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Folk Music

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Throughout history, folklore has played an important role in identifying cultures worldwide. An early theory, propounded among others by the famous Grimm brothers, proposes that all folklore, including folk music, is the expression of an entire people and that the whole ethnic group is the creator of each item of folklore (Nettl p. 23). The concept of folk music has been a crucial part of cultures in the past and is still predominant today, as people of all nationalities use it as a form of entertainment and expression. Folk music, in the strict sense of the definition, is passed on by ear and performed by memory than by the written or printed musical score (List 363). Whether it is a professional group or just friends gathered around with a few guitars, forms of folk music are still a large part of our culture. However, people today seem to lack knowledge of what folk music is and the importance if it. When did people start to think like this? It is through the evolution of folk music that the answer to this question can be answered.

The idea of folk music has existed for at least 200 years, and throughout this time, it has faced the same stereotype; folk songs, they thought, could only be found only among an agrarian, illiterate peasantry; literacy, urbanization, and modernization were thought to work against folk tradition (Titon 167). This makes it seem as if folk music is an artifact, only to be imitated without chance of actual creation. However the idea of “process” in folk music has been becoming more acceptable as performance and context are being used more regularity to define what folk music is, broadening its definition to fit today’s modern society. With respect to our folk group, we perform together; we also share our folk music with family and friends on particular occasions. Many aspects can link this informal experience, for us it is mainly linked by age, political outlook and sex. Also the concept of oral transmission, meaning folk music is leaned by imitation, is a large part of our group. The context of our music usually revolves around playing of older, more traditional songs, to today’s so called “alternative” music. Also, we enjoy making up our own songs, some humorous, some serious, all nevertheless incorporate our feelings, thoughts, and personalities. However, this modern definition seems to be relatively unknown by the majority of society, as the stereotype of folk music still clouds peoples perception of what it actually is.

So how has the definition of folk music evolved to what it is today? In the beginning, folk music was a large part of many cultures, being a major form of communication and expression. It was a sign of important events, changes in society, and acted as an emotional tool to use for or against certain situations and events. Even though folk music dates back as far as 200 years ago, the actual “folk arrival” to American society occurred in 1934, when Huddie Ledbetter made the greatest signal step in folk music as he sang in front of audiences in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York (Paton 38). This new phenomenon spread into the 1940’s with such the before mentioned Huddie Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie, and the success of The Weavers in the latter part of the decade brought a supped up form of folk music to the mass population. When the 50’s hit, there was a low in folk music, with Ledbetter’s death and Guthrie’s illness playing a large role in this decline. Things were looking bleak for the scene of folk music.

The folk revival hit in the latter part of the 1950’s and flowered into the 1960’s. Festivals were large part of this, as they were organized in 1958 and 1959, but if there were a significant turning point, it would have to be the festival held at the University of Chicago in 1961, as a group of traditional artists were brought to play. However to attract more urban audiences to listen to folk music, one had to “interpret” them- that is to say, translate them into a familiar vocal style, namely that of “art” or “pop” music (Paton 41-42). This is a critical stage in the evolution of folk music as the image of it was changed to generate a wider, more urban fan base It created a more broadened definition of folk music, expanding beyond the borders of the traditional, rural image it had been connected to for numerous decades.

As the 1960’s progressed, so did the definition of folk music. People did not seem to respond to the broadening of the definition of folk music, and furthermore, rejected it for a more louder, electric rock sound. Rock and roll became a huge part of the music scene as bands such as The Doors took the urban music scene by storm. “With the advent of folk-rock, which blends urban ‘folk’ and pop idioms, we have the epitome of subjectivization of the urban folk movement, “ wrote Ellen Stekert, “Today ‘folksong’ to most young urban people is almost completely equated to personal protest song and with professional entertainment. Folksong to the scholar is a matter of oral tradition, change, and generally non-professional transmission.” (Cohen 262). This signifies the divide in the definition and meaning of folk music between folklore scholars and the general population, something that still exists today. The revival hit its high in 1967 and now was on the slide. Bob Dylan remarked, “The Beatles shut us down”, as the age of electric instruments had begun with no view of slowing down, leaving folk music on the outside looking in.

This outlook on folk music and music in general has changed little since then. There has been folk festivals, and other folk music events, however, not with near the same reception and meaning of those in the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Asked how to grade the following areas of study in terms of importance for a student hoping to go on to study music at a degree level, university teachers of music ranked “Folk Music of the British Isles” seventeenth out of seventeen (Russell 22).

There have been vast amounts of study done on folk music. From the scholarly point of view, genuine folk music exhibits a number of traits in addition to that of aural transmission; one, the origin of the melody must be unknown to its performer, and secondly, it requires that the melody exist in variant forms (List 364). They also discovered once a traditional melody becomes known over a large area, it loses its flexibility, such as “Happy Birthday”. However, exceptions must be made, such as when improvisations are based upon a stock of melodic formulas. They have also studied the differences and similarities between folk music and popular music. Popular music does have the ability of being transmitted by the musical score and it often varied in performance and at times is improvisatory in nature (List 364). However, popular music is generally a product for the mass media, as folk music is more of a traditional trait, practiced by a particular subculture. These are only mere examples of the immense amount of study and research folklorist and others have done on the topic of folk music, nevertheless it shows the point of how defined and important it actually is in today’s society.

The evolution of folk music has been a long and intriguing journey. Throughout its high points, low points and revivals, folk music has been, and continues to be a part of all cultures around the world. However, with the lack of understanding and stereotypical view on the definition of folk music, it has lost its meaning and importance to our society over the years. Nevertheless, there has been, with or without people realizing exactly what it is, increasing interest in folk groups and folk music, as people are taking part in events, both formal and informal, that consists of folkloric elements. In the contemporary scene there has been a merging of folk and popular music styles, producing a “folk style” that is in wide use in radio, television, and film and forms the basis of thousands of performances offered in commercially issued disks (List 377). With this increasing interest, it is only a matter of time before society as a whole begin to realize and rediscover folk music.

Works Cited
Cohen, Ronald D. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.
List, George. “Folk Music”. Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction. Ed. Richard Dorson Chicago: the University of Chicago Press, 1972. 363-79.
Nettl, Bruno. Folk Music in the United States: An Introduction. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976.
Paton, Sandy. “Folk and the Folk Arrival”. The American Folk Scene: Dimensions of the
Folksong Revival. Ed. David A. DeTurk and A. Poulin, Jr. New York: Dell Publishing Co., Inc., 1967. 38-43.
Russell, Atkinson, eds. Folk Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-Creation. Aberdeen: The Elphinstone Institute, 2004.
Titon, Jeff. “Music, Folk and Traditional”. Communicative Media and Expressive Genres.

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