What is Folk Music? (formal)

The term folk music originated in the 19th century as a term for musical folklore. It has been defined in several ways; as music transmitted by word of mouth, music of the lower classes, music with no known composer. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles.

Since the middle of the 20th century the term has also been used to describe a kind of popular music that is based on traditional music. Subgenres include folk rock, electric folk, folk metal and progressive folk music.

Folk Music, Folk Song and Folk Dance are comparatively recent expressions, being extensions of the term Folk lore, coined in 1846 by the English antiquarian William Thoms to describe "the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes." The term is further derived from the German expression Volk, in the sense of "the people as a whole" as applied to popular and national music by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Romantics over half a century earlier.

Indians distinguish between classical and folk music, yet both rely upon the unwritten transmission of anonymous repertoire

A literary interest in the popular ballad was not new: it dates back to Thomas Percy and William Wordsworth. English Elizabethan and Stuart composers had often evolved their music from folk themes, the classical suite was based upon stylised folk-dances and Franz Josef Haydn's use of folk melodies is noted. But the emergence of the term "folk" coincided with an "outburst of national feeling all over Europe" that was particularly strong at the edges of Europe, where national identity was most asserted. Nationalist composers emerged in Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain and Britain: the music of Dvorak, Smetana, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms, Liszt, de Falla, Wagner, Sibelius, Vaughan-Williams, Bartók and many others drew upon folk melodies. The English term "folklore", to describe traditional music and dance, entered the vocabulary of many continental European nations, each of which had its folk-song collectors and revivalists.

However, despite the assembly of an enormous body of work over some two centuries, there is still no certain definition of what folk music (or folklore, or the folk) is. Folk music may tend to have certain characteristics but it cannot clearly be differentiated in purely musical terms. One meaning often given is that of "old songs, with no known composers", another is that of music that has been submitted to an evolutionary "process of oral transmission.... the fashioning and re-fashioning of the music by the community that give it its folk character." Such definitions depend upon "(cultural) processes rather than abstract musical types...", upon "continuity and oral transmission...seen as characterizing one side of a cultural dichotomy, the other side of which is found not only in the lower layers of feudal, capitalist and some oriental societies but also in 'primitive' societies and in parts of 'popular cultures'."

Locations in Southern and Central Appalachia visited by the British folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1916, 1917, and 1918. Sharp sought "old world" English and Scottish ballads passed down to the region's inhabitants from their European ancestors. He collected hundreds of such ballads, the most productive areas being the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky.

For Scholes, as for Cecil Sharp and Béla Bartók, there was a sense of the music of the country as distinct from that of the town. Folk music was already "seen as the authentic expression of a way of life now past or about to disappear (or in some cases, to be preserved or somehow revived),"particularly in "a community uninfluenced by art music" and by commercial and printed song. Lloyd rejected this in favour of a simple distinction of economic class yet for him too folk music was, in Charles Seeger'swords, "associated with a lower class in societies which are culturally and socially stratified, that is, which have developed an elite, and possibly also a popular, musical culture." In these terms folk music may be seen as part of a "schema comprising four musical types: 'primitive' or 'tribal'; 'elite' or 'art'; 'folk'; and 'popular'."

Revivalists' opinions differed over the origins of folk music: it was said by some to be art music changed and probably debased by oral transmission, by others to reflect the character of the race that produced it. The competition of individual and collective theories of composition set different demarcations and relations of folk music with the music of tribal societies on the one hand andA of "art" and "court" music on the other. The traditional cultures that did not rely upon written music or had less social stratification could not be readily categorised. In the proliferation of popular music genres, some music became categorised as "World music" and "Roots music".

The American conception of "folk composition" has often drawn on Afro-American music

The distinction between "authentic" folk and national and popular song in general has always been loose, particularly in America and Germany - for example popular songwriters such as Stephen Foster could be termed "folk" in America. The International Folk Music Council definition allows that the term "can also be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten, living tradition of a community. But the term does not cover a song, dance, or tune that has been taken over ready-made and remains unchanged."

The post World War 2 folk revival in America and in Britain brought a new meaning to the word. Folk was seen as a musical style, the ethical antithesis of commercial "popular" or "pop" music, while the Victorian appeal of the "Volk" was often regarded with suspicion. The popularity of "contemporary folk" recordings caused the appearance of the category "Folk" in the Grammy Awards of 1959: in 1970 the term was dropped in favour of "Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording (including Traditional Blues)", while 1987 brought a distinction between "Best Traditional Folk Recording" and "Best Contemporary Folk Recording". The term "folk", by the start of the 21st century, could cover "singer song-writers, such as Donovan and Bob Dylan, who emerged in the 1960s and much more" or perhaps even "a rejection of rigid boundaries, preferring a conception, simply of varying practice within one field, that of 'music'."AA