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History of folk music

“Folk” music is much more difficult to define historically than other genres of music, as often songs have been handed down through oral tradition rather than being written down, with the composers never known. Although the term originated in the 19th century, folk music as a genre has been around for far longer and varies from culture to culture, social class and period in history.

What makes a song “folk” music?

In general and historically, the characteristics of folk music is that it is transmitted orally, that it is related to a national culture or region, it tells a particular story—personal or historical, and that it has been performed over a long period of time, sometimes over several generations.

Traditional folk music

As there was no pre-recorded music for much of human history, music was created by the common people during work, leisure and religious ceremonies. During work (mostly manual labour), people sang to reduce the boredom of repetitive tasks, but also to keep the rhythm during synchronized efforts when planting, digging, hammering, etc. This “music of the common people” was handed down through community, social and familial groups. Most often, the origin of a particular song is lost to time. Many music historians even classify folk music as “old time music where nobody knows who wrote the songs.” The term “folk” itself was derived from the English term “folklore” used to describe traditional music, stories and dance.

World music

While we often think of folk music as a North American concept (think: Woody Guthrie, traditional music that came out of the Great Depression or the sounds of the Appalachians), the genre can be found throughout almost every culture in the world. However, often the traditional folk music of non-western countries has been relegated to the larger umbrella category for ethnic music called World Music (or sometimes “Roots Music”). From the old-time jigs and reels of Celtic fiddle music, to the sonorous and joyful musical traditions of various African regions, world and folk music are often one and the same. The genre gained popularity in the 90s in North American mainstream music, thanks to efforts by musicians and musicologists such as Ry Cooder (as well as the inclusion of world music sounds and artists to chart-topping albums by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon).

Contemporary folk music

Contemporary folk music refers to a wide variety of genres that emerged in the mid 20th century and afterwards which were associated with traditional folk music. Often referred to as a “folk revival” or “American Folk Music Revival,” it was centred in the U.S., with artists marketed through concerts, recordings and radio broadcasts. Performers who emerged during this period include the aforementioned Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, and many more. In Canada, the folk revival led to the first wave of truly internationally successful recording artists, such as Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and more. Later contemporary sub-genres of modern or contemporary folk music include anti-folk or punk folk, with Irish band The Pogues serving as a prime example of the genre. Other sub-genres of contemporary folk include folk metal, neo-folk and psychedelic folk.