The Origins of American Folk Music

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Discover the origins of American folk music and how it has evolved over the years.

The British Isles

Folk music in America has its roots in the music of the British Isles. This is not surprising, considering that the first European settlers in America came from England, Ireland, and Scotland. The British Isles have a rich musical tradition, and the settlers brought that tradition with them to the New World.

Celtic music

Celtic music is a broad grouping of music genres that have emerged from the native folk music traditions of the Celtic people of Western Europe. It refers to both orally-transmitted traditional music and recorded music and the styles vary considerably to include everything from “trad” (traditional) folk to Celtic rock.

The earliest known examples of written Celtic music date back to the 6th century AD, when a Welsh bard named Taliesin wrote down some of his songs. However, it wasn’t until the 12th century that Gerald of Wales collected and wrote down some Welsh chants and songs, which are now known as the earliest surviving examples of notated Celtic music. By the 13th century, Ireland had its own tradition of troubadour poets who wrote songs about chivalry and courtly love, which were eventually collected in the Irish Harper’s Book (c.1350). These early songs laid the foundation for the development of traditional Irish and Scottish music.

In general, Celtic music is characterized by its use ofsyncopation, drones, modal scales, ornamentation, and improvisation. The melodies are often pentatonic or heptatonic (five- or seven-note scales), making them easy to sing or play on instruments like the fiddle, flute, or bagpipe. Celtic instrumentation often includes acoustic guitars, fiddles, penny whistles, bagpipes, bodhráns (a type of handheld drum), accordions, and bouzoukis (a type of lute).

Celtic music has been influenced by several other genres over the years, including classical, European folk traditions (especially those from Scandinavia), American country and bluegrass styles. In recent years there has also been a resurgence of interest in so-called “Celtic fusion” bands that mix traditional Celtic instruments with elements of rock, jazz, and even hip-hop.

English music

English music is the music of England, which comprises the hurdy-gurdy, or English bagpipe, organ, and viol. It has been influential on other music cultures in England and around the world.

Organ: The first verifiable reference to an English organ is from 1361. This is a painting of an instrument in the chapel of Lincoln Cathedral, thought to be a portative organ.

Hurdy-Gurdy: The earliest known reference to the hurdy-gurdy in England is from 1396. This is a painting of an instrument in the chapel of Westminster Abbey, thought to be a portative organ.

Viol: The earliest known reference to the viol in England is from 1403. This is a painting of an instrument in the chapel of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, thought to be a bass viol.

Scottish music

In the early 18th century, the British Isles were Colonized by the British Empire. During this time, many aspects of Scottish culture were integrated into American culture, including music. Scottish music is characterized by its use of traditional instruments such as the bagpipes, fiddle, and hornpipe. This type of music was brought to America by Scottish immigrants, who began to settle in the Appalachian region in the late 1700s.

Scottish music was particularly influential in the development of American folk music. Folk music is a genre that is typically passed down orally from generation to generation. It is characterized by its use of simple melodies and lyrics that often deal with topics such as love, loss, and hardship. Many of the folk songs that are popular in America today can trace their origins back to Scottish ballads.

The United States

The United States is home to many different types of music, but one genre that is particularly popular is folk music. Folk music is a type of music that is passed down from generation to generation, and it often has a lot of history behind it. American folk music is no different.

African American music

It is generally acknowledged that the first American folk music was created by the African slaves who were brought to the country to work on plantations. These slaves were forced to leave their homeland and families behind, and they were often treated very harshly. In spite of these difficult circumstances, they were able to hold on to their musical traditions and use them as a way to express their emotions and communicate with each other.

The music that they created was a blend of African and European traditions. The slaves would sing work songs while they were working, and these songs would often have a call-and-response structure. They would also sing spirituals, which were religious songs that expressed their hope for freedom and salvation. The slaves’ musical traditions would eventually be passed down to their children and grandchildren, and African American music would continue to evolve over the years.

Appalachian music

American folk music is music traditionally performed by folk musicians, that is, musicians who make their living by playing a variety of musical styles for both traditional and popular audiences. Appalachia is a region in the eastern United States that includes parts of the states of Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The region’s music is characterized by a wide variety of influences, including Scottish, Irish, English, African American, and Native American.

The Appalachian Mountains were settled by a wave of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 18th century, and these settlers brought with them their own musical traditions. These traditions blended with the existing musical styles of the region to create a unique form of music that came to be known as Appalachian music. This music was passed down from generation to generation within families and communities, and it continues to be performed today by both traditional and popular musicians.

Cajun music

Cajun music is a style of folk music that originated in Louisiana, in the 18th century. It is a mix of French, African, and Native American music. Cajun music is often played at celebrations, such as weddings and festivals. It is also used to tell stories and to teach lessons.

Cajun music is usually happy and upbeat. It often has a strong beat, which people can dance to. The instruments used in Cajun music include the fiddle, the accordion, and the triangle.

Cajun music has influenced many other styles of music, including country music and rock and roll. Some of the most famous Cajun musicians include Justin Wilson, Clifton Chenier, and Beausoleil.

The Canadian Maritimes

The American folk-music revival began in the 1930s and gathered momentum in the 1940s and 1950s. Its origins are found in the music of Ethnic groups who immigrated to the United States, including English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, German, Swedish, Italian, Jewish, African American, and Native American peoples.

Celtic music

Celtic music is a genre of folk music that has its origins in the cultures of the Celtic people. It encompasses a wide range of styles, from traditional folk music to contemporary pop. Celtic music is often characterized by its use of traditional instruments, such as the fiddle, bagpipe, and tin whistle. It also often features lively dance rhythms and narratives with Celtic themes.

The Canadian Maritimes are home to a vibrant Celtic music scene. The region has a long history of Celtic settlement, and its folk traditions have been greatly influenced by Celtic culture. Many of the region’s most popular folk musicians have been influenced by Celtic music, including Stan Rogers, Natalie MacMaster, and The Rankin Family.

French music

The French influence on American music is often overshadowed by the contributions of other cultures, but it’s an important and integral part of the history of folk music in the United States. The Maritime provinces of Canada — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island — were settled by French colonists in the 1600s, and their musical traditions were brought over to Acadia (an area that encompasses parts of present-day Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts). These French-speaking immigrants continued to maintain their language and culture in the face of British expansion in North America, and their music helped to shape the sound of American folk music.

The Maritime provinces are known for their traditional instrumental music, which is a mix of Celtic, French, and English influences. This music was brought over by settlers from Brittany and Normandy in France, as well as from the British Isles. Fiddle music is particularly prevalent in Maritime folk music, and it has had a significant impact on American fiddle styles. The Acadian immigrants also brought with them a tradition of singing work songs in French, which influenced the development of American work songs and ballads.

If you’re interested in exploring the French influence on American folk music further, there are plenty of resources available. The band Le Vent du Nord are modern masters of Franco-American folk music, and you can also check out traditional Acadian musicians like Joseph Allard and Louis Mailloux. There are also many historical recordings of Franco-American folk songs that are available online or at your local library.

Maritime music

Maritime music is a genre of folk music that developed in the maritime provinces of Canada. It is characterized by its own unique instruments, rhythms and lyrics.

The music has its roots in the songs and dances of the British, Irish and Scottish immigrants who arrived in the Maritimes in the 18th and 19th centuries. These songs were often about their homesickness, their love of the sea or their lives as fishermen and sailors.

Over time, the songs began to change, incorporating elements of the music of the Indigenous peoples of the Maritimes, as well as French Canadian and Acadian music. The result is a unique genre of folk music that has been passed down from generation to generation.

Some of the most famous Maritime folk songs include “Barney McKenna’s”, “Paddy’s Wedding”, “Farewell to Nova Scotia” and “Rolling Home”.

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