought with them their own folk songs, which they sang in their native languages. These songs eventually became part of the American folk music tradition.

The British Isles

The traditional music of the British Isles has been a major influence on the development of American folk music. The English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh traditions have all contributed to the evolution of folk music in the United States.

The British tradition includes both ballads (narrative songs) and dance tunes. Many of the early ballads that were brought to America by British immigrants were originally collected in the 18th and 19th centuries by folklorists such as Francis James Child and Robert Burns. These ballads often tell stories of love, loss, and death, and they were often sung by sailors, soldiers, and other workers.

The dance tunes in the British tradition include both reel tunes (for dancing in pairs) and jigs (for solo dancing). These tunes were often played on fiddles, accordions, or pennywhistles. Many of these tunes were brought to America by Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Irish tradition is perhaps best known for its traditional songs (called “sean-nós” songs), which are usually sung in Irish Gaelic. These songs often deal with themes of love, loss, and exile. Many of them were written by poets such as Brendan Behan and Percy French. The Irish tradition also includes instrumental music such as reels, jigs, slip jigs, hornpipes, polkas, and waltzes. This music was often played on fiddles or pipes (including the uilleann pipes).

The Scottish tradition is perhaps best known for its bagpipe music. But the Scots also have a rich tradition of traditional songs (called “ballads”), which often tell stories of romance, adventure, or d


Folk music of the United States is varied and has been influenced by many cultures, including English, Irish, Scottish, German, French, Native American, Spanish, and African. American folk music is often divided into two major regions: the Northeast and the South. The Northeast is home to traditional styles such as Celtic and old-time music; the South has both traditional and new styles such as bluegrass and Appalachian music.

African American slaves brought their musical traditions with them when they were forcibly transported to the Americas. African American spirituals, work songs, field hollers, and blues were some of the earliest forms of American folk music. Zydeco, a style of music that originated in Louisiana with French Creole and African influences, is another type of American folk music with strong roots in Africa.

The Americas

Folk music of the United States is often heard these days as background music in coffeehouses and at outdoor concerts, but its origins reach back much further in American history.

The first American folk music was brought over by the British, Irish, and Scottish immigrants who arrived in the colonies in the 1600s. This music was generally simple songs sung in rounds or unfinished ballads that told stories of naval battles, lost loves, highwaymen, and other topics.

Over time, these songs began to change and adapt to the American experience, taking on a new character and sound. African American slaves brought their own musical traditions with them when they were forced to come to America, and this played a significant role in the development of American folk music.

The 20th century saw a renewed interest in folk music, as musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger popularized traditional songs among a new generation of Americans. In recent years, folk music has continued to evolve, incorporating elements of other genres like rock and roll, jazz, and hip hop.

The Development of American Folk Music

The roots of American folk music can be found in the music of England, Ireland, and Scotland. This music was brought to the United States by immigrants who settled in the country during the colonial period. Folk music began to develop in the United States during the nineteenth century.

Folk Music in the Colonial Era

During the 17th and 18th centuries, American colonists were exposed to a wide variety of musical styles from all over the world. Through trade, immigration, and travel, they were able to bring these influences back to the United States, where they combined them with the music of the native nations and created a uniquely American sound.

One of the most important influences on early American folk music was the music of the British Isles. The first settlers in the New World were mostly from England, Scotland, and Ireland, and they brought with them the songs and ballads of their homeland. These songs were often about love, loss, or patriotism, and they were passed down from generation to generation.

African Americans also had a significant impact on the development of American folk music. After being brought over as slaves, they brought with them the musical traditions of their homeland. These traditions blended with those of the British Isles to create a truly unique American sound.

Native Americans also contributed to the growth of American folk music. Although their music was largely unknown to settlers during the early years of colonization, by the late 1800s, Native American music had begun to make its way into mainstream culture. This was largely due to the work of composers like John Lomax, who traveled across America collecting folk songs from all different cultures.

Folk Music in the 19th Century

Folk music in the United States is often thought of as music transmitted orally from one generation to the next. However, in the 19th century, folk music was also created and performed by professional musicians, who sometimes drew on older oral traditions but also brought their own artistic sensibilities to the music. This process of creation and transmission continued into the 20th century, when folk music became closely associated with the development of American identity and was used by various social and political movements, including the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the counterculture of the 1960s.

Folk Music in the 20th Century

The changes that took place in American society during the first half of the twentieth century—urbanization, industrialization, the rise of a consumer culture, the growth of mass media, and increasing social and ethnic diversity—all had an impact on folk music. As people moved to cities and became involved in new occupations, they developed new forms of expression and found new sources for their music.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many musicians from commercial and vaudeville traditions began to develop new styles of folk-based music. One important figure in this process was Frank Hutchison (1890–1969), a West Virginia coal miner who became a traveling musician. Hutchison learned songs from both black and white musicians and blended them into his own style of playing. His songs were a mixture of old ballads, work songs, blues, and original compositions, all delivered in Hutchison’s high-pitched, nasal vocals and played on his guitar with a bottleneck slide. Another significant figure was Kelly Harrell (1885–1933), a Virginia singer who recorded more than sixty songs for commercial record companies between 1926 and 1929. Harrell’s recordings combined old ballads, religious songs, gospel tunes, and original compositions delivered in his clear tenor voice. Like Hutchison, he often used a bottleneck slide on his guitar.

The most important development in twentieth-century folk music was the rise of the commercial recording industry. In the 1920s record companies began issuing “race records”— records marketed to African American audiences—which included blues, spirituals, work songs, gospel tunes, jazz standards, and other types of music. Many of these records were made by southern musicians who had migrated to northern cities in search of work. They brought with them a rich tradition of folk music that was soon heard across the country. Among the most important early recording artists were Bessie Smith (1894–1937), Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893–1929), Ma Rainey (1886–1939), Charley Patton (?–1934), Robert Johnson (1911–1938), Big Bill Broonzy (1993–1958), Lead Belly (1888–1949), Woody Guthrie (1912–1967), Pete Seeger (b. 1919), Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter (1888-1949) , Josh White (1914-1969) , The Weavers , Burl Ives , Woody Guthrie

American Folk Music Today

American folk music is a genre that has been around since the colonial days. Folk music is a type of traditional music that is usually passed down from generation to generation. It is usually associated with the working class and rural areas.

Traditional Folk Music

Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles. The term originated in the 19th century but is often applied to music older than that. Some types of folk music are also called world music.

Ragtime, blues and jazz are generally not considered folk music, even though they evolved from folk sources. Folk music is, however, sometimes adapted for electric instruments and amplified performances.

One of the most popular forms of traditional folk music in the United States is bluegrass. Bluegrass is a form of American roots music that was named for a style of mandolin playing by Bill Monroe. It uses elements from English, Scottish and Irish traditional music, as well as African-American blues and jazz. Bluegrass often features complex harmonies and fast tempos, making it one of the more challenging types of folk music to play.

Other popular forms of American folk music include old-time music, Cajun music and Native American flute music. Old-timey is a term used to describe various styles of traditional folk music from the southeastern United States that were popular in the early 20th century. Cajun music is a type of American roots music that developed in Louisiana from French, African and Native American influences. It is closely related to zydeco and sounds similar to countrymusic . Native American flute music has been influenced by many different cultures over the years but retains a unique sound that is different from any other type of folk or world music .

Contemporary Folk Music

Contemporary folk music in the United States is a genre that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. It is based on traditional folk music, Celtic music, blues, and other forms of American popular music. Modern folk music often uses elements from older folk traditions, including traditional instrumentation, ballads, and melodies. The term “contemporary folk music” is sometimes used to refer to a specific subgenre of folk music that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s; this subgenre is sometimes known as “folk rock” or “country rock”.


Folk music has been a vital part of the American musical landscape for centuries, and it continues to play an important role in the nation’s musical identity. With its roots in the oral tradition, folk music is often passed down from one generation to the next, and it often reflects the stories, experiences and values of a particular community.

While folk music varies greatly from region to region, there are some common threads that run through much of American folk music. These include a focus on storytelling, a sense of solidarity and community, and a connection to the land. Folk music often celebrates the simple things in life, and it often provides a window into the history and culture of a particular region.

Whether you’re exploring folk music for the first time or you’re a longtime fan, there’s much to discover. The vast array of folk styles can be daunting, but it’s also one of the things that makes folk music so fascinating and rewarding. So dive in and start exploring!

Similar Posts