Introduction | Folk

It was Louis Armstrong (or Leadbelly, depending on whom you believe) who came up with the famous final word on the definition of folk music: ‘It’s ALL folk music … I ain’t never heard no horse sing.…’

The quote has been repeated ad nauseam throughout the years, but it has not prevented strenuous debate about the meaning of folk music in every country in which it is performed. Which is every country in the world. ‘Music of the people, by the people, for the people’ was the neat description favoured by early British folklorists, giving it a social and political context free of the stylistic parameters that tend to tag it in modern days.

It means different things in different countries. In its purest form, folk is the natural expression of a people and, therefore, arguably the most natural and organic musical genre of all, whether it comes in the form of African tribal chants, the ceremonial songs of Native Americans, or old England fertility rituals. In many cases, the cultural history of a country is reflected in its indigenous music, which evolves to meet the changing nature of the times and people, blurring the boundaries of genre definition. Cowboy songs, sea shanties, romantic ballads, prison work songs, gypsy music… all might legitimately be recognized as folk music. A century ago, African-American spirituals and, later on, the blues and even hillbilly country music might have justifiably been considered the true folk music of America. Logically, you could make a strong argument for rap being modern folk music. Common perception today, however, tends to associate folk music with acoustic guitars and storytelling lyrics.

The very nature of the music’s history means that its repertoire encompasses many shapes and styles. It has metamorphosed dramatically through vagaries of fashion and shifting opinions of its relevance. It is one of the sadder and most mystifying characteristics of modern culture that the indigenous folk music of the people is rarely accorded the respect of its own people in its own land – whatever land that may be. In many cases, it has been left to enthusiasts to march against the tide, collecting and protecting traditional songs and tunes, and providing the raw material that has fuelled folk revivals at different times. It is often said that one country with an unbroken folk tradition is Ireland, but in pre-war times even Irish music was confined to remote rural areas. It survived courtesy of émigrés in America, playing to provide a few home thoughts from abroad.

By the end of the nineteenth century, British folk music had long been in decline, singers having been discouraged from performing their old songs of simple emotions and heartfelt expressions of working-class life. The songs had often been handed down to them through several generations, but many had been conditioned to be ashamed of their legacy and refused to sing them. There was a concerted campaign at the beginning of the twentieth...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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