Over time, the meaning of the term folk music has become confused by misconception and misuse. The jazz performer Louis Armstrong is famously credited with saying, "All music is folk music, leastwise I ain't never heard a horse sing". The misconceptions of the general public have arisen primarily from the inaccurate portrayal of folk music within the world of commercial music.
As a result, the uninformed man in the street might say it means either traditional music or popularizations of traditional music, or works which have some stylistic similarities to traditional music; and those who market music make little distinction between these three possibilities, thus the consumer who opines a preference for folk music may be referring to any mixture of things.
The English term folk, which gained usage in the 18th century to refer to peasants or non-literate peoples, derives from the German term Volk (meaning nation). In truth, the term 'folk music' should cover only that music which arises from the speech and circumstances of the common peoples of a culture. It matters not whether that culture is 18th century rural Suffolk or 21st century inner-city Manchester; the material which can truly be identified as folk music (and especially folk song, because language is more important than musicality in expressing the condition of life) must be that music and song which is created by the common people in the process of expressing themselves.
Music which was created in this way before the rise of mass communications and mass media, is now termed "traditional music," i.e., the traditional music of particular ethnic groups learned by ear, that is, as part of an oral tradition, and played on acoustic instruments[?] or sung with unaccompanied voice. In those days (bygone, in most of the Western world, as we shall see), the motivating forces behind the creation of folk music were those of communication, teaching and entertainment. These needs of the community were met from within the community, through the medium of folk song in particular.
Late in the Victorian era, there arose the phenomenon of Music Hall. For the first time, the common people of the Western world were offered music as a commodity which they could purchase. This occurred during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, at a time of great change in lifestyle for the great body of the people. The forces of commercialism[?] made sure that the people were persuaded of the need to buy this commodity; and between these commercial pressures, and the migration of the old agrarian communities to become the new industrial ones, the process of folk creation became lost to the people.
Several succeeding generations of us became enticed with ever more accessible and desirable forms of the commodity of music. Gramophone records became LPs and then CD; Music Hall gave way to radio which became supplanted by TV; films were overtaken by videos and then by DVD. The marketplace kept expanding and it generated an industry dedicated to the creation of a musical product by a paid elite of performers. This is the diametric opposite of 'folk creation', because its motivating force is individual or corporate profit rather than communal need, and also because instead of reflecting the lives of the people, commercial music tends to shape those lives.
Some communities in the Western world didn't entirely lose their folk music, or lost it much later on. For instance, it is generally believed that Ireland retains a living folk tradition to this day. But some interested people - mainly academics researching in the area of traditional music - started to take note of what was being lost, and there grew various efforts aimed at preserving the music of the people. One such effort was the collection by Francis James Child in the late 19th century of the texts to over three hundred ballads in the English and Scots traditions. Contemporaneously came the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, and later and more significantly Cecil Sharp[?] who worked in the early 20th century to preserve a great body of English rural folk song, music and dance, under the aegis of what became and remains the English Folk Dance and Song Society[?] (EFDSS).
In America, the Library of Congress had during the 1930s and 1940s been working through the offices of musicologist Alan Lomax and others to capture as much field material as possible. In 1950 Alan Lomax came to Britain], where at a Working Men's Club in the remote Northumberland mining village of Tow Law he met two other seminal figures; A.L.'Bert' Lloyd[?] and Ewan MacColl, who were performing folk music to the locals there. Lloyd was an amazing little man, a colourful figure who had travelled the world and worked at such varied occupations as sheep-shearer in Australia and shanty-man on a whaling ship. MacColl, born in Salford of Scottish parents, was a brilliant playwright and songwriter who had been strongly politicised by his earlier life, and who was already responsible for creating material - such as 'The Manchester Rambler' - which now is rightly viewed as folk song. MacColl - whose daughter Kirsty was later to become a well-known pop singer - had also learned a large body of Scottish traditional songs from his mother.
The meeting of MacColl and Lloyd with Lomax, is credited with being the point at which the British folk revival[?] began. The two colleagues went back to London where they formed the Ballads and Blues Club[?] which eventually became renamed the Singers' Club[?] and was the first of what became known as folk clubs[?] - it was also the longest-running of them all. And as the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the folk revival movement built up in both Britain and America (it wasn't a 'revival' in Ireland, because Irish folk music never died).
In the United States, in the 1930s and 1940s, travelling performers such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie had both collected folk music and also composed their own songs. This vein of music became popular in the United States during the 1950s, through singers like the Weavers[?] (Seeger's group) and the Kingston Trio[?], who tried to reproduce and honor the work that had been collected in preceding decades.
Some of this music in the 1960s had references to timely political struggles. It seemed natural for such singers as Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan to follow in Guthrie's footsteps and to begin writing "protest music" while white support for the civil rights movement also grew. Some began to write songs about current situations, using the instrumentations and stanza forms they took from the tradition.
In Ireland, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem[?] (although the members were all Irish born, the group became famous while based in New York's Greenwich Village, it must be noted), The Dubliners[?], Clannad, Planxty[?], The Chieftains[?], The Pogues and a variety of other folk bands have done much over recent years to revitalise and repopularise Irish traditional music. These bands were rooted, to a greater or lesser extent, in a living tradition of Irish music, and they benefitted from collection efforts on the part of the likes of Seamus Ennis[?] and Peter Kennedy[?], among others.
When rock and roll stars and singer-songwriters began to sing traditional songs and play traditional tunes, this music, and the leading characteristics of the performance genre in which the music was made, were changed. For example, bass guitar and drum kit were often added to express and satisfy popular tastes; traditional melody and song were placed into arrangements that scarcely resembled their original sources.
As less traditional forms of folk music gained popularity, there grew to be a tension between so-called "purists" or "traditionalists" and the innovators. For example, traditionalists were indignant when Bob Dylan began to use an electric guitar. His electrified performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival[?] was to prove to be an early focal point for this controversy.
Sometimes, however, the exponents of amplified music were bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle[?] and Steeleye Span who saw the electrification of traditional musical forms as a means whereby to reach a far wider audience, and their efforts have been largely recognised for what they were by even some of the most die-hard of purists.
Other examples of this transformation have occurred with bluegrass (a development of American old time music[?]), which is often referred to as a kind of folk music, as well as with the use of traditional music in country music (itself a development of both bluegrass and old time music). In recent times, bluegrass has been revitalised by its central role in the Coen brothers' cult movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Since the 1970s a genre of "contemporary folk", fuelled by new singer-songwriters, have continued to make the coffee-house circuit and keep the tradition of accoustic music alive in the United States. Such artists include Steve Goodman, John Prine[?], Cheryl Wheeler[?], Bill Morrisey[?], and Christine Lavin. Lavin in particular has become prominent as a leading promoter of this musical genre in recent years. Some, such as Lavin and Wheeler, inject a great deal of humor in their songs and performances, although much of their music is also deeply personal and sometimes satirical.
Traditional folk music forms also merged with rock and roll to form the hybrid generally known as folk rock which evolved through performers such as The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, and many others. More recently the same spirit has been embraced and expanded on by performers such as Ani Difranco. At the same time, a line of singers from Baez to Phil Ochs have continued to use traditional forms for original material.
In addition to the direct descendants of traditional folk music, many have identified the street evolution and the overtly political lyrics of rap music as being strongly in the folk tradition.
Folk music is still extremely popular among some audiences today, with folk music clubs meeting to share traditional-style songs, and there are major folk music festivals in many countries, eg the Port Fairy Folk Festival[?] is a major annual event in Australia attracting top international folk performers as well as many local artists.
A similar stylistic shift, without using the "folk music" name, has occurred with the phenomenon of Celtic music, which in many cases is based on an amalgamation of Irish traditional music, Scottish traditional music[?], and other traditional musics associated with lands in which Celtic languages are or were spoken (regardless of any significant research showing that the musics have any genuine genetic relationship; so Breton music[?] and Galician music[?] are often included in the genre).
Folk music has frequently been the target of satire and parody. Exponents in this field range from the worst excesses of e.g.Rambling Syd Rumpo and Bill Oddie to the deft and subtle artistry of Sid Kipper[?], Eric Idle and Tom Lehrer. It should be noted that even "serious" folk musicians are not averse to poking fun at the form from time to time, for example Martin Carthy's devastating rendition of the "All the Hard Cheese of Old England", to the tune of "All the Hard Times of Old England", Robb Johnson[?]'s "Lack of Jolly Ploughboy" (in which he 'apologises' for including 'politics' in his material) and more recently "I'm Sending an E-mail to Santa" by the Yorkshire based harmony group Artisan[?] and the 2003 film A Mighty Wind[?].
Styles of folk music by nationality: