Wherever you come from, one of the core tenets of folk music is that it can be sung by the lay-person. It’s accessible, and it’s catchy, and in some cases, the songs go back hundreds of years .
Modern folk music grew out of the traditional folk music tradition. It took the verse-chorus structure and many of its themes and transplanted them to modern America.
Folk music reached its heyday during the 1960s, now affectionately dubbed the ‘Folk Revival’ by many musicologists.
A defining characteristic of folk music is that it draws on oral tradition.
Accordingly, Folk Revival era songs use a storytelling structure that hearkens back to that oral tradition element. Examples include:
- Reverend Mr. Black
- Desert Pete
- Tijuana Jail
Another characteristic of folk music is that it’s deeply linked with the culture of the nation it belongs to. So, there’s a significant difference between the folk music of Australia, Scotland, and America.
For instance, Scotland’s early folk songs are in Gaelic. Conversely, American folk artists sing their folk songs in English, whether you’re talking about The Streets of Laredo, Yankee Doodle, or, Where Have All the Flowers Gone. There are a few exceptions, like Guatanamara, but these folk songs typically take their source text from other countries. The uniquely cultural element is still there, but they’re less tied to work and working practices.
The folk revival also shifted how many people played American folk songs, and the 12-string banjo became a staple feature of the genre. It was inexpensive, portable, and anyone could learn.
This was important because, in addition to being a homage to American history, folk music’s other defining characteristic was its causes. As the folk musicians of America traveled up and down the country, they sang songs in support of:
- Walter O’Brien’s election campaign
- Protesting the Vietnam War
- Climate Change
As the music spread, so did awareness of these causes. And whether or not people supported them, folk music was catchy, and it stuck.
Folk music goes back hundreds of years, and in the 17th and 18th century collecting old, antiquated folk songs was fashionable. Some of these include:
- Pastime in Good Company
- De’el Among the Tailors
- Barbara Allen
But for most people, when they hear folk music, they immediately think of the songs of the 1950s and 1960s. Here are some of the best examples of folk music throughout history.
Jute Mill Song by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger
Much like the bobbins in The Jute Mill Song, the rhythm of this folksong shifts depending on who sings it. This is appropriate since the original song started life as a mere chorus.
Factory workers in Dundee would sing it while loading the bobbins in the jute mills. They sang in time to their work, so the rhythm shifted from moment to moment.
Mary Brooksbank first discovered this musical fragment at 13 when she joined the jute mill factory. Inspired, she went on to write The Jute Mill Song.
Because of its unapologetic acknowledgment of the wage and class discrepancies between the factory workers and the middle class, many believe Brooksbank’s song features some of the most politically-charged lyrics ever put to music.
Outside a Small Circle of Friends by Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs’ biting and satirical indictment of society is a fast-paced romp that pokes fun at ‘the bystander effect.’
Ochs was inspired to write the song by the Kitty Genovese murder. Grabbed outside her New York apartment in 1964. Horrifyingly, newspapers reported an astonishing 38 witnesses heard or saw the murder but failed to intervene.
However, Ochs damning satire doesn’t tell the whole story. Genovese, badly injured, retreated to the rear of her apartment block, thinking she was safe. When her attacker returned, he raped and murdered her, but not before Kitty’s screams drew a neighbor, who did, in fact, call the police. They arrived after Kitty Genovese died.
Ochs' chorus was also topical. He took the title as well as the refrain from a conversation he overheard while drinking coffee.
Ochs ran with it, the jaunty, upbeat melody of the song at odds with the horrors it recounts.
Where Have All the Flowers Gone by Pete Seeger and the Weavers
Seeger wrote Where Have All the Flowers Gone after reading a book about the Cossacks living on the Don River.
The book quoted an old Cossack folksong, including three lines that became the genesis for Where Have All the Flowers Gone.
But while Seeger found the lines moving and was intrigued by the picture of the Cossacks singing and working, it wasn’t until he was traveling that the rest of the song came to him.
He took it to a summer camp, where Joe Hickerson agreed to try the lyrics out with his campers. Seeger says Hickerson gave the song rhythm, something Seeger hadn’t got round to yet. The kids mucked around with the lyrics, and the progression developed.
Joe Hickerson added a final two verses that put the cap on the cyclical narrative, and for the rest of his life, Seeger gave Hickerson 20% of the royalties Where Have All the Flowers Gone generated.
This Land is Your Land by the Travellers
Woody Guthrie wrote the original arrangement of This Land is Your Land. As per Guthrie, the song is full of American landmarks. It’s an excellent example of how nationality drives a folksong.
But so is The Travellers’ arrangement. The Travellers were Canadian, so when This Land is Your Land fell into their hands, they changed the lyrics. Out went the American imagery, in went all-new verses that spanned provinces. There’s even a bit of French thrown in to make sure the Canadian version was truly Canadian.
Early Morning Rain by Gordon Lightfoot
Early Morning Rain is another staple of the Canadian folk tradition. Gordon Lightfoot wrote it during the summer of 1964, and folk artists Ian & Sylvia debuted it in 1965.
It was an immediate, if minor, hit. Many singers covered it, including Bob Dylan and, in 1974, Elvis Presley. By 1966 it had a life of its own as a country music favorite. Talking about it afterward, Lightfoot recalls being astonished that anyone, least of all folk great Bob Dylan, would cover his music and attributes his version to the making of Lightfoot’s career.
Rock Island Line by Ledelly
Rock Island Line is about a train that manages to arrive at its destination station before pulling out of its departure point. As for the mythical railway line that pulls off this unlikely stunt, many believe it’s supposed to be about the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad.
Rock Island Line is an interesting example of American folk music because it existed before the folk revival. Reports of the improbable Rock Island Line train appear in music as early as 1929.
The unlikely combination of John Lomax and Huddie Ledbetter collected the song and recorded it in the 1930s, unwittingly enshrining it in America’s folk tradition.
While many versions exist, it was Ledbelly’s rendition that made the song famous. The railway line featured in the song shifted, but nothing changed the enduring power of Ledbelly’s guttural, rhythmic rendition.
Tom Dooley by The Kingston Trio
The story of Tom Dooley comes from the real-life story of Tom Dula, who murdered his lover, Laura Forster, and unborn child in 1866.
The murder gained an enormous amount of publicity and embedded itself in the cultural history of America and North Carolina especially.
Several papers, including The New York Times, covered the court case. It had several key players, including Dula and his other, long-term love, Anne Melton. Melton and Dula were jointly arraigned, but Dula insisted Melton wasn’t involved.
But the public disagreed, and many privately suspected Melton murdered Laura Forster, and Dula covered for her.
The case had such notoriety that the poet Thomas C. Land composed Tom Dooley following Dula’s conviction and sentencing.
In the way of folk songs, the lyrics often shift, and Grayson’s character alternates between that of a zealous sheriff and a rival lover.
But the tune was catchy, and Tom Dooley quickly became a staple of American folk music. The best-known version is The Kingston Trio’s arrangement of Land’s folksong.
If I Had A Hammer by Peter, Paul, and Mary
Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes wrote If I Had a Hammer in 1949. As with many of the songs Seeger had a hand in, this folksong turns around a cause.
Like Mary Brooksbanks before him, the cause here is the classism that separates blue- and white-collar workers. The song is especially hard on the Labor Movement and deliberately capitalizes on working-class imagery to make its point.
Specifically, it uses factory tools like the bell and the hammer to bring people together. And Mary Brooksbanks could have told him that the song featured in the third and final verse was at least as integral to factory life as any tool.
Peter Yarrow’s folk trio performed the song to unparalleled success in 1962. As its popularity increased, it grew well past the indictment of the Labor Movement Hayes, and Seeger had penned and became the musical battle cry for the civil rights movement.
Wash the Damn Spoon by Talis Kimberley
Although by definition, folk music sounds like a musical museum piece, it’s proved itself astonishingly good at moving with the times. Talis Kimberley carries on in the tradition Pete Seeger started by knitting causes to musical anthems. Seeger, Kimberly’s causes vary and range from the environment to diversity and inclusion.
Wash the Damn Spoon uses percussive instrumentation like spoons and bodhran to hearken back to an older British folk tradition. It also combines these with a call-and-response verse technique that encourages audience participation, connecting once again to the folk revival across the Atlantic.
Pete Seeger wanted to become a journalist. But, by a quirk of circumstance, he found himself working for Alan Lomax. Afterward, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie and Seeger formed The Almanack Singers, and the idealism and topicality Seeger would have poured into investigative journalism went into his music instead.
When World War II reached America, Seeger didn’t hesitate joining. Although he protested the Atom-bomb, he wasn’t a pacifist and believed the war was justified.
Despite this, his ideals got him and his band, The Weavers, blacklisted. His best-known songs are:
- Turn, Turn Turn
- Where Have All the Flowers Gone
- We Shall Overcome
Despite claims that everyone sings Dylan’s music better than Dylan, it would be remiss to overlook him on a list of top folk music artists.
His distinctive, often guttural singing voice wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but the poetry of Dylan’s lyrics was.
Some of his best-known songs include:
- Blowin’ in the Wind
- Like a Rolling Stone
- Mr. Tambourine Man
Peter Yarrow’s folk trio came together on the theory it would showcase the ideal folk band. Contrived though it sounded, the group was sincere, and their iconic image earned.
Not content to sing for their causes, the group became strong advocates in the movement for peace. They remain a powerful folk band to conjure with, even today.
They’re best known for:
- Lemon Tree
- 500 Miles
- Puff the Magic Dragon
- If I Had a Hammer
Guthrie must have written thousands of songs in his lifetime for various movements. He collaborated with Pete Seeger to start the Almanac Singers and, through them, jump-started America’s folk revival.
Guthrie also worked with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. But he also wrote music on his own. His most famous songs include:
- This Land is Your Land
- Pastures of Plenty
- This Train (Is Bound for Glory)
Ian and Sylvia Tyson were one of the most successful folk music duos of the 1960s. They worked with fellow Canadian artist Gordon Lightfoot, often debuting his songs.
Ian Tyson wrote in his own right, though, and is remembered for:
- Four Strong Winds
- The Wild Geese
The early history of folk music is difficult to discuss because, for years, all the history was oral. The folk songs passed from singer to singer, and there was no written record.
But then people like Yseobel Stewart started collecting Scottish country dances, and earlier still, to people like John Playford and Samuel Pepys compiling folk music and customs.
Thomas Hardy was another unlikely collector of folk music. He grew up playing the fiddle for country dances, and many of his books place special emphasis on documenting country customs like the skimmitty-ride that he saw as giving way to encroaching urbanity.
As time moved on, folk music went from being something eclectic people collected to something musicians felt they could use to generate interest in a cause.
So began the American folk revival. Singers everywhere took up musical flags championing civil rights, conservation, and civic responsibility. Sometimes they used folk music to commemorate a disaster, like the sinking of the Reuben James or a Welsh coal mining disaster and the ensuing strike in 1926.
Folk music didn’t stop with the folk revival, either. The causes have changed, and so have the singers, but there’s still a strong folk tradition in North America and Europe.
Content and style can vary wildly depending on where folk music originates. But when trying to answer the question, what is folk music, musicologists agree some things stay the same.
All folk music has a strong sense of national or cultural identity. This is true whether you’re talking about the herring-boners of Skye or The Travellers rewriting Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land.
Folk music also has specific instrumentation. Back when Thomas Hardy was collecting songs, those instruments were fiddles and bodhrans. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the 12-string banjo.
It’s also common for folk music to circle certain themes. Sometimes this is love; sometimes it’s a disaster, and sometimes it’s a common cause.
One thing never changes, and that’s the accessibility of folk music. It was designed by the working class to be sung by the working class, and that means that as folk music evolves, it remains at its core, the kind of music anyone can sing.