The History of American Folk Songs

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The term "folk song" covers a vast array of musical styles, from traditional country and western to Cajun and Zydeco and Appalachian music to the songs of the urban diaspora. Academically and within the tradition of American folk music, a folk song is one that uses traditional melodies and/or modes to speak on a particular topic. Often, topical folk songs address social and political issues such as work, war, and popular opinion, although not all folk songs are topical or political. Some are personal dirges or ballads about family stories, love songs or even nonsense songs. 

Many folk songs have been around so long that nobody is entirely sure who their composers were. Often these songs are passed down within a community and they evolve over time to address the issues of the day. Such songs include "We Shall Overcome," and "We Shall Not be Moved," as well as other spirituals and empowerment anthems.

Other timeless folk songs have definite origins, such as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" or "If I Had A Hammer" by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. These songs are often so poignant, honest and timeless, they become enmeshed in the culture and are known by just about everyone.

Nuances in the Definition of Folk Music

Folk songs are typically about a community of people, and the issues they feel are important to them. However, in popular music, critics, artists, and fans tend to use the phrase "folk song" to refer to music made using acoustic instruments. Pop music audiences identify political music that is played on acoustic instruments as "folk songs." Group singing, simple harmonies and the use of traditional instruments such as banjo or mandolin as "folk music" are also identified as folk songs, even when the performance or recording is being made primarily for profit and aimed at a large audience.

Though these songs do in fact incorporate elements that are indigenous to American folk music, there is a difference between the folk songs of popular music and the folk songs created by folk singers. Usually, this difference is in the relationship between the artist and audience, and the motivation behind singing the song. Many folksingers would agree that when a song is sung primarily for profit and the popularity of the artist, it is pop music. Whereas when it is a song that rises out of the need of the artist or community and is sung to inform or incite an audience to action — whether that action is deep thought, joining in the singing or social action — it is generally thought of as folk music. There are, of course, many blurred lines between those two motivations, which explains the amount of confusion and disagreement among music fans, critics and others regarding what exactly "folk music" is. 

Developing Folk Music in America

Many of the musicologists who went into the field during the 19th and 20th centuries to collect and document the folk songs from various communities did not collect political songs because those were in a different class of music. However, with the influence of Woody Guthrie, who married the troubadour tradition with modern popular music while singing about news headlines and historical stories, their approach began to change. By the time the folk music revival of the 1950s and '60s came along, many audiences around America started to conflate political protest music with "folk music."

Though many in the folk revival were playing actual traditional folk songs or creating new songs in that tradition, the political music of the era was more resonant and provocative due to the socio-political climate of the time. Thus, the popularization of "folk songs" developed its own image as a form of music which is acoustic and carries a strict social conscience. Some music historians see that as one among many moments in the evolution of American folk music, while others see it as a definitive period for both folk and pop music. 

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer when it comes to defining a style of music. Many of the pop music artists who get credit for being folk singers these days are drawing from some part of the tradition of American folk music and recognizing the influence of the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie, among others, on the development of the form. However, they are also pulling strongly from the tradition of rock and pop music, as many also cite the influence of more modern mainstream bands like the Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and Nirvana.

Within the scope of folk music, the songs that popular musicians sing-speak on behalf of the American experience, as all those elements have collaborated in the formation of a wider American culture since the advent of radio and television and the internet. Though some of the folk songs of today may not remain relevant generations from now, it is hard to argue that they are not speaking on behalf of the communities where the artists reside, using traditional instruments and often familiar — if not completely borrowed — melodies.

Contemporary folk songs cover topics from love and relationships to racism, terrorism, war, voting, education, and religion, among other topics that are relevant to today's society.