Folk music, in the most basic sense of the term, is music by and for the common people. According to Webster's dictionary, folk music is the "traditional and typically anonymous music that is an expression of the life of the people in a community". People play and sing together rather than watching others perform.
Folk music is somewhat synonymous with traditional music. Both terms are used semi-interchangeably amongst the general population; however, some musical communities that actively play living folkloric musics (see Irish traditional music and Traditional Filipino music for specific examples), have adopted the term traditional music as a means of distinguishing their music from the popular music called "folk music," especially the post-1960s "singer-songwriter" genre.
Folk songs are commonly seen as songs that express something about a way of life that exists now or in the past or is about to disappear (or in some cases, to be preserved or somehow revived).
The English term folk, which gained usage in the 19th century (during the Romantic period) to refer to peasants or non-literate peoples, is related to the German word Volk (meaning people or nation). The term is used to emphasize that folk music emerges spontaneously from communities of ordinary people. Some consider "folk music" simply music that a (usually) local population can - and does - sing along to. Much modern popular music over the past few decades falls into this category. Jack Knight, a modern songwriter, defines a "folk song" as any song that when played or performed gets people's lips moving in unison. Jazz musician Louis Armstrong and blues musician Big Bill Broonzy have both been attributed with the remark, "All music is folk music. I ain't never heard a horse sing a song."
As folk traditions decline, there is often a conscious effort to resuscitate them. Such efforts are usually associated around certain key Artists or events. Folk revivals also involve collaboration between traditional folk musicians and other participants (often of urban background) who come to the tradition as adults.
The folk revival of the 1950s in Britain and America had something of this character. In 1950 Alan Lomax came to Britain, where at a Working Men's Club in the remote County Durham mining village of Tow Law he met two other seminal figures: A.L.'Bert' Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, who were performing folk music to the locals there. Lloyd was a colourful figure who had travelled the world and worked at such varied occupations as sheep-shearer in Australia and shanty-man on a whaling ship. MacColl, born in Salford of Scottish parents, was a brilliant playwright and songwriter who had been strongly politicised by his earlier life. MacColl had also learned a large body of Scottish traditional songs from his mother. The meeting of MacColl and Lloyd with Lomax is credited with being the point at which the British roots revival began. The two colleagues went back to London where they formed the Ballads and Blues Club which eventually became renamed the Singers' Club and was possibly the first of what became known as folk clubs. It closed in 1991. As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the folk revival movement built up in both Britain and America. It is sometimes claimed that the earliest folk festival was the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, 1928, in Asheville, Carolina, founded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Sidmouth Festival began in 1954, and Cambridge Folk Festival began in 1965.
During the Communist era in Eastern Europe, national folk dancing was actively promoted by the state. Dance troupes from Russia and Poland toured Western Europe many times from about 1937 to 1990, and less frequently thereafter. Hungarian folk music (the táncház movement) involves strong cooperation between musicology experts and enthusiastic amateurs, resulting in a strong vocational foundation and a very high professional level.
The rise of folk music as a popular genre began with performers whose own lives were rooted in the authentic folk tradition. Thus, for example, Woody Guthrie began by singing songs he remembered his mother singing to him as a child. Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, Guthrie collected folk music and also composed his own songs, as did Pete Seeger, who was the son of a professional musicologist. Through dissemination on commercial recordings, this vein of music became popular in the United States during the 1930s (Jimmie Rodgers), the 1940s (Burl Ives), but more significantly, in the 1950s, through singers like like the Weavers (Seeger's group), Harry Belafonte, The Kingston Trio, and The Limeliters, who tried to reproduce and honor the work that had been collected in preceding decades. The commercial popularity of such performers probably peaked in the U.S. with the Hootenanny television series and the associated magazine ABC-TV Hootenanny in 1963-1964, which was cancelled after the arrival of the Beatles, the "British invasion" and the rise of folk rock.
The itinerant folksinger lifestyle was exemplified by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a disciple of Woody Guthrie who in turn influenced Bob Dylan. Sometimes these performers would locate scholarly work in libraries and revive the songs in their recordings, for example, in Joan Baez's rendition of "Henry Martin," which adds a guitar accompaniment to a version collected and edited by Cecil Sharp.
Folk music is easily identified with the ordinary working people who created it, and preserving treasured things against the claimed relentless encroachments of capitalism is likewise a goal of many politically progressive people. Thus, in the 1960s such singers as Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan followed in Guthrie's footsteps and began writing "protest music" and topical songs, particularly against the Vietnam War, and likewise expressed in song their support for the American Civil Rights Movement. The influential Welsh-language singer-songwriter, Dafydd Iwan, may also be mentioned as a similar example operating in a different cultural context. Some critics, especially proponents of the ethnocentric Neofolk genre, claim that this type of American 'progressive' folk is not folk music at all, but 'anti-folk'. This is based on the idea that as liberal politics supposedly eschews the importance of ethnicity, it is incompatible with all folkish traditions. Proponents of this view often cite romantic nationalism as the only political tradition that 'fits' with folk music.
Simultaneous to the American folk movement was the Canadian folk movement, exemplified by artists Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell, all three of whom would become the only singers to receive an Order of Canada, and all of whom would achieve varying degrees of lasting international success.
In Ireland, The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem (although the members were all Irish born, the group became famous while based in New York's Greenwich Village, it must be noted), The Dubliners, Clannad, Planxty, The Chieftains, The Pogues and a variety of other folk bands have done much over recent years to revitalise and re-popularise Irish traditional music. These bands were rooted, to a greater or lesser extent, in a living tradition of Irish music, and they benefited from collection efforts on the part of the likes of Seamus Ennis and Peter Kennedy, among others.
In the United Kingdom, the folk revival didn't create any popular stars (although Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" would eventually prove to be a hit for other artists), but it helped raise the profile of the music, and folk clubs sprang up all over, a boon to young artists like Martin Carthy and Roy Bailey who emerged. It also inspired a generation of singer-songwriters, such as Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell (whose "Streets Of London" would become a hit), Donovan, Roy Harper and many others. Bob Dylan came to London to check out the growing folk scene of the early 1960s, and Paul Simon spent several months there; his version of "Scarborough Fair" owed a lot to Carthy's take on the song.
Folk didn't hit any kind of mass popularity until the electric folk movement of Fairport Convention, The Byrds and Steeleye Span took old songs and mixed their tunes with rock.
The revival of the fifties and sixties had mostly died out by 1975. There was another revival in the second half of the 1990s. Once more folk music made an impact on mainstream music. There was a younger generation of artists, in some cases children of revival-inspired artists; (Eliza Carthy, for example, is the daughter of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson). This time, notably, the instrumentation was largely acoustic, rather than electric, with a high skill level of players and singers.
The experience of the 20th century suggests that as soon as a folk tradition comes to be marketed as popular music, its musical content will quickly be modified to become more like popular music. Such modified folk music often incorporates electric guitars, drum kit, or forms of rhythmic syncopation that are characteristic of popular music but were absent in the original.
An example of this is contemporary country music, which descends ultimately from a rural American folk tradition, but has evolved to become vastly different from its original model. Rap music evolved from an African-American inner-city folk tradition, but is likewise very different nowadays from its folk original. A third example is contemporary bluegrass, which is a professionalised development of American old time music, intermixed with blues and jazz.
Sometimes, however, the exponents of amplified music were bands such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Mr. Fox and Steeleye Span who saw the electrification of traditional musical forms as a means to reach a far wider audience, and their efforts have been largely recognised for what they were by even some of the most die-hard of purists. Traditional folk music forms also merged with rock and roll to form the hybrid generally known as folk rock which evolved through performers such as The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel and The Mamas and the Papas.
Since the 1970s a genre of "contemporary folk", fueled by new singer-songwriters, has continued to make the coffee-house circuit and keep the tradition of acoustic non-classical music alive in the United States. Such artists include Dawn Xiana Moon, Chris Castle, Steve Goodman, John Prine, Cheryl Wheeler, Bill Morrissey, and Christine Lavin. Lavin in particular has become prominent as a leading promoter of this musical genre in recent years. Some, such as Lavin and Wheeler, inject a great deal of humor in their songs and performances, although much of their music is also deeply personal and sometimes satirical. While from Ireland The Pogues and The Corrs brought traditional tunes back into the album charts.
In the 1980s a group of artists like Phranc and The Knitters propagated a form of folk music also called country punk, cowpunk or folk punk, which eventually evolved into Alt country. More recently the same spirit has been embraced and expanded on by performers such as Dave Alvin, Miranda Stone and Steve Earle. At the same time, a line of singers from Baez to Phil Ochs have continued to use traditional forms for original material.
The appropriation of folk has even continued into hard rock and heavy metal, with bands such as Skyclad, Waylander and Finntroll melding distinctive elements of folk styles from a wide variety of traditions, including in many cases traditional instruments such as fiddles, tin whistles and bagpipes as an element of their sound. Unlike other folk-related genres, folk metal shies away from monotheistic religion in favour of more ancient pagan inspired themes. Folk inspirations are a massive part of subgenres of black metal, with genres such as viking metal being defined on their folk stance, and many a band incorporating folk interludes into albums (eg, Bergtatt and Kveldssanger, the first two albums by once-black metal, now-experimental band Ulver).
A similar stylistic shift, without using the "folk music" name, has occurred with the phenomenon of Celtic music, which in many cases is based on an amalgamation of Irish traditional music, Scottish traditional music, and other traditional musics associated with lands in which Celtic languages are or were spoken.
Neofolk music is a modern form of music that began in the 1980s. Fusing traditional European folk music with post-industrial music forms, historical topics, philosophical commentary, traditional songs and paganism, the genre is largely European. Although it is not uncommon for neofolk artists to be entirely acoustic, playing with entirely traditional instruments.
Folk music is still popular among some audiences today, with folk music clubs meeting to share traditional-style songs, and there are major folk music festivals in many countries, eg the Port Fairy Folk Festival is a major annual event in Australia attracting top international folk performers as well as many local artists. Indeed, even for those who consider themselves hip, the arrival of Americana and the music of Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Devendra Banhart and Travis MacRae has shown that folk music can still be cutting edge.
The Cambridge Folk Festival in Cambridge, England is always sold out within days, and is noted for having a very wide definition of who can be invited as folk musicians.