Folk Music: Evolution of the Term and Scholars’ Works

Subject: Art
Pages: 10
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Study level: PhD

The term folk music was coined in the late 18th century in reference to a type of music (Ledgin, 2010). Folk music became very popular and influential during the 20th century. Since then, folk music has been defined using several meanings. In English speaking nations, folk music has been in existence for a long time. The term has been used to describe music from English ballad, Appalachian Bluegrass, Carter Family to work of modern songwriters. For instance, in England folk music refers to all traditionally based music dating back to medieval times. It is widely accepted that folk music has been passed on through oral tradition. Similarly, scholars assert that this type of music has no specific composer and is popular among the masses. For the last few centuries, the popularity of folk music has been thought to be declining. During the 19th century, European collectors from England and Germany came up with an operation aimed at salvaging folk music (Ling, 2007). Ever since the operation, several professionals, folklorists, and ethnomusicologists have worked relentlessly to conserve this genre of music. In the USA, scholars have postulated that globalization is the greatest threat to the success of current folk music. According to these scholars, globalization has enhanced modernization, disintegration of rural societies, and adoption of mass media leading to the homogenization of musical cultures. Despite these challenges, folk music has survived to be the most celebrated type of music in the 21st century (Ling, 2007). This paper seeks to explore the evolution of the term folk music, lay out the problems encountered when defining the term, analyze critically the works of several scholars on the topic, and outline a justifiable 21st century understanding of the term.

Evolution of the term

In English speaking nations, the term folk music was first used by literally and historical collectors during the late 18th century. Before the adoption of this term, the originators of this type of music did not consider their ululations, shouts, and ceremonial melodies as music. This type of music was included in the polyphonic art music between the 16th and 17th century. As such, this music employed the use of classical and exotic instruments. It was not until the late 18th century that these songs were generalized under the name folk music. Across Europe, this generalization occurred during the same time. With this generalization, collectors were able to counterbalance this genre of music with other specialized functions and regulations in art music. During this era, folk music was considered as an antidote to modernized types of music. Similarly, this type of music bridged the gap between the diverse music environments of the time. Some scholars argue that the term is recent unlike the music itself. According to these scholars, the term was coined from the term folklore. Williams Thoms first used the term in the mid 19th century. Thoms used the term in reference to traditions, customs, and superstition of uncivilized communities. Some scholars suggest that the term is an extension of the German word Volk. In Europe, the term folk came in to existence during the late 18th century. Johann Herder introduced the term into the field of music. Before then, the term was used in diverse contexts. For instance, in his book Johann Herder referred to the songs he heard from the rural Europeans as folk music. According to him, this music was characterized by the message it portrayed. As such, this music reflected the history, landscapes, and distinct physical features of the communities from which the music was accredited.

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Across English speaking nations, the evolution of folk music has been influenced by multicultural differences. Although tribes, societies, and communities are characterized by specific cultures and behaviors, these aspects have equally contributed to the existence of the current diverse folk music. With increase in transport systems during the late 19th century, more people were able to travel far away from their original homelands leading to cultural fusion. During the early 20th century, invention in radio communication eliminated communication challenges between two different geographical areas. Through these advancements, numerous audiences could access several types of music. During this time, folk music embodied the social pressing issues in the societies such as oppressive politics, slavery, and diseases. Between the years 1920 and 1930, American labor unions were championing for their workers’ welfare and equality in the American labor force. These unions employed folk songs to get their massage passed across the world. As such, people used to gather in social grounds and sing these songs with the aim of advocating for social equality in their communities.

The problems of defining the term

As earlier stated, the definition of folk music in English speaking nations has been a subject of contention. In the recent past, music students, scholars, songwriters, and singers have come up with several conflicting definitions of folk music. According to Sandberg & Weissman, the users and developers of this type of music can define folk music preeminently (Sandberg & Weissman, 2000). Owing to the lack of unanimity in the definition of folk music, the term has been elusive to most music professionals attracting several controversies. Despite these controversies, the term has been embraced with ever-increasing prestige in our societies. Notably, the public is to be blamed for the misuse of the term. Currently, more artists can increase their fame and sales from their songs if they include the term folk in their labels. In the same way, the term has been used in reference to folklore music. Just as the public, scholars should also be blamed for the misuse of this word. Both in the past and in the present, scholars have failed to agree on the accepted definition of folk music. Owing to this, confusion has arisen leading to some people shunning the use of this term while others have stopped using the term completely. As earlier stated, defining and categorizing folk music has been a challenge for most music professionals. This difficulty is attributed to the music’s style, cultural function, and its relationship with other genres of music. Despite this, several cultures have come up with their own distinctive ways of identifying and classifying folk music. Through this, the classification of folk music has varied from one society, culture, and region to another. For instance, music categorized as folk music in Europe might not be categorized as folk music in America, Asia, and Africa (Sandberg & Weissman, 2000). In history, western scholars have employed two approaches in defining folk music. In identifying this music, scholars focus on stylistic features and the background. For instance, folk music for some individuals has to sound in a particular way, composed in a specific manner, and be produced by specific members of a society.

For folklorists, is has been challenging tasks to define and categorize folk music (Sandberg & Weissman, 2000). This is evident through folklorists’ lack of unanimity. Equally, music students have come up with several definitions of folk music. For some students, this type of music is defined as peasant music or rural music. Alternatively, for some this type of music represents rural or ethnic groups’ music. With the current advancements in media, the content and definition of folk music have changed. In this regard, it is apparent that the definition of folk music has been mutating over time.

From the above analysis, it is should be noted that the challenges faced in defining folk music originate from the perception that the folklore or folk music must be very old. This perception has been passed on from generation to generation leading to the creation of folk music myths. Due to this, some scholars have rejected genuine folk songs for lacking sufficient age. Based on these scholars understanding folk music, folk music must be transmitted from one generation to another by word of mouth, related to national culture, and commemorate historical and personal events. These characteristics of folk music are still used by some music professionals in categorizing music types. Despite the existences of these characteristics, modern scholars have come up with modern guidelines for categorizing folk music. According to modern scholars, the background of a given piece of music determines whether it should be categorized as a folk music or not. Based on the background of the music, a song composed by a trained musician or composer cannot be referred to as a folk music. On the other hand, a song composed by untrained musician is fit to be categorized as a folk song. Although the proponents of these guidelines argue that there principles are based on new studies. As such, their definitions depend on classical music myths that have associated folk music with the past.

Another way of defining folk song is based on its method of transmission. Usually, music professionals and scholars acknowledge music that has been passed through orally tradition as a folk music (Sandberg & Weissman, 2000). It is disappointing to note that in learning institution’s songs have been passed on by oral tradition but modern scholars have failed to classify them as folk songs. These songs have not been categorized as folk songs because they have been composed and performed by professionals. Based on this mode of definition, controversies have arisen when it comes to classifying songs that have been passed on through oral tradition and printed media. This has resulted in some songs being considered as folk music by some and art songs by others. What should be noted is that almost all songs begin in written form before they are converted into other forms. Therefore, if a written song gets to be passed on through oral tradition it should also be considered as a folk song. As illustrated above, the definitions of folk music will remain contentious in our societies if scholars fail to identify the appropriate method of identifying and categorizing this genre of music.

Scholars’ works with folk music

In English speaking nations, Charles Seeger is considered as the father of modern American folk songs. Throughout his lifetime, Seeger made enormous contributions in the field of music. Currently, he is accredited to the revitalization of folk songs in the USA. Like his father, Seeger had considerable understanding of academic approach to folk songs. His father had composed several popular folk songs in America during the early 20th century. As a professor of music, Seeger worked relentlessly to publicize the folk music among the American societies. Through his teachings, he asserted that the American societies unlike their ancestors were music illiterates. In a bid to enhance folk music in the community, Seeger came up with a folk a society that was supposed to compose and perform vernacular songs. In all these songs, survival, revival, and arrival elements of folk songs were paramount. Seeger lamented that through folk songs Americans could appreciate colonization, industrialization, and urbanization. Through the article Folk Music in the Schools of a Highly Industrialized Society, Seeger asserted that all folklorists are required to preserve and pass on folk songs to the future generations. To achieve this, he postulated that educators should be involved in teaching children the significance folk songs as any other type of music.

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Just like his father, Seeger perceived folk music to be vivacious and part of the current events rather than the past events. Through his works, he came up with a remarkably diverse collection of folk songs from the USA and around the world. He would perform these folk songs before his audience to illustrate the importance of folk music in the society. His understanding of several cultures made him popular among the youths who considered folk music as the music of the past and the lower class members of the society. Similarly, through his diverse cultural understanding he was able to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural audiences.

Another person who contributed immensely to the popularity of folk music is Percy Scholes. Scholes wrote over 30 books focusing on folk music appreciation. Apart from music, Scholes was a prolific writer. He served as a music critic in several magazines including Music Magazine and The Queen. During his part time, Scholes served as an extension lecturer teaching music in several universities including Cambridge, Oxford, and London. In the World War I, he served as an organizing secretary for military troops in France. As an organizing secretary, he developed several entertainment camps in both neutral and enemy countries.

Woody Guthrie is another famous individual who contributed hugely in the field of folk music. Through his folk songs, writings, and poetries, Guthrie managed to bridge the gap that existed between the American rural and urban audiences. As an advocate for the workers’ rights, Guthrie composed several songs that focused on the workers welfare and protests. Through this, he was able to reach out to a wide range audience. Both the young and elderly thinkers appreciated and enjoyed his works. Through Dust Bow Ballads and Bound for Glory records, Guthrie became a living legend of American folk songs during the mid 20th century (Sandberg & Weissman, 2000). Similarly, through these contributions he managed to be considered as a folk revivalist in the 20th century. Guthrie’s songs such as Dead from the Dust, This Land are Your Land, Pastures of Plenty and Tom Joad became popular among American youths and youths from other English speaking nations. Before his death, Guthrie’s contribution turned him into a political and cultural hero. His ability to embrace both the rural and urban world enhanced his musical career.

Defensible 21st-century understanding of the term folk music

From the mid 1950’s onwards, folk music evolved into a new type of music (Mitchell, 2007). This type of music was referred to as folk revival music. Unlike the previous types of folk music, folk revival music appealed to both the old and the young members of English speaking societies. These changes were not only limited to the USA and other English speaking nations. All over the world, similar versions of folk music appeared. This type of music fused several genres such as rock and metal.

Although our current understanding of folk music is still influenced by the beliefs about the facets of folk songs passed on from our ancestors, this genre of music has evolved and expanded. Nowadays, many artists have continued to use the term folk in their labels despite the fact that these labels lack the basic aspects of folk songs. These acts beg the issue on whether the listeners should listen and evaluate whether a given song should be considered as folk or not. Unlike the previous folk songs, today’s folk songs have been influenced by technology and globalization. In general, the 21st century’s folk music in English speaking nations embraces acoustic related music from the western countries, are predominantly English based, and a few originate from Celtic music and blues. Through this, folk music has managed to compete with other genres of music as it did during the mid 20th century. Similarly, 21st century folk music’s content focuses on the current political, social, and cultural issues such as wars, AIDS, gay rights, and hunger. Unlike the past folk songs, the current folk songs should have added contextual color in both instrumentation and presentation. Similarly, the current folk songs should not be confined to the standards that restricted the past folk song singers and writers from expanding their potentials.


Current folk music has been shaped by our histories. Since its inception, folk music has expanded and diversified to accommodate other types of music. During its inception, the society’s culture and physical features characterized folk music in English speaking nations. However, current social and economic issues such as wars, diseases, and workers’ welfare characterize folk songs. By embodying these features, folk songs have communicated and provoked social change in the societies. During the mid 20th century, folk song revival was witnessed across all English speaking nations. Unlike before, this style of music became very popular reaching over to millions of audience worldwide. The growth and popularity of folk songs during the mid 20th century is attributed to the ambitions of singers and songwriters such as Charles Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Bob Dylan (Tick & Beaudoin, 2008). These singers helped to popularize and break new grounds to intimate acoustic performance associated with folk music in the contemporary society. Ever since then, music students, songwriters, singers, and scholars have been looking for new ways to popularize and add value to folk music to attract a wide range of audience. Despite this, it is still a fact that there are more controversies of folk songs than there are its concepts. Although several scholars have tried to shed more light into this genre of music, a few areas have remained uncovered.


Ledgin, S. P. (2010). Discovering folk music. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Praeger.

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Ling, J. (2007). A history of European folk music. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press.

Mitchell, G. (2007). The North American folk music revival nation and identity in the United States and Canada , 1945-1980. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.

Sandberg, L., & Weissman, D. (2000). The folk music sourcebook. New York: Knopf.

Tick, J., & Beaudoin, P. E. (2008). Music in the USA: a documentary companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.