The Info List - American Folk Music

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The term American folk music
American folk music
encompasses numerous music genres, variously known as traditional music, traditional folk music, contemporary folk music, or roots music. Many traditional songs have been sung within the same family or folk group for generations, and sometimes trace back to such origins as Great Britain, Europe, or Africa.[1] Musician Mike Seeger once famously commented that the definition of American folk music
American folk music
is "...all the music that fits between the cracks."[2] Roots music is a broad category of music including bluegrass, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun
and Native American music. The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States
United States
or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered "roots music" because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.


1 Early American folk music

1.1 Spirituals 1.2 Work songs

1.2.1 Sea shanties 1.2.2 Cowboy
songs 1.2.3 Railroad songs

2 Roots music 3 Regional forms

3.1 Appalachian music 3.2 Cajun
music 3.3 Oklahoma and southern US plains 3.4 The American Southwest
American Southwest
and South Texas

4 Other American folk music 5 Books 6 Artists and musicians 7 Film
and TV 8 See also 9 References 10 Further reading and listening 11 External links

Early American folk music[edit] Most songs of the Colonial Fletch and Revolutionary period originated in England, Scotland and Ireland and were brought over by early settlers. "Barbara Allen" remains a popular traditional ballad originating in England and Scotland, which immigrants introduced to the United States.[3] The murder ballad "Pretty Polly" is an American version of an earlier British song, "The Gosport Tragedy".[4] Spirituals[edit] Main article: Spiritual (music) African American folk music
American folk music
in the area has roots in slavery and emancipation. "Sacred music, both a Capella and instrumentally accompanied, is at the heart of the tradition. Early spirituals framed Christian beliefs within native practices and were heavily influenced by the music and rhythms of Africa."[5] Spirituals are prominent, and often use a call and response pattern.[5] "Gospel developed after the Civil War (1861-65). It relied on biblical text for much of its direction, and the use of metaphors and imagery was common. Gospel is a "joyful noise," sometimes accompanied by instrumentation and almost always punctuated by hand clapping, toe tapping, and body movement."[5] Work songs[edit] Sea shanties[edit] Main article: Sea shanty Sea shanties
Sea shanties
functioned to lighten the burden of routine tasks and provide a rhythm that helped workers perform as a team.[1] Cowboy
songs[edit] Cowboys songs are typically ballads that cowboys sang in the West and Southwest. The familiar Streets of Laredo" (or "Cowboys Lament") derives from an Irish folk song of the late 18th century called "The Unfortunate Rake",[4] which in turn appears to have descended from the even earlier "The Bard of Armagh". While "Streets of Laredo" uses the same melody as "The Unfortunate Rake", "St. James Infirmary Blues" adapts the story to a different tune. This illustrates how folk songs can change in the retelling and appear in a variety of versions.[1] Railroad songs[edit] The " Ballad
of John Henry (folklore)" is about an African-American folk hero said to have worked as a "steel-driving man".[4] Roots music[edit] Many roots musicians do not consider themselves folk musicians. The main difference between the American folk music revival
American folk music revival
and American "roots music" is that roots music seems to cover a broader range, including blues and country. Roots music developed its most expressive and varied forms in the first three decades of the 20th century. The Great Depression
Great Depression
and the Dust Bowl
Dust Bowl
were extremely important in disseminating these musical styles to the rest of the country, as Delta blues
Delta blues
masters, itinerant honky tonk singers, and Latino and Cajun
musicians spread to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The growth of the recording industry in the same period was also important; higher potential profits from music placed pressure on artists, songwriters, and label executives to replicate previous hit songs. This meant that musical fads, such as Hawaiian slack-key guitar, never died out completely, since a broad range of rhythms, instruments, and vocal stylings were incorporated into disparate popular genres. By the 1950s, forms of roots music had led to pop-oriented forms. Folk musicians like the Kingston Trio, pop-Tejano and Cuban-American fusions like boogaloo, chachacha and mambo, blues-derived rock and roll and rockabilly, pop-gospel, doo wop and R&B (later secularized further as soul music) and the Nashville sound
Nashville sound
in country music all modernized and expanded the musical palette of the country. The roots approach to music emphasizes the diversity of American musical traditions, the genealogy of creative lineages and communities, and the innovative contributions of musicians working in these traditions today. In recent years roots music has been the focus of popular media programs such as Garrison Keillor's public radio program, A Prairie Home Companion
A Prairie Home Companion
and the feature film by the same name. Regional forms[edit] American traditional music is also called roots music. Roots music is a broad category of music including bluegrass, country music, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun
and Native American music. The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States
United States
or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered "roots music" because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, contemporary folk music, rhythm and blues, and jazz. Appalachian music[edit] See also: Music of East Tennessee Appalachian music
Appalachian music
is the traditional music of the region of Appalachia in the Eastern United States. It derives from various European and African influences—including English ballads, Irish and Scottish traditional music (especially fiddle music), hymns, and African-American blues. First recorded in the 1920s, Appalachian musicians were a key influence on the early development of Old-time music, country music, and bluegrass, and were an important part of the American folk music
American folk music
revival. Instruments typically used to perform Appalachian music
Appalachian music
include the banjo, American fiddle, fretted dulcimer, and guitar.[6] Early recorded Appalachian musicians include Fiddlin' John Carson, Henry Whitter, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Carter Family, Clarence Ashley, Frank Proffitt, and Dock Boggs, all of whom were initially recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Several Appalachian musicians obtained renown during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, including Jean Ritchie, Roscoe Holcomb, Ola Belle Reed, Lily May Ledford, and Doc Watson. The Carter Family
Carter Family
was a traditional American folk music
American folk music
group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars; a beginning of the divergence of country music from traditional folk music. Their recordings of such songs as "Wabash Cannonball" (1932), "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (1935), "Wildwood Flower" (1928), and "Keep on the Sunny Side" (1928) made them country standards.[7] Country and bluegrass artists such as Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and Don Reno were heavily influenced by traditional Appalachian music.[6] Artists such as Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen
have performed Appalachian songs or rewritten versions of Appalachian songs. Cajun
music[edit] Cajun
music, an emblematic music of Louisiana, is rooted in the ballads of the French-speaking Acadians of Canada. Cajun music
Cajun music
is often mentioned in tandem with the Creole-based, Cajun-influenced zydeco form, both of Acadiana
origin. These French Louisiana sounds have influenced American popular music
American popular music
for many decades, especially country music, and have influenced pop culture through mass media, such as television commercials. Oklahoma and southern US plains[edit]

Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie
emerged from the dust bowl of Oklahoma and the Great Depression
Great Depression
in the mid-20th Century, with lyrics that embraced his views on ecology, poverty, and unionization in the USA., paired with melody reflecting the many genres of American folk music.

Before recorded history American Indians in this area used songs and instrumentation; music and dance remain the core of ceremonial and social activities.[5] "Stomp dance" remains at its core, a "call and response" form; instrumentation is provided by rattles or shackles worn on the legs of women.[5] "Other southeastern nations have their own complexes of sacred and social songs, including those for animal dances and friendship dances, and songs that accompany stickball games. Central to the music of the southern Plains Indians is the drum, which has been called the heartbeat of Plains Indian music. Most of that genre traces back to the hunting and warfare that was a strong part of plains culture.[5] During the reservation period, they frequently used music to relieve boredom and despair. Neighbors gathered, exchanged and created songs and dances. This is a part of the roots of the modern intertribal powwow. Another common instrument is the courting flute.[5] Shape-note
or sacred harp singing developed in the early nineteenth century as a way for itinerant singing instructors to teach church songs in rural communities. They taught using song books that represented musical notation of tones by geometric shapes that associated a shape with a pitch. Sacred harp
Sacred harp
singing became popular in many Oklahoma rural communities, regardless of ethnicity.[5] Later, the blues tradition developed, with roots in and parallels to sacred music.[5] By the early 20th century, jazz developed, born from a "blend of ragtime, gospel, and blues"[5] "Anglo-Scots-Irish music traditions gained a place in Oklahoma after the Land Run of 1889. Because of its size and portability, the fiddle was the core of early Oklahoma Anglo music, but other instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and steel guitar were added later. Various Oklahoma music traditions trace their roots to the British Isles, including cowboy ballads, western swing, and contemporary country and western."[5] "Mexican immigrants began to reach Oklahoma in the 1870s, bringing beautiful canciones and corridos love songs, waltzes, and ballads along with them. Like American Indian communities, each rite of passage in Hispanic communities is accompanied by traditional music. The acoustic guitar, string bass, and violin provide the basic instrumentation for Mexican music, with maracas, flute, horns, or sometimes accordion filling out the sound."[5] Other Europeans (such as Bohemians and Germans) settled in the late nineteenth century. Their social activities centered on community halls, "where local musicians played polkas and waltzes on the accordion, piano, and brass instruments."[5] Later Asians contributed to the musical mix. "Ancient music and dance traditions from the temples and courts of China, India, and Indonesia are preserved in Asian communities throughout the state, and popular song genres are continually layered on to these classical music forms"[5] The American Southwest
American Southwest
and South Texas[edit] Tejano and New Mexico music, heard throughout the American Southwest and South Texas, is rooted in the musics of the Native American and Hispanic/Latino communities of the regions. Tejano music is also heavily influenced by Regional Mexican and Country music, while New Mexico music is much more influenced by Hispano folk and Western music. Both styles have influenced one another over the years, and incorporated American popular music
American popular music
styles. Other American folk music[edit] Genres here range as widely as the definition of folk music itself; working definitions are based on the style and themes of the music regardless of its source. Many are a part of the American Folk Music Revival, including works by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Weavers,[8] Burl Ives, and others. A more commercially oriented pop music version of folk emerged in the 1960s, including performers such as The Kingston Trio,[8] The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez,[9] The Highwaymen, Judy Collins, The New Christy Minstrels, and Gordon Lightfoot, as well as counterculture and folk rock performers including Bob Dylan,[10] The Byrds, Arlo Guthrie, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.[11] Folk composer and musician Robert Schmertz composed and wrote pieces related to historical events in Western Pennsylvania.[12][13] Books[edit] In 2004, NPR
published the book titled The NPR
Curious Listener's Guide to American Folk Music,[14] Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt
wrote the foreword.

The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance by Michael F. Scully (University of Illinois Press, 2008)

In 2007, James P. Leary published Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music, which proposes a redefinition of traditional American folk music
American folk music
and identifies a new genre of music from the Upper Midwest
Upper Midwest
known as Polkabilly, which blends ethnic music, old-time country music, and polka.[15] The book was awarded the American Folklore Society’s Chicago
Folklore Prize for the best book in the field of folklore scholarship.[16] Artists and musicians[edit] Notable American folk/roots musicians include:

Fiddlin' John Carson
Fiddlin' John Carson
(1868–1949) Joe Hill
Joe Hill
(1879-1915) Washington Phillips
Washington Phillips
(1880-1954) Lead Belly
Lead Belly
(1888-1949) Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
(1890-1941) Blind Lemon Jefferson
Blind Lemon Jefferson
(1892-1929) Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith
(1894-1937) Elizabeth Cotten
Elizabeth Cotten
(1895-1987) Jimmie Rodgers "The Singing Brakeman" (1897-1933) Paul Robeson
Paul Robeson
(1898-1976) Son House
Son House
(1902-1988) Roy Acuff
Roy Acuff
(1903-1992) Johnny Richardson (1908–present; children's folk music) Burl Ives
Burl Ives
(1909-1995) Earl Robinson
Earl Robinson
(1910-1991) Robert Johnson (1911-1938) Mahalia Jackson
Mahalia Jackson
(1911-1972) Sonny Terry
Sonny Terry
(1911-1986) Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe
(1911-1996) Woody Guthrie
Woody Guthrie
(1912-1967) Roscoe Holcomb (1912-1981) Muddy Waters
Muddy Waters
(1913-1983) Lester Flatt
Lester Flatt
(1914-1979) and Earl Scruggs
Earl Scruggs
(1924-2012) Brownie McGhee (1915-1996) Ola Belle Reed (1916-2002) Lily May Ledford (1917-1984) John Lee Hooker
John Lee Hooker
(1917-2001) Merle Travis
Merle Travis
(1917-1983) Cisco Houston (1918-1961) Ed McCurdy (1919-2000) Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger
(1919-2014) Doc Watson
Doc Watson
(1923-2012) Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie
(1922-2015) Hank Williams
Hank Williams
(1923-1953) Fred Gerlach (1925-2009) B.B. King
B.B. King
(1925-2015) Barbara Dane
Barbara Dane
(1927-) Ralph Stanley
Ralph Stanley
(1927-2016) Logan English (1928-1983) Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
(1931-) Paul Clayton (1931-1967) Bob Gibson
Bob Gibson
(1931-1996) Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash
(1932-2003) Ian Tyson (1933-) and Sylvia Fricker (1940-) Mike Seeger (1933-2009) Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson
(1933-) Liam Clancy
Liam Clancy
(1935-2009) Hazel Dickens
Hazel Dickens
(1935-2011) Dave Van Ronk
Dave Van Ronk
(1936-2002) Carolyn Hester (1937-) Trini Lopez
Trini Lopez
(1937-) Norman Blake (1938-) Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon Lightfoot
(1938-) Hoyt Axton
Hoyt Axton
(1938-1999) Judy Collins
Judy Collins
(1939-) Mark Spoelstra (1940-2007) Joan Baez
Joan Baez
(1941-) Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
(1941-) Buffy Sainte-Marie
Buffy Sainte-Marie
(1941-) Roger McGuinn
Roger McGuinn
(1942-) Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell
(1943-) John Denver
John Denver
(1943-1997) Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt
(1944-1997) Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt
(1946-) Arlo Guthrie
Arlo Guthrie
(1947-) Greg Brown (1949-) Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen
(1949-) Keb' Mo'
Keb' Mo'
(1951-) Ricky Skaggs
Ricky Skaggs
(1954-) Chris Castle (1976-) Pokey LaFarge
Pokey LaFarge
(1983-) Chris Thile
Chris Thile
(1981-) Sarah Jarosz
Sarah Jarosz
(1991-) Aoife O'Donovan
Aoife O'Donovan
(1982) Maggie Simpson Odetta
(1930-2008) Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens


The Big 3 The Brothers Four Bud & Travis The Byrds Carter Family The Chad Mitchell Trio Foggy Mountain Boys The Highwaymen The Irish Rovers The Journeymen Kenny Rogers and The First Edition The Kingston Trio The Limeliters The Mamas & the Papas The New Christy Minstrels New Lost City Ramblers Peter, Paul & Mary Pozo-Seco Singers The Sandpipers The Serendipity Singers The Simon Sisters Smothers Brothers Spanky and Our Gang Stone Poneys The Tarriers Virginia Minstrels The Weavers Punch Brothers Nickel Creek Crooked Still

Fiddlin' John Carson

Jelly Roll Morton

Lead Belly

The Carter Family

Woody Guthrie

Burl Ives

Pete Seeger

The Kingston Trio

Joan Baez

Peter, Paul and Mary

and TV[edit]

"Yellow Rose Of Texas" (1858)

"The Yellow Rose of Texas" performed by the United States
United States
Coast Guard Band

"Oh! Susanna" (1848)

Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" performed by the United States
United States
Navy Concert Band

Problems playing these files? See media help.

Hootenanny, a weekly musical variety show broadcast on the ABC network in the U.S. in 1963-1964, primarily featured folk musicians. The soundtrack of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is exclusively roots music, performed by Alison Krauss, The Fairfield Four, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake and others. In 2001, PBS broadcast a 4-part documentary series, American Roots Music, that explored the historical roots of American roots music through footage and performances by the creators of the movement. The 2003 film A Mighty Wind
A Mighty Wind
is a tribute to (and parody of) the folk-pop musicians of the early 1960s. A six-hour public television series, The Music of America: History Through Musical Traditions, appeared in 2010. See also[edit]

American folk music
American folk music
revival Anthology of American Folk Music List of North American folk music
American folk music
traditions Protest songs in the United States


^ a b c "Folk Music and Song", American Folklife Center, Library of Congress ^ catalog.youranswerplace.org ^ Raph, Theodore. The American Song Treasury, Dover Publications (1986) ^ a b c "Folk Songs and Ballads", American Roots Music, PBS ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture - Folk Music ^ a b Ted Olson, "Music — Introduction". Encyclopedia of Appalachia
(Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), pp. 1109—1120. ^ Heatley, Michael (2007). The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. London, United Kingdom: Star Fire. ISBN 978-1-84451-996-5.  ^ a b Gilliland 1969, show 18. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 19. ^ Gilliland 1969, shows 31-32. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 33. ^ Swetnam, George (October 1975). "Historical Society Notes and Documents: Robert Watson Schmertz". The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 54 (4): 537–538.  ^ "Composer, Architect Entertains Avon Club". News Record. October 27–28, 1973. p. 11.  ^ "Amazon". The NPR
Curious Listener's Guide to American Folk Music, by Kip Lornell (Author), Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt
(Foreword). Retrieved May 17, 2007.  ^ "Journal of American Folklore: Review", Retrieved 27 April 2013. ^ " Chicago
Folklore Prize", Retrieved 27 April 2013.

Further reading and listening[edit]

Gilliland, John (1969). "Blowin' in the Wind: Pop discovers folk music" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.  Nettl, Bruno. An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States. Rev. ed. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1962.

External links[edit]

The Historyscoper The Folk File: A Folkie's Dictionary by Bill Markwick (1945-2017) - musical definitions and short biographies for American and U.K. Folk musicians and groups. Retrieved September 21, 2017.

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