Folk Music

folk song

folk song, music of anonymous composition, transmitted orally. The theory that folk songs were originally group compositions has been modified in recent studies. These assume that the germ of a folk melody is produced by an individual and altered in transmission into a group-fashioned expression. National and ethnic individuality can be seen in folk music, even in the case of songs transplanted from one country to another. There is scarcely any people whose folk song is wholly indigenous, and among notable cases of transplanting is the English ballad found in various parts of the United States. Many of these were collected in the late 19th cent. by Francis Child and in the early 20th cent. by Cecil Sharp. In addition, many American folk songs are of other European or African origin. Americans occasionally consider as folk songs certain songs of traceable authorship, e.g., "Dixie."

Interest in folk music grew during the 19th cent., although there were earlier scholars in the field, such as Thomas Percy whose Reliques, a collection of English ballad texts, appeared in 1765. Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (3 vol., 1803) is a major source on Scottish ballads. Béla Bartók did outstanding work in notating the folk music of central Europe early in the 20th cent., and before him the Russian nationalist composers made use of their country's folk music. Conversely, folk song often shows the influence of formally composed music; this is particularly true of 17th- and 18th-century European folk song.

The collection and transcription of folk music was greatly facilitated by the invention of the phonograph and tape recorder. Using this equipment, John and Alan Lomax gathered many varieties of American folk songs from various cultural traditions throughout much of the 20th cent. Since the early 1950s folk music has become an especially significant influence and source for much popular vocal and instrumental music. Folksingers such as Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger performed traditional songs and wrote their own songs in the folk idiom, an approach that was later used and modified by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and others.

See also ballad; chantey; spiritual.

See J. A. Lomax and A. Lomax, Folk Songs, U.S.A. (1948); C. Haywood, ed., Folk Songs of the World (1966); W. R. Trask, ed., The Unwritten Song (1966); E. Martinengo-Cesaresco, Essays in the Study of Folksongs (1976); S. L. Forucci, A Folk Song History of America (1984); P. V. Bohlman, The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World (1988); B. Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music (2000); D. K. Dunaway and M. Beer, Singing Out: An Oral History of America's Folk Music Revivals (2010).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States
Bruno Nettl.
Wayne State University Press, 1962 (Revised edition)
To Everything There Is a Season: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song
Allan M. Winkler.
Oxford University Press, 2009
A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America
Grace Elizabeth Hale.
Oxford University Press, 2011
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Black as Folk: The Folk Music Revival, the Civil Rights Movement, and Bob Dylan"
Folksongs and Their Makers
Henry Glassie; Edward D. Ives; John F. Szwed.
Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1970
Singing Out: An Oral History of America's Folk Music Revivals
David King Dunaway; Molly Beer.
Oxford University Press, 2010
National Music and Other Essays
Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Clarendon Press, 1996 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "The Folk Song"
Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997
Ronald D. Cohen; Alan Lomax.
Routledge, 2003
Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music
Ray Pratt.
Praeger, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Folk Music and Its Uses"
Music, Power, and Politics
Annie J. Randall.
Routledge, 2005
American Folksongs of Protest
John Greenway.
Octagon Books, 1970
Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music
Peter Van der Merwe.
Clarendon Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: "British Folk Music" begins on p. 21; "The Parlour Modes and Folk Music" begins on p. 238
Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music
Henry Edward Krehbiel.
F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1975
Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom
Lawrence W. Levine.
Oxford University Press, 1978
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Rise of Secular Song"
Rock It Come Over: The Folk Music of Jamaica
Olive Lewin.
University of the West Indies Press, 2000
Ozark Country
W. K. McNeil.
University Press of Mississippi, 1995
The Ballad of America: The History of the United States in Song and Story
John Anthony Scott.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1983
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