Folk Music

FOLK MUSIC...A History

Folk is a wonderful, joyful genre of music and there is so much to delve into. Here is a little history to help you understand how it came to be...


Lesson from Chris Chouiniere


Explore the development of folk music, from the word ''volk'' to Bob Dylan and beyond! We'll learn what folk was, what folk became, and what folk means today. Finally, we'll learn about who the important folks are in folk music.


Where Folk Came From...

Folk music takes its name from the German word volk, which essentially means 'the people.' Folk music came to be used derisively to refer to the music of the uncultured class of people. This differentiates folk music from the traditional European concert music, establishing the class conflict between the folk and the elite.

What Is Folk?

The contemporary folk music genre is defined as a primarily English genre utilising traditional, acoustic instruments. Commonly the topics involve the plight of the common people (folk), including depression, oppression, and war. As the genre developed from traditional folk music, the music came to be known more for its storytelling, regardless of instrumentation and musicality.

Traditional folk music was commonly associated with folklore and was transmitted orally. There is a strong nationalist component to the music, as it is largely associated with the national culture, rather than the artistic elite. Typical instrumentation includes acoustic guitars, banjo, fiddle, and accordion, accompanying a voice. More exotic (though equally common) instruments may include the dulcimer (a simple stringed lap instrument), the zither (another stringed lap instrument), and various percussive instruments.

Development of Folk Music

The earliest folk musicians include Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Jimmie Rogers, and Burl Ives. Of the four, Woody Guthrie in the 1930s is often seen as the first significant contributor to the genre. His earliest works focused on the plight of the working class in the Dust Bowl Midwest, and he and his music were largely associated with the far-left political spectrum, such as socialists and communists.

One of the most prolific early folk musicians, who was prolific up until his death in 2014, was Pete Seeger. Much like Woody Guthrie, his music largely focused on the plight of protest music, aligning himself with the political left to the degree of being blacklisted as a communist. Seeger was frequently associated with the Civil Rights movement as well, with his version of 'We Shall Overcome' becoming an anthem of the movement. Seeger was well known for involving the crowd (the folk) in his performances, frequently turning concerts into sing-alongs.

The Mid 1960s and the 1970s

Bob Dylan's music wasn't particularly new or unique. It developed naturally in the genre, yet became truly transcendent. Dylan's primary importance to the genre was his ability to move it from a niche to the mainstream. His work was progressive, much like Seeger and Guthrie, to whom he was most frequently compared, yet he was not as controversial or even feared (by the establishment anyways) like they were. In 1965, Dylan broke from tradition and began using electric instruments. This marked an important transition into the use of electro-acoustic instruments, which though not entirely accepted at the time, continues to today.

The '60s had a number of musicians who, despite being largely successful within the genre, did not achieve the same mainstream notoriety that Dylan achieved. Joan Baez was Dylan's close friend and may have been one of the reasons he was so well known. She used to introduce him as the opening act at her shows. Donovan, the first of the popular folk musicians from England, came to be known as the London Dylan. Judy Collins was a powerful protest singer, though perhaps because of this she did not achieve the same commercial success. Her rendition of Seeger's 'Turn Turn Turn' is well regarded, and she followed Dylan into electrics with her recordings of Beatles songs. Finally, there's Peter, Paul and Mary, whose renditions of Dylan's works, including 'Blowin' in the Wind' and 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right' helped bring further recognition for Dylan and brought the genre further into the mainstream.

By the '70s, folk music continued as a primary genre with both acoustic and electric acts, the most influential of which were Simon & Garfunkel, the Mamas & the Papas, Arlo Guthrie, and John Denver, though in reality each had taken the genre in entirely different directions, foreshadowing the subgenre development to come. The Mamas & the Papas were far more influenced by pop music than most of their predecessors, John Denver's music had a distinctly country sound, while Arlo Guthrie continued the traditional folk sound his father started in the early '30s.

The 1980s and Beyond: Subgenres

Subgenres are the development of a new genre based on different musical elements, or the merging of multiple genres. Of the multiple ways in which folk music developed, the most commercially successful has been the Punk Folk genre, with the Pogues representing the earliest version of this. Successfully combining folk musical elements such as storytelling and folk instruments with punk music ethos, including distorted guitars and fast rhythms, the Pogues achieved commercial success in the early '80s.

Continuing down this musical tree, the Dropkick Murphys, though commonly classified as Celtic Punk, represent further development from Folk to Folk Punk to Celtic Punk. Other subgenres include Folk Metal, where elements of folklore and traditional instrumentation are mixed with the metal genre; Viking Metal, which is a specific subgenre of Folk Metal, using Viking mythology; and to some extent Skiffle, which is seen as a merger of the popular musics of America into a stylistically UK genre from which the Beatles came.

Lesson Summary

Folk music is the music of the common people, as opposed to the European classical concert music. Its name is derived from the German volk, which means 'people.' Folk music began as a traditional genre, associated with the folklore of the region. By the 1930s, the genre had changed, and of early contemporary folk musicians, Woody Guthrie is widely seen as the first significant contributor to the genre. Early folk musicians were primarily associated with the political left, like communists and socialists, and their music typically dealt with social issues, including war, depression, and oppression. This association continued through the development of the genre, including through the '60s with Dylan, and beyond with the Pogues. Folk music developed into multiple subgenres, blending disparate forms of music into new hybrid genres, including Folk Metal, Folk Punk, Viking Metal, and Skiffle to name a few.

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