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folk music

“Folk music” is a general, and often rather vague, term used to describe the oral musical traditions of rurally based communities in Europe and America. Since the 1960s, with the growth of the music industry “folk” has also come to mean a genre within popular music: it usually designates a type of music which aspires to certain perceived virtues in the tradition, such as singers who can perform in communal situations without a great deal of technical equipment, songs with a social message, and so on. More recently the term “roots music” has begun to replace “folk,” reflecting the marketing of ethnic musics, which began in the 1980s, from around the world.

Broadly speaking, until the middle of the twentieth century there were isolated farming communities in Europe and America that continued to sing and play a more or less fixed repertoire of ballads, songs and tunes handed down orally over generations. The advent of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century fragmented these communities, first in Britain and later in the US. As agricultural workers migrated to the cities to find work in factories, other forms of entertainment, such as (in Britain) the music hall, superseded the old songs, stories and ritual celebrations of the countryside.

At the turn of the nineteenth century enterprising scholars, musicologists and collectors like Cecil Sharp, Percy Grainger and Francis J. Child traveled to areas such as the Scottish highlands and the Appalachian mountains, where the old ways of life still persisted, writing down and recording the last remnants of this rich musical culture. However, the “revivalists,” as they were called, tended to romanticize certain aspects of the culture, seeing it somewhat mystically as the collective art of the “folk,” instead of what it was: a hybrid music, some of it brought in by gypsies from other parts of the world, some of it composed as early as the fifteenth century by hack writers and sold as broadside ballads (the equivalent of tabloids) in the streets and markets of cities and towns.

During the 1930s and 1940s, collectors like Alan Lomax traveled across America, visiting singers in Pentecostal churches, penitentiaries and cotton fields, and recording them for the Library of Congress. Some singers, such as Leadbelly, had a vast repertoire, and Lomax gradually pieced together a collection of core songs like “Barbara Allan” and “Lord Randall,” together with hundreds of variants, which now form the basis of American folk music.

As the recording industry gathered momentum, promoters like John Hammond put out records of blues and Negro spirituals by early stars of the vaudeville circuit such as Bessie Smith. In the wake of the Depression, Woody Guthrie initiated a politically conscious form of folk music, singing at union meetings and labor camps around the country His songs told of the hardship and poverty he encountered; “This Land is Your Land” became a rallying call for activists, and was regarded by many as America’s “alternative” national anthem. Guthrie was joined by Pete Seeger and others in a group called the Almanac Singers, who performed at strikers’ demonstrations. In 1948 Seeger was blacklisted by McCarthy’s un-American Activities Committee, but continued to sell out concerts abroad.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the civil-rights movement brought black singers such as Leadbelly to the attention of a white public for the first time. The movement also produced its own stars, the greatest being Bob Dylan, who infused the folk tradition with new vigor and passion, rediscovering old folk songs and writing new ones in the context of America’s political struggle.

By the end of the 1960s, a new breed of popular singers was emerging. The popularity of artists like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell meant that any singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar and/or a social message was now dubbed a “folk singer,” whether or not they had any connection with the folk tradition—a situation that persists to the present day.

Folk music as a commercial style has waxed and waned. The success of the Greenwich Village scene songwriters like Fred Neil and Tim Hardin was short-lived and the troubadour tradition appeared to die out in the 1970s and 1980s, kept alive only by the efforts of mostly Texan boho songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Butch Hancock. In the 1990s, however, a new generation once more rejected the commercial mainstream of the music business and returned to neo-folk styles. In the US, Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams have followed pioneers like Michelle Shocked, while in Britain, Billy Bragg, Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy continue to revive the folk tradition kept alive since the 1960s by folk artists like Martin Carthy, The Watersons and June Tabor.

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