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.,
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).