Introduction to Folk Music (Day Twenty-Three of Homemade Music)

Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! This month we are exploring how and why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music making. To read more posts in this series, click here.

Now that we’ve spent considerable time playing with music basics and incorporating some of that into listening to the classical genre, it’s time to examine some wonderful quality music at the other end of the spectrum: folk music.

roadsidejam(Hubby and J enjoying some roadside folk tunes on a cross-country road trip we took 2 years ago.)

When I’m not practicing my classical singing, I’m singing folk songs with my husband or my kids. We hum along, sing along, strum along. I can’t help it. I just love it, and I want to share some of it with you.

What is folk music? It can have several definitions and characteristics. Some people refer to the 20th century folk revival as a genre in and of itself. Others would say folk music is simply traditional music of a particular people group. Some call varying styles of world music “folk music.” Some focus on the idea that folk music encompasses those songs which have been passed on by oral tradition. All of these are true. But this is how I like to sum up the definition of folk music:

Folk music is created by the people for the people.

Folk music traditionally has been written by the common man, expressing common sorrows, common joys, and common hopes. People from a wide age and geographical range can resonate with the themes of the songs. Folk music may be particular to its culture of origin, but can speak to a wide audience of what it represents. So even if I know nothing of Romanian folk music, I can still enjoy and get the gist of a song by listening to it. Even though I have never been a slave, hearing a traditional spiritual can communicate to me some of the intense pain and sorrow of being in that position. But if I listen to American Appalachian folk music, I feel my heart strings pull and can’t help but hum along, since it’s close to my heritage and home.

Even popular folk music (Simon and Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, etc.) can evoke similar feelings of commonality and community, whether you are from the era and culture the songs were written in or not. That’s the beauty of a good folk song- it can stand the test of time and cross some cultural bounds.

What’s the difference between folk and pop? Folk music generally has easy, singable, memorable melodies; pop music melodies are ofen either dull or unsingable. Folk music is driven by ideas; pop music is often driven by drivel and a good beat. Folk usually is communicative to a wide range of people; pop usually speaks to the people who enjoy the particular genre the most. Folk songs are passed on from person to person and everyone forms their own versions (including melody variations, new verses, etc.); pop is reserved for the original singer and people are restricted to making covers. Folk is community-oriented and made for everyone to join in; pop is exclusive to the people who can perform it.

Okay, okay, maybe I’m making generalizations. Or just being too hard on pop music. I should lighten up, I know. (And I do enjoy some pop music! Honest!) In truth, there will always be some crossover between the two genres, and that’s okay. Not all pop is bad, by any means, and not all folk is golden. But if you’ve never joined in singing traditional folk music, now is the time to join in and help keep it alive. It’s worth your time!

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