Eiland's Online English Materials

© tt eiland, 2009

Folk Music

Folk is one of the three main roots of American music. Its musical roots are in 18th century European (1748) and indigenous music derived from various cultural influences, but generally used to refer to any form of music that is based in rural, non-aristocratic, working class roots, using various acoustic instruments as modes of musical communication.

Although music that originates in the oral tradition tends to be difficult to document, folk music in the United States has been part of rural tradition since the immigrants from Europe came to the continent. Folk music in America varies from region to region, the only thread being that it is predominately associated with western European settlers, especially the Irish, English, French and Germans. It was passed around largely through oral tradition and thus changed from one musician to the next. As time progressed, folk music practitioners incorporated themes and sounds and melodies from other cultures to expand the genre, including native American, African, and Latin rhythms, chord structures, lyrics and instrumentation. Unlike blues and jazz, folk music is heavily dependent on lyrics, with a wide range of presentation styles, ranging from solo male and female singers to large groups presenting complex harmonies.

Themes in folk lyrics tend to reflect the tribulations and joys of the lower class working person, including oppression, poverty, jail, debt, death and general loss, as well as loyalty, patriotism, family pride, regional recognition and religious identity. Folk's origins are revealed in songs extolling lives of cowboys, miners, farmers, and hunters, and the songs themselves reflect roots in ballads, game and parlor songs, children's songs and the like. In the 50's and 60's a sect of folk music focused more on protest music, becoming more overtly political and vociferous, identified with primarily liberal causes.

Folk music is still primarily identified with western European chord patterns and melodies using acoustic instruments and prominent vocalization, including complex harmonies. Instrumentally, guitar, fiddle, concertina and harmonica are common.

Woodie Guthrie, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan

Works Cited

Pegg, Carole. Folk. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd ed.
      S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan, 2001.

© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: September 2, 2009