Folk Music: A History

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Folk Music: A History

by Zack Bunting

Folk music has been around for a very long time—we’re talking thousands of years. Initially folk music was simply songs that were passed on from generation to generation orally and would reflect the cultural and historical happenings of whatever tribe they belonged to. This was humanity’s first real attempt at keeping records; it’s also where we get the term folklore. What made it “folk” was it was about the people and their history; it was music about them.

As time went on and written records start to catch on, folk music began to become more focused. It came to be the music of the laborers, the slaves, and the poor. It united the sufferers and gave them a community. But it still kept its historic feel; they were still telling a story, only now the narrative was about the people’s tragedies.

What makes folk music “folk” is its storytelling. All folk music is narrative, an oral tradition practiced by all of humanity. That’s why it’s such a hard genre to define and explain, especially with the modern iterations.

Traditionally (as in early 20th century) folk music was any song that was not made for mass consumption, something that was made for and about a specific community, and had no real known author. Music made by the people, for the people. So how do we have “mainstream” folk today? Technically speaking, we don’t, but that’s all just semantics.

Today, “experts” would say that folk music is anything borrowing from that original unknown source (i.e. just covers of what is already considered folk,) but experts are stupid. At some point during the 1950s, folk music began to meld with pop and rock, and what we got was acoustic pop with a moral message. We saw this mainly in the form of protest songs in the 60s from artists like the late Pete Seeger.

Folk music is everywhere and has a presence in almost every genre. It is music that aspires to be part of a community; it aspires to be relatable and moving. More importantly, it is music that still tells a story that highlights community’s struggles and achievements. It is inspired by its predecessors in that it is typically played with traditional acoustic instruments, but at its heart, folk music is more of a way of thinking about music than it is a definable category.

Folk music is at the heart of American culture, it has inspired and connected us for generations, and luckily it still strives on today in new forms.

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