The Definition of the Genre
Folk music can be described as the traditional music of a country or region. Passed down by the oral tradition, many folk songs are so old that their creators are unknown. Folk songs are also characterized by simple instruments and a focus on acoustic styles.
Generally, when people use the phrase “folk music” they are referring to the traditional music of American and Great Britain. Traditional music from other countries and regions is more often known as “world music”.
While traditional music was not usually recorded, modern folk singers do release their songs on CDs and as digital files. This shift has also been accompanied by a transition from songs with no known creators to singer-songwriters creating their own words and melodies. Furthermore, folk has evolved in a variety of directions, giving birth to such varied new genres as electronic folk, neofolk, folk rock and psychedelic folk.
The History of the Genre
Arguably, folk music history goes back a long way, to before clear records were kept. This accounts for the lack of certainty over the origin of many folk songs. The modern history of the genre is generally traced back to the 1930s.
During the 1930s, Woody Guthrie traveled throughout America. On his journeys he collected many folk songs from the various communities and regions he moved through. He continued to do through the next decade. He began to compose his own songs, based on the style and characteristic melodies of the traditional songs. He released recordings which included both the songs he had collected and the songs he had created. Guthrie is widely seen as being instrumental in popularizing folk songs.
Following Guthrie, the next major moment in the American folk revival was the Hootenanny television series which began in 1963. The show featured such folk stars as The Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte. The Sixties in general saw a rapid increase in the visibility and influence of folk singers. Musicians such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez used the genre to express political statements on topics such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
The Current Landscape of the Genre
Today, folk music is more widely known and diverse than it has ever been before in modern times. Singer-songwriters carry on the tradition in a variety of subgenres and new styles.
One of the most well known modern folk artists is Shawn Colvin. Her 1991 debut album was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Her song “Sonny Came Home” won two Grammys in 1998 and was massively popular.
Other major contemporary folk musicians include Beth Orton, with her blend of electronica and folk, and Laura Marling, a British singer-songwriter.