Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Folk music is the music that ordinary folk make to express themselves, using songs and techniques learned from families or neighbours handed down in some cases for many generations, including ethnic music, such as the social and religious ceremonial music of Africans or Native Americans. Folk music exists in every country and among every minority and occupation; in the USA Negro spirituals and blues were folk musics (but Jazz was not; see that entry). Work songs (sea shanties, cowboy songs etc) political and protest songs and love songs are found everywhere. Centuries ago in Britain words might be printed on one side of a large sheet of paper called a broadside; anybody could write words to a tune everybody knew, or make up a tune for words on a broadside; many of our nursery rhymes came down to us this way. In the 20th century it was still possible to find folk music in its pure state using a recording machine in the field, as Ralph Peer, John and Alan Lomax and others did, but this is no longer possible now that every mountain cabin has a TV set. It is not too much to say that much of the popular music of the 20th century comes from the two strands of American folk: the black (ex-slave) and the white (see Country Music, which used to be called 'folk', then 'hillbilly'), with the latter owing much to the UK and Ireland: as there are more regional accents per square mile in the UK than in North America, so there were many indigenous musics there, though none went to town and found commercial success as blues and country music did in the USA.

African American music retained a strong African heritage, and if European folk music is traced back back far enough, as Peter Van Der Merwe has done in his Origins Of The Popular Style: The Antecedents Of Twentieth-Century Popular Music (1989), a good case can be made that it all comes from Africa: the scales, modes, instruments etc of northern European folk music survived from mediaeval music, itself strongly influenced by North Africa and the Middle East. Harvard professor Francis James Child (1825-96) collected his English And Scottish Ballads; Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) published English Folk Songs: Some Conclusions in the UK in 1907, afraid that the folk song tradition in England was dying, also English Folk Songs From The Southern Appalachians in 1932: the accents and songs of American 'hillbillies' were traced back to Elizabethan England and Scotland. Albert Friedman (1920-2006) first published his Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World in 1956. The English Folk Song and Dance Society in London (its building named after Sharp) and the Library of Congress archives in Washington DC (see the Lomax entry) are important collections. Folk music revivals always seem to be happening; in fact folk music never goes away: it just requires a new definition every decade or so. The values of folk music do not change, but each generation brings a new bag of tricks to it, now that country people everywhere are no longer isolated from the mainstream of commercial music, but it was always subject to outside influence, the importation of the accordion to the US Southwest by German labourers being a good example.

Urban folk music as we know it began in the USA with Woody Guthrie, who came from the Dust Bowl to write songs in the folk idiom about poor people and politics, and his disciple Pete Seeger, but suffered from political persecution for years during the McCarthy era; Seeger's quartet the Weavers had huge hit records beginning in 1950 with 'Goodnight, Irene' but suddenly disappeared from the airwaves because they had been premature anti-fascists. It is a nasty paradox for those who love both music and freedom that while the USSR devoted resources to researching and preserving its multitude of folk styles before they disappeared, the Library of Congress's archive needed private donations and Seeger, collecting songs from around the world, was blacklisted. A. P. Carter (discovered by Peer; see the Carter Family) thought nothing of copyrighting songs he had collected; the more self-conscious Guthrie and Seeger were reluctant even to copyright their own work. Burl Ives, Oscar Brand, Win Stracke ('Chicago's minstrel', b 20 February 1908, Lorraine, Kansas; d 29 June 1991, Chicago) and many others kept the folk flame alive in the USA, with many children among their fans. Jack Elliott, a Guthrie acolyte, lived in England '55-61, recording there, influencing guitar playing and the emergent skiffle music. When Seeger visited the UK '61 he was impressed by the number of topical songs being written, leading to the founding of U.S. song outlet Broadside. The ten-CD anthology Songs For Political Action '96 on Bear Family, subtitled Folk Music, Topical Songs And The American Left 1926-1953, with a 200-page book examining that rocky road, is a fascinating document of its era.

Coffee houses in NYC's Greenwich Village were hothouses of folksingers and writers such as Elliott, Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, as well as outdoor hootenannies at Washington Square, but a U.S. revival began in 1958 with the Kingston Trio on the West Coast, whose slickness and straight appearance did not offend. Joan Baez revived Child ballads at the first Newport Folk Festivals (but country singers like Merle Travis had never stopped performing them); she also introduced Dylan to audiences. A generation disgusted by the paranoid politics of their elders practised the protest song and began writing their own, their talent and humour soon spilling over into any topic relevant to real life. Hank Williams had written scores of songs about the real lives of ordinary folk, laced with humour as well as sorrow; they are effectively folk songs because people all over the world identify with them without knowing or caring who wrote them. In the '60s jokes were made: 'Here's a folk song I wrote last week'. Bill Broonzy said when asked if he sang folk songs that he'd never heard a horse sing them. The singer/songwriters who wrote fine songs in the folk/country idiom since '60 also included Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian and Sylvia, Loudon Wainwright, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Dolly Parton, Canada's McGarrigle Sisters, scores more; many were published in Broadside and in Sing Out (edited by Irwin Silber 1951-67). Folk-rock and country-rock were invented by those who were not afraid to adopt modern materials and techniques. The 'redneck rock' and 'outlaw' movements '70s (see Country Music) were essentially moves back to folk values away from the slickness of Nashville: many of Guy Clark's best songs are about time passing, Richard Dobson's about working for a living, Butch Hancock's about West Texas; Terry Allen is a savagely funny urban cowboy who was also an art teacher; and they all wrote love songs.

In the USA the Vanguard, Elektra and Folkways labels were the most important in the folk revival; in the UK Topic Records was formed by the British Marxist Party for political purposes (like Keynote in the USA): the first Topic 78 was 'The Man That Waters The Workers' Beer', by Paddy Ryan. Topic went independent mid-'50s, its precarious history included a connection with USA Folkways; it now has one of the most valuable UK folk music catalogues, while the Leader/Trailer labels were also important. The Copper Family and the Watersons preserved British a cappella folk singing; A. L. Lloyd was an important broadcaster and traditionalist (and adviser to Topic); Archie and Ray Fisher were important in Scotland. There were and are many fiddlers, drummers and pipers preserving traditional techniques, while the Collins sisters and others innovated and wrote original music. Both in the USA and the UK, many of the folk-rockers of the '60s ultimately stayed close to their roots; in the UK the alumni of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span etc are still faithful to them and still pleasing fans (see also Home Service, the Albion Band, Brass Monkey, Richard Thompson etc). The UK folk-rock of that era was celebrated in Electric Eden by Rob Young in 2011.

In the USA members of the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers etc continued to write good songs, several of them ending up in neo-bluegrass units where many of them began. British folkies (with their preoccupation with class) can be just as parochial in their politics as the Sing Out gang of the '50s were, arguing about whether or not songs should be 'relevant' as the world changes around them, but their musical interests are wide: the name of their forum, Folk Roots magazine (formerly Southern Rag; 140 issues by '95) reflects eclecticism also seen in the catalogues of labels such as Rounder and Flying Fish in the USA. Roots music includes anything that is not and will not be adulterated by purely commercial considerations, from Yiddish klezmer and the multi-part harmony of Eastern European choral singing through Tex-Mex, Cajun, Zydeco and traditional blues styles to the better singer/songwriters. World music has recently been defined (by Folk Roots editor Ian Anderson) as 'local music, not from here (wherever here is)': African and Latin-American musics always threaten to become a bigger influence, bringing folkish elements with them; sympathetic Western musicians such as Ry Cooder and Peter Gabriel recording with Africans, Asians and others continue to bring world music to a wider audience (see Gabriel's entry for WOMAD, the festivals of world music).

If today's pop music were to be examined closely, it might be found that the scales, modes, intervals etc are often little more than those of traditional folk music. An astronomical number of songs must have been made up over the centuries by ordinary people, most of them heard around the hearth or the campfire and soon disappearing; since the advent of 'pop' music in the '60s home-made music has taken over the marketplace, for demographic and other reasons, so that nowadays the songs of the untutored are published, recorded and broadcast before they have a chance to fall by the wayside. This has had the unlooked-for side-effect of devaluing the craft of the professional songwriter. The values of what is still called folk or roots music have always been obscured because the music business is dominated by the search for the fastest buck, but more valuable work is always being done for those who know how to listen.

The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs had been published in 1959, edited by A.L. Lloyd and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who had begun collecting folksongs in 1903, when he recorded 'Bushes And Briars' by a 70-year-old labourer, Charles Pottipher, in a Essex village. A new edition was published in 2013, co-edited by Julia Bishop and Steve Roud, and The Full English Digital Archive was available at, with 58,400 manuscript items available, and there is much else on that website. EFDSS commissioned Fay Hield to put together a group called The Full English, who were touring in 2013, and their Topic CD included Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson, Nancy Kerr, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbran and Ben Nicholls: Simpson is a superb guitarist, Hield and Kerr are vocalists and four of them are fiddlers. Much of the album reflects the legacy of Joseph Taylor, an agricultural bailiff from Lincolnshire who was recorded by Percy Grainger in 1908.The eighth tracks starts with Taylor himself singing 'Brigg Fair' (all reviewed by Paddy Fuller in the Times Literary Supplement).