The History of American Folk Music

Woody Guthrie Playing the Guitar
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

American folk music has no precise nameable origin because it organically grew out of a communal tradition more than for entertainment or profit. There are folk songs that date so far back they can be considered oral histories. Certainly, in America, songs by traditional American folk singers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie tell stories that often don’t even appear in history books.

From its origins, folk music has been the music of the working class. It is community-focused and has rarely enjoyed commercial success. By definition, it is something anyone can understand and in which everyone is welcome to participate. Folk songs range in subject matter from war, work, civil rights and economic hardship to nonsense, satire and, of course, love songs.

From the onset of American history, folk music has shown up at times when the people needed it most. The earliest folk songs rose from slave fields as spirituals such as “Down by the Riverside” and “We Shall Overcome.” These are songs about struggle and hardship but are also full of hope. They sprang from the need of the worker to go to a place in her brain where she knew there was more to the world than the hardships she was facing at the time.

Finding Common Ground Through Music

The 20th Century brought folk music back into the American psyche as workers struggled and struck for child labor laws and the eight-hour workday. Workers and folk singers gathered in churches, living rooms and union halls, and learned songs that helped them cope with their rough work environment. Joe Hill was an early folk songwriter and union agitator. His songs adapted the tunes of Baptist hymns by replacing the words with verses about the ongoing labor struggles. These tunes have been sung during worker strikes and in union halls ever since.

In the 1930s, folk music enjoyed a resurgence as the stock market crashed and workers everywhere were displaced, scrambling for jobs. A series of droughts and dust storms encouraged farmers out of the Dust Bowl region and toward promises in California and New York State. These communities were found in boxcars and jungle camps, as workers tried to make their way from job to job.

Woody Guthrie was one of those workers who headed to California in search of gainful employment. Woody wrote hundreds of songs between the 1930s and his death in 1967 of Huntington’s Chorea.

In the 1940s, bluegrass began to evolve as a distinct genre with greats like Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, which spawned banjo legend Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt, as well as Del McCoury and others.

A New Generation of Folk Songs

In the ‘60s, again, the American worker found himself in a struggle. This time, the main concern was not wages or benefits, but civil rights and the War in Vietnam. American folk singers gathered in coffee shops and at hootenannies in San Francisco and New York. They picked up the legacies of Woody Guthrie and others, singing songs about the concerns of the day. Out of this community rose Folk Rock’s superstars including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez. Their work dealt with everything from love and war to work and play. The 1960s folk revival offered political commentary while articulating a powerful promise for change.

By the 1970s, folk music had begun to fade into the background, as the US pulled out of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement saw its biggest triumphs. Throughout the decade, folk singers continued to persevere. James Taylor, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens and others wrote songs about relationships, religion, and the continuously-evolving political climate.

In the 1980s, folk singers focused on the Reagan-led economy and trickle-down economics. In New York, the Fast Folk Café opened and spawned the likes of Suzanne Vega, Michelle Shocked, and John Gorka.

The Best is Yet to Come

Today, American folk music has begun to swell again as the working class finds themselves in a position of economic recession and social change is welling up for everyone from the working and middle class to LGBT people, immigrants and others struggling for equality. As concerns have surfaced for civil rights for LGBT workers and unrest across the Middle East, folk singers in New York, Boston, Austin, Seattle, and lower Appalachia have emerged with a new, innovative approach to traditional music.

The alt-country movement that came to a head in the 1990s has given way to an Americana upsurge. A new generation of bluegrass bands has changed run with the idea of new grass and progressive bluegrass, adding elements of jazz and classical music to the mix, via artists like the Punch Brothers, Sarah Jarosz, Joy Kills Sorrow and several others who have poured out of the New England and New York acoustic music scene. The indie-rock scene of the early 2000s has reshaped acoustic music into something people are referring to now as "indie folk" or "indie roots," which is basically a blend of indie-rock and traditional song elements and acoustic instruments. Bands energized by the popularity of Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers are popping up all over the mainstream music scene. 

Folk festivals are also thriving with younger audiences joining their parents’ generation in celebrating folk singer/songwriters as variant as Kris Kristofferson, Dar Williams, Shovels + Rope and Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Folk labels like Red House and Lost Highway are popping up across the country, and up-and-comers are traversing the American Interstates to sing their songs in bars, clubs, coffeehouses, Unitarian Universalist Churches, at peace demonstrations and house concerts.

With the constantly evolving of socioeconomics in American and globally, folk music is certain to continue providing an outlet for communities to unite on social commentary.