Home / Folk Music: Does It Even Exist Anymore?

Folk Music: Does It Even Exist Anymore?

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook0Share on Google+0Pin on Pinterest0Share on Tumblr0Share on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

There’s a school of art that’s known as “Primitive Art,” “Naïve Art,” or “Outsider Art.” Actually these are all slightly different subsets of the same genre, which, in a nutshell, includes only those artists without any formal training or what we generally recognize as conventional, serious talent. It’s art that arises out of nothing but the artist’s Elvis-given need to express him/herself. Grandma Moses is the usual example, but in truth I think she’s got far too much of an artist’s eye for light and color to really be considered naïve. Maud Lewis, I think, is a better example of the kind of art I’m talking about.

Actually, both of these women say a lot in their work about the culture and traditions in which they live, which makes them overlap into another subset, “Folk Art.” Folk Art is what I want to talk about today, because what we usually think of as “folk music” is not folk art. Not anymore. And for that reason, I think it’s time for it to lose that banner.

You know, when it comes down to it I don’t even know if America ever had folk music. Are we old enough? Were there any songs or other pieces of music that were indigenous to American culture and society? Well, yes, actually, but all of it is Native American—chants and dance songs and such. And it’s hard to be sure that the people who concocted that music wouldn’t be recognized as having serious, professional-caliber talent today. We certainly know that the American Indian musicians who played it were carefully trained.

But the stuff we generally think of as our folk music (those of us who descend from immigrants, slaves, pilgrims, what-have-you) mostly dates back to the Minstrel shows that started in the 1830s. The funny thing about the Minstrel Shows is that their conceit was that it was music of the folks, of the common man: that’s why they had black performers and whites dressed as blacks. Blacks in America were considered the epitome of the primitive, ignorant class who were incapable of having talent or any craft that required more nuance than stacking bricks or hammering horseshoes.

What’s funny about it is that, although we know much better today, we still buy into that conceit so much that we consider the professionally created material they performed back then to be folk forms today! The music of Stephen Foster, for example: “Oh Susannah,” “Camptown Ladies,” “My Old Kentucky Home.” Or the tall tales, Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. Or jokes like “Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?” and “Why do firemen wear red suspenders?” They’re so engrained in America that you usually see them notated as “Traditional” anymore, which is a euphemism for “folk.” But what we’re talking about here is actually the beginning of pop culture.

See, the minstrel shows were the first form of traveling entertainment in America. It had a toe in the waters of real folk music, in that white songwriters would hear slave songs, then take a basic idea and sculpt and polish it into serious craft. But the composers and performers would pass it off as crude “Negro music” by arranging and playing it on instruments that were stereotyped as Negro instruments—like the banjo. (Meantime black performers were setting up Shakespearean acting troupes, but that’s beside the point.) And because the minstrel shows traveled on a circuit that encompassed the entire country—such as it was in the mid-nineteenth century—it did what the phonograph and the radio would later do: teach the same jokes and stories and songs to audiences from everywhere in America. Mass communication in its infancy!

On the other hand…well, I think maybe I spoke too soon when I earlier said that all folk music was Native American. There were forms that may very well have been American folk music coming out of the plantations: the slaves. Work songs, call-and-response chants, field hollers. All of them with deep roots in Africa, but also uniquely American.

This kind of crossbreeding is what makes it hard to call any American music “folk music.” You know, European and Asian and African folk musics are those that stretch so far back in the past that there’s no way to find the origins. They may very well have been composed by genius musical craftsmen, but they’ve been handed down and mutated and exaggerated for so many centuries that they also may not bear much resemblance to the original compositions: they now belong to the people. That’s what folk music is.

But American music came around at a time when records could, and were, taken scrupulously. Not always intentionally, but the records are there: if some wealthy white man scribbled down in his diary that he heard a slave singing this song or that, well, we have a record. And we have a printing press that can maintain that record in perpetuity, not to mention telegraphs and recorded sound, broadcasting and journalism and the Internet, to make sure that that information now travels across the world in a millisecond.

After the phonograph and radio came the blues (slave songs and African folk music developed in America and wrought into high-quality professional music) and country (poor white work songs and British and European folk musics developed in America and wrought into high-quality professional music), which, because they came from poor and marginalized classes, also came to be thought of as “folk music.” (The rosetta stone of American folk, Harry Smith and the Smithsonian Institution’s six-record Anthology of American Folk Music, is almost exclusively blues and country music.)

Then came Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan: a new tradition of wandering musical poets—yes, I believe you could call them “minstrels“— who sang songs of modern-day folk heroes like Tom Dooley and Jesse James and Joe Hill, Tom Joad and Eugene Debs and Medgar Evers. Folk heroes, yes, but with very complex wordplay and melodies (even if the musical accompaniment was self-consciously simple chords). Is anyone going to argue that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were just regular people playing music for the simple joy of self-expression? Or were they extremely talented musicians, perhaps?

That’s the lineage that all modern “folk music” is based on. Almost none of the modern-day folkies actually bother to play traditional music—even the high-gloss tunes that managed to get passed off as traditional music over the years—throwing all their efforts into writing their own songs, and losing the last possible vestige of genuine “folk” claims. Nobody even makes the explorations into the bizarre realms of the faux-folk past that, say, Dylan did with The Basement Tapes. And could your average blue-collar worker sit down in an afternoon with a guitar and write the same song that Tracy Chapman does? Folk music isn’t music about the folks. It’s music by the folks, of the folks, for the folks. The truest form of musical democracy. But now we defer it to those who have musical talent.

There’s nothing wrong with that. And there may be real folk music out there, performed by people who really haven’t a clue what they’re doing but just want to make music. You probably won’t hear much of it, though, unless it’s in the form of weirdo novelty albums like The Shaggs, or Wild Man Fischer…people who are completely incompetent, make music anyway, and are objects of fun for it.

So maybe we can stop this silly pretense that “folk music” is the same thing as folk music? It’s not primitive, it’s not outsider, and it’s certainly not naïve.

Powered by

About Michael J. West

  • Vern Halen

    I’m sure you’ve read Greil Marcus’s Invisible Republic, an in-depth discussion of what exactly constitutes folk music, with accents on the Smithsonian collection and Dylan’s Basement Tapes. Fascinating.

    But I’ve often wondered if rock ‘n’roll wasn’t the new folk music? Much the same can be said of it from it’s 50’s rockabilly beginnings, through to the 6’s psych & the 70’s punks. And I don’t know if r’n’r even made it to the 21st century, although the White Stripes seem to use elements of it. Maybe each generation makes its own version of folk music.

  • I must admit I’m not very familiar with Folk Music but Laura Veirs is quintessential example of modern Folk and Americana. Her material is quite good.

    If you’d like to hear some of her stuff, I suggest you give her latest album effort, Year of Meteors, a listen.

  • godoggo

    I’ll just add that the idea that a folk musician needs to lack talent in order to be authentic seems a little silly to me.

    Interesting though.

  • Yeah, I was probably oversimplifying a bit with the “Talent Need Not Apply” attitude. What I should have said, godoggo, was more along the lines of talent being unnecessary…or that it’s helpful to have unconventional, unrefined talent that’s at odds with the musical establishment.

    Thus someone like, say, Daniel Johnston would probably have a shot at being folk music in the sense of the term that I’m chasing…

  • zingzing


  • Surely the defining characteristic of folk music can’t be uncertainty of origins? If so, folk music is pretty much a useless category and it doesn’t matter wheteher America had it or has it.

    It seems to me that you reject American “folk” music for what are really pedantic reasons. Surely the reason folk is folk is because of how it functions.

    The question of whether or not we have folk music is a question of whether or not we have a music or musics that play the role that folk music may have in older cultures. Answering that question is a lot harder that tracing the orignins of a piece of music back to travelling shows or an old recording.


  • I think, Oran, that you got the superficial points without seeing the overriding ones. No, the definition of folk music is that it’s part of an “everyday” sort of cultural tradition, instead of an ivory tower (academic or simply industry-specific). Which is, in fact, what you’re talking about: the role it played in other cultures.

    What I’m talking about the origins of folk music, I’m simply saying that what we often think of as folk music is, in fact, commercial music with a commercial role. It exists because people wanted to make sheet-music royalties and sell tickets to minstrel shows. That’s pop culture, not folk culture.

    Now, one could argue that folk culture was just pop culture before it had a name, but I wouldn’t agree with that either.

    In any case, what you’re saying is exactly what I was saying; the part about folk’s origins is just one (fairly minor) aspect of it.

  • zingzing

    i think mike is trying to say (he will point out that i am wrong any time now) that folk culture exists as it always has in the united states (that is, differently than it did in europe or asia or africa, but it is what it is) and that what bob dylan does is definitely not folk culture. it is a commercial appropriation of folk culture, made, on some level, for financial gain. it is not “pure,” (made only inside a tradition or for pleasure,) which is the one thing that folk culture needs to be in order to still be folk.

  • interesting stuff.

    the thing is, this country is SO much different from when our original folk music came around that i’m not sure that questioning the music’s existence is even valid.

    as far as those carrying on the tradition, i would submit that people like Greg Brown, Tom Waits and Gillian Welch are doing a fine job.

  • When I saw this one I had the urge to go buy some granola and macrame a plant hangar. Having said that, I agree that Tom Waits is doing a good job of keeping folk music alive. I take a clogging class once a week and that gives me an opportunity to enjoy the more traditiuonal American music for an hour. For those of you who wonder what clogging is, it’s kind of Riverdance meets Deliverance.

  • woa! now that…is a colorful description of clogging!

  • Vern Halen

    Mark S: “the thing is, this country is SO much different from when our original folk music came around that i’m not sure that questioning the music’s existence is even valid.”

    Definitely yes. The founding fathers and their descendants up to a couple of generations would shake their collective heads at modern America. They would see a people poised on the edge of greatness, but unable to do so due to pussyfooting around the middle ground, afraid of offending the left or the right. Go back to that Smithsonian collection, or Doc Boggs or Woody Guthrie or early Dylan – none of these artists were afraid to call it as they saw it, even if they were wrong. That’s why I think rock ‘n’ roll inherited the folksinger’s tradition, at least until it allowed itself to be tamed by the music industry. “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” as Townsend once wrote – that’s got to be a line in the folksinger’s tradition if there ever was one.

  • Michael:

    Your answer seems to me to be: Of course origins aren’t really the determinant of what is folk music, my point is that what some people call folk music originates in someone’s attempt to make money from the commercial sale of music.

    In other words, you continue to be preoccupied with origins.

    Let us suppose that everything that is called folk music in America today originated as 19th digestive aid jingles.

    If that music today *functions* in the same way (or in a strongly analogous way) as folk music does in traditional cultures, then it’s folk music, regardless of its origins.

    Origins don’t matter if the music does the same work is what I’m saying. I don’t see what difference it makes is a piece of music comes from an ad if no one realizes it, if people embrace it AS folk music.


  • Michael J. West


    I am beginning to see your point. Half of it, anyway.

    You’re right: I am giving 100% credit for what our SCOTUS friends call “original intent.” Which I can’t really do, since the new age of “folk” musicians obviously have some intention of being considered genuine folk music.

    However! I can’t possibly go to the complete opposite extreme that you suggest and give 100% to perception, either.

    Basically, we’re both seeing this as a black-and-white situation, it’s just that I’m only seeing the black and you’re only seeing the white. Both have to figure into the equation. Look at it this way: for a piece of music to have the same function as folk music, there has to be some give in the “intent” department.

    If something is intended for the sole purpose of marketing a “here today, gone tomorrow” product, like a limited-time-only burger from McDonald’s or a 2005 Pontiac, is it really going to serve the same function as folk music? No way.

    There’s got to be a quality that doesn’t immediately date the thing, for example. And given that, how long do we let the song live independent of that intent before we say that it serves the same function as folk music?

    In Europe, it’s been centuries. In America it may be more a matter of decades, but how many? Three? Five? Twelve?

    In other words, it ain’t all origin, and it ain’t all reception. Somewhere in the middle ground between the two, I think, must be where folk music is born. But what that is, I’m not sure…

  • GoHah

    Should we equate minstrel shows and Stephen Foster, the precursors to popular song, with American Folk music? When it comes to Folk, I always think of the efforts of musicologist John Lomax, who went out into the field, into the out-of-the-way places–the country, mountains–during the 1930s and 1940s seeking and recording true, unfamiliar and largely unheard, traditional American folk songs. This was the bounty that people like Seeger, Guthrie built on, and (I think) a prime source for the Smithsonian Folk anthologies. Songs that had been passed along for more up to 150 years or so–songs, for example, that originally came from Scotland and went with the Scotch-Irish settlers in the Appalachians. And not any less American because of that, especially with the uniquely Amnerican migration patterns and westward movements, and concomitant with that development of instruments like the banjo, and continuation of an oral tradition.

    I think the question about the survival of Folk music today concerns whether–in today’s society, with new technologies amd mass communications–true Folk (e.g.,that doesn’t depend on record contracts and concert tours) still exists and thrives. A falling tree doesn’t need John or Alan Lomax to record it in order to exist (although maybe there are some people in the field carrying on the tradtion–I don’t know).

  • I liked your article, but I would argue that folk is just evolving. I don’t know whether or not you keep up with the dizzying multitudes of indie scenes, but one that is gaining more and more importance is the “freak-folk” of Devendra Banhart. If you’ve never heard him, I can recommend a place for you to start. You might like him because you can hear the past in his voice.

  • oh, yea..i forgot about Banhart. Tom Waits’ ultra-weird musical nephew. or something.

  • Also, any year where Vashti Bunyan finally releases her second album is a good year for folk.

  • Vern Halen

    Hmmm….. maybe the fact that there’s such an in-depth discussion about folk music is the proof that it doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t imagine Robert Johnson or Woody Guthrie trying to decide if they played a type of folk music or not.

  • Hmmm….. maybe the fact that there’s such an in-depth discussion about folk music is the proof that it doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t imagine Robert Johnson or Woody Guthrie trying to decide if they played a type of folk music or not.

    Maybe it’s not that folk music doesn’t exist anymore, per se, maybe it’s just that music has evolved to the point where there aren’t clear criteria for what is and isn’t folk music.

    Or maybe it’s just that all of us here, and I cheerfully include myself, take the whole “authenticity” thing WAY too seriously.

  • Vern Halen

    MJW: “Or maybe it’s just that all of us here, and I cheerfully include myself, take the whole “authenticity” thing WAY too seriously.”

    Touchez & a tip o’ the hit to yourself, Mr. West! You got the final word here as far as I’m concerned.

  • The section editor chose this as a pick of the week. Go HERE to find out why.

    Also, as a part of being a pick you get to make a pick of your own for anytime from Dec. 3 on. Click the same HERE link to find out how.

    Thank you.


  • dyrkness

    As Louis Armstrong once said,”All music is folk
    music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”I think your definition of “folk music” is much too confining.There seems to be a confusion between style and substance.Isn’t that the main problem with the 21st century anyway?

  • I think your definition of “folk music” is much too confining.

    Suggestion for an alternative definition?

  • Ava

    My question is what are three things that Grandma Moses and Maud Lewis had in common?