How Did Folk Music Start?

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Folk music has been around for centuries, and its origins can be traced back to a variety of different cultures. In this blog post, we explore the history of folk music and how it has evolved over time.

The Origins of Folk Music

Folk music is a type of music that is typically passed down from generation to generation. It often has a strong connection to the culture and traditions of a community. Folk music can be used for a variety of purposes, including storytelling, dancing, and even political protest.

The British Isles

The British Isles have a long and rich history of folk music, with the first known examples dating back to the Middle Ages. Many of the most famous folk songs come from England, Scotland, and Ireland, and there are a number of regional variations throughout the Isles. One of the most notable aspects of British folk music is its strong connection to the land; many songs celebrate specific places, events, or people from local history.

Folk music was traditionally passed down orally from one generation to the next, and it wasn’t until the 18th century that it began to be written down. Due to this reliance on oral tradition, many folk songs are quite old; some date back hundreds of years. In the 19th century, with the rise of nationalism and interest in folklore, there was a revival of traditional folk music, which led to new compositions in the style as well.

Today, British folk music is enjoyed by people all over the world. It has been an influence on many other genres of music, including rock and roll, country, and even rap. Some of the most famous British folk musicians include Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Leonard Cohen.

The United States

Folk music in the United States is often considered to have begun with the folk revival of the late 1940s and 1950s, when performers such as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Cisco Houston popularized traditional songs among left-wing activists. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan brought traditional folk music into the mainstream with songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” In subsequent decades, other folk-based singers such as Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, John Prine, and Bonnie Raitt achieved considerable popularity. More recently, newer performers such as Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant have been influenced by traditional folk music and have helped to revitalize it in a contemporary context.

The Evolution of Folk Music

Folk music has its roots in the music of the people who culture that it comes from. It is music that is passed down from generation to generation, and often has a strong connection to the land and the history of the people. Folk music has evolved over time, and has been influenced by many different cultures.

The British Isles

Folk music has its origins in the music of the people who lived in Britain and Ireland. It is the product of a long and complex history that has seen the confluence of many different cultures.

The earliest folk music was probably that of the Celtic people who arrived in Britain from mainland Europe around 500 BCE. Celtic music was characterized by its use of unusual instruments, such as the Irish harp, and its use of complex rhythms. This music would have been passed down orally from generation to generation.

Over time, the Celts were joined by other groups, such as the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who also contributed to the development of folk music. By the medieval period, there were many different regional traditions of folk music in Britain and Ireland. This diversity is still evident today in the different styles of folk music that are found in different parts of the British Isles.

Folk music underwent a major revival in the 18th and 19th centuries, when composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began to take an interest in it. This led to a new wave of interest in traditional folk tunes, which were collected and published in various books and manuscripts.

The 20th century saw a further resurgence of interest in folk music, with artists such as Bob Dylan and The Beatles drawing on traditional folk tunes to create new songs. Today, folk music is enjoyed by people all over the world and is an important part of many cultures.

The United States

Folk music in the United States can be traced back to the arrival of the first European settlers in the 16th century. The settlers brought with them a wide variety of musical traditions from their homelands, including ballads, work songs, dance tunes and hymns. Over time, these musical traditions began to mix and merge, giving rise to a distinctly American form of folk music.

One of the most important early influences on American folk music was the songs of the African slaves who were brought over to work on plantations. These songs often dealt with topics like freedom and yearning for home, and they were typically sung in a call-and-response style. Work songs were also popular among slaves, and these helped to pass the time while performing arduous tasks like chopping wood or picking cotton.

As America began to grow and expand in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, its folk music scene began to evolve as well. New immigrant groups arrived on American shores, bringing with them their own musical traditions. Irish and Scottish immigrants, for example, brought over traditional ballads and dance tunes, while German immigrants introduced new instruments like the accordion. At the same time, America’s growing communication infrastructure—including newspapers, radio and eventually television—helped to spread folk music throughout the country.

In the 20th century, America experienced a Folk Revival movement that saw a renewed interest in traditional folk music. This was partly due to political reasons (such as protest movements against war), but it was also due to an increased interest in American roots music by young people who were tired of commercial pop music. During this time, many Folk Revival artists emerged, including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

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