Home » 7th Season: 2019-2020 » 2019-2020 v.04 » What is Folk Music?

What is Folk Music?

By Mr. Richard “Nick” Noble, ’76, Communications Department

What is Folk Music?

Editor’s Note: This article was previously published at WICN.org.

Essays with questions for titles can be annoying. They are often an excuse for the author to preach his or her opinion with passionate, proselytizing vehemence as if picking a fight with potential readers genuinely curious about the answer. I hope this won’t be one of those, but quite honestly I can make no guarantees. If I had a dollar for every time I have been asked this question in the twelve-plus years I have been hosting THE FOLK REVIVAL, I would have retired a rich man long ago. For a long time, I stopped trying to answer the question “What is Folk Music?” because when I did, it invariably started an argument. People, it seemed, almost always asked the question having their answer already in mind. And their answers—strongly held opinions and beliefs—were often quite disparate.

Go ahead: Google it. Even everyone’s go-to, Wikipedia, can’t make up its mind. The very first line of its “Folk Music” entry has to equivocate:

This article is about traditional, non-commercial folk music. For the 20th-century style associated with a wide variety of subgenres, see Contemporary folk music. “Folk Songs” and “Folksinger” redirect here. For other uses, see Folk Songs (disambiguation) and Folksinger (disambiguation). (Wikipedia)

In other words: we don’t know either—there seem to be lots of different “folk music,” so let’s create a plethora of possibilities (where else but Wikipedia do you ever see the word “disambiguation” used?) to make a certainty of the uncertain—to be sure of the not-so-sure. The entry goes on to assert that “Folk music includes traditional folk music and the genre(s) that evolved from it.” What Wikipedia attempts is inclusive and yet not inclusive, defining a genre by its relationship (or distance from) its sub-genres. It sounds overly complicated to me.

Of course, the exact nature of folk music and a precise (or at least universally accepted) definition of the genre remain topics of much debate and controversy even within folk music circles; perhaps especially within folk music circles.

In 1995, Mark D. Moss, editor of Sing Out! magazine wrote that “our community vehemently refuses to take responsibility for defining folk music.” Moss himself took a more inclusive view: that folk music is a kind of umbrella, covering a variety of styles—blues, ballads, traditional, ethnic, contemporary, etc.—but historically academia has not always been so welcoming.

Most scholars— specialists by nature, essentially—prefer narrower interpretations. When compelled to craft a broader definition, both Bruno Nettl, Professor Emeritus of Music and Anthropology at the University of Illinois and past president of the Society for Ethnomusicolog, and Helen Myer, editor and research specialist in ethnomusicology and world music for several American university presses, emphasized folk music’s cultural (rural, populist) origins in the past, declaring that “it is music of the ‘folk’ or the people.” 

The late Samuel Forcucci (1923-2019), for 35 years professor and music department chair at the State University of New York at Potsdam, agreed with that statement and then elaborated. In his book A Folk Song History of America (1984), Forcucci listed eight criteria for determining an authentic folk song. It should:

  • tell a story
  • be the musical expression of common people
  • have an unknown author  (insisting that those songs with known authors were simply “patterned to fit the mold of a ‘typical’ folk song”)
  • be colloquial
  • be highly singable
  • be simply structured
  • be effective when unaccompanied, and
  • be indigenous to a particular region

to be authentic.

Forcucci is generous enough to make a distinction between “traditional” folk songs, which meet all of the above criteria, and what he terms “modern urban folk music,” the root of Wikipedia’s hedging. Others, however, have not been as flexible. An intransigent insistence on oral tradition, anonymous authorship, rural roots, and sometimes genuine antiquity (“it has to be old to be real folk music”) highlight the arguments of many folk purists. Refined performance is often seen as corrupting; commercial success viewed as a kind of sell-out. 

The great folk music collectors—Francis James Child (1825-1896), Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), Frank Warner (1903-1978), Anne Warner (1905-1991), John Lomax (1867-1948), Alan Lomax (1915-2002) and others—who traveled throughout the English speaking world visiting rural communities and recording the songs they found—would have seen such restrictive definition as oversimplified and limiting. Most of the songs they collected were indeed old and of unknown origin. But not all of them told stories and later research learned the identity of some authors/composers. Those so identified were songs performed and cited as traditional songs, accepted as “folk” even by the most discriminating purists, only to have it discovered that the composers were known, the songs were much more recent than had first been thought, with some coming from stage shows, burlesque revues, churches, or the “popular music of the day.” With this new information, did they automatically become non-folk?

Such violations of some of Forcucci’s requirements have not necessarily changed the status of a folk song in the opinion of more recent collectors, while some of the evaluative measures of Forcucci’s criteria are subjective—What exactly constitutes “highly singable”? Who determines how “effective” an a capella song might be? 

It was musicologist Charles Seeger (1886-1979), certainly an appreciator of the classical folk music archetype (his children were Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger, and Mike Seeger—all brilliant popular interpreters of folk songs), who argued that defining folk music should reject any “rigid boundaries” and should recognize many different types: primitive or tribal, elite or artistic, traditional, and popular. With the advent of folk music on the Hit Parade (Burl Ives in 1948) and the Billboard Hot 100 (beginning with the Weavers in 1950, through the Kingston Trio in 1959-1960, and up to Peter-Paul-and-Mary’s last #1 hit in 1969-70), “popular” became equated with “commercial.” The last “Folk Revival” of the 20th century, also known as “the Great Folk Music Scare,” a phrase coined by Dave Van Ronk and popularized by Martin Mull, raised the hackles of folk purists.

While “the classic traditional folk snobs . . . looked down on anything that smelled of commerciality,” wrote Bob Dylan in his autobiography:

. . .they were no threat, so I didn’t care about it one way or another. Most of the folk crowd trashed the commercial folk stuff . . . all that stuff had appealed to me a few years earlier, so I didn’t feel the need to put it down. To be fair, there we snobs on the other side too—commercial folk snobs. These kind looked down the traditional folk singers as being old-fashioned and wrapped in cobwebs . . . There wasn’t any middle ground and it seemed that everybody was a snob of one kind or another. I tried to keep everything in perspective.

While the irony of Bob Dylan—a songwriter and recording artist who has cashed probably more multi-figure royalty checks than anyone else in the history of folk music—attempting to define himself apart from “commercial folk” should be acknowledged, he makes a good point. The crux of contemporary to define folk music is . . . conflict. 

Scholarship, of course, has often (although not always) sought to resolve conflicts in analysis and interpretation, and thus in the definition. Ethnomusicology—the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it—arose as an academic discipline in 19th century Europe, particularly in Germany. The focus was mostly on non-Western music. Ancient cultures and tribal traditions around the world were the beginning of folk music, which was carried on primarily through oral transmission. Songs were rarely written down. Among the earliest were the Psalms and the “Song of Deborah” (Judges 5:2-31). 

During much of the last millennium, wandering bards, minstrels, and balladeers were on the move in every culture and community, traveling rivers and roads, singing their songs and stories. Epic ballads, country melodies, and intricate madrigals evolved side by side over time. The earliest of these songs printed in English only appeared in the 16th century. 

A Lytle Geste of Robyn Hode, later collected by Francis James Child as his Child ballad #117, was published in 1506. In 1520, an Oxford bookseller recorded the sale of 190 Broadside Ballads—large single sheets featuring only the words (it was assumed that the readers were familiar with the tunes). From 1557-1709, the Stationer’s Company of London collected 4p each in licensing fees for the printing of more than three thousand different ballads. From the late 16th century on, beginning with Richard Jones’ A Handfull of Pleasant Delights in 1584, collections of ballads, known as Garlands, became to the public. “Greensleeves,” still a favorite, was featured in that first-ever folk songbook.

It was a rendition of “Greensleeves”—or, rather, its tune sung to the Christmas lyric “What Child is This?” (written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865) that helped change at least one mind about the efficacy of folk music as a subject worthy of scholarly study in the United States.

Anthropologist David McAllester, a professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, co-founded the Society for Ethnomusicology in 1955, and within two years had established the first degree-granting ethnomusicology department at an American university. Other Wesleyan faculties, like choral director Richard Winslow, were somewhat skeptical about the newest discipline. But at a Wesleyan Christmas concert in 1959, sophomore David Fisher sang a hauntingly beautiful solo rendition of “What Child is This?” accompanied only by a guitar. In a thank-you note to Fisher, Winslow wrote that “you showed me just how special folk music can be.” David Fisher would go on to receive Wesleyan’s first ethnomusicology degree in 1962. Before that, however, he would make a name for himself as the principal arranger and lead singer of a folk group that put two songs on to Billboard’s Top 40, taking the absolutely traditional “Michael” (which met all of Forcucci’s eight standards) to #1 in 1961, and Huddle Ledbetter’s “Cotton Fields” to #15 in 1962: the original Highwaymen.

The Highwaymen were, of course, part of that stretch of popular folk music on the charts between 1950 and 1970, along with the Weavers, the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, the Brothers Four, Peter-Paul-&-Mary, Joan Baez, the New Christy Minstrels, the Rooftop Singers, the Seekers, the Byrds, and many others (yes, including Bob Dylan). That “folk revival” period—the “Great Folk Music Scare” which terrified rock n’ roll promoters, etc.—was relatively short-lived, but gave renewed energy to those critical of the commercialization of traditional forms.

Such criticism continues to this day. Not long ago, a respected folk aficionado derided “financial gain, which is the antithesis of folk.”

It is a puzzling reaction indeed. The balladeers, troubadours, and wandering minstrels who first performed hundreds of years ago didn’t pursue their vocation for nothing. It was their livelihood. They did it for money, for food, for clothing and shelter, for patronage. Who wrote many of the old story ballads? They were certainly composed for profit— if an audience didn’t like the songs or ballads of a particular troubadour/minstrel/balladeer, he didn’t eat. Theirs were commercial ventures. Likewise, the publishers of Broadsides (so cherished by purists) were out to make money and were even willing to pay the appropriate fees to the City of London (4p, remember?—almost  £2 [roughly $3] each today) to pursue their business venture. 

And as for Forcucci’s standards, clearly individuals created most of these songs—we just don’t happen to know many of their names and, due to the lack of historical records, can’t make many (if any) specific attributions. Once upon a time, so many of the songs that so many people today consider “folk” were written by real people hoping that they would be liked/appreciated by others (i.e. popular). Some sought commercial success and we still know who they are (Stephen Foster with “Hard Times”– in many ways a perfect folk song lament; Huddie Ledbetter with “Goodnight, Irene” and “Cotton Fields” for example); others—their identities and motives— have been lost to the mists of time. Who wrote “Michael”? An early 19th-century laborer on the Georgia Sea Islands: not nameless, simply unnamed in any record. And at some point or another, plenty of these songs were accompanied. So much for . . .

Oh, no. I’m doing exactly what I said I would try not to do: I’m preaching and proselytizing, picking a fight. Oooops. My bad. Sincere apologies.

So what exactly IS folk music?

Well, I tend to agree with Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958), considered by many to be the father of American blues:

All music is folk music, ‘cause I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.

Of course, there are issues of context with that quote, which was later popularized by Louis Armstrong and others. But it makes an important point, and it captures the essence of what I believe. I am a big tent guy because I believe that old-style, traditional folk music is at the root of almost all music today, hence it is all folk music at its core.  There are, as I have noted before, purists who would differ with me, and who have those very restricted definitions of “folk music.” But the recent Ken Burns documentary, Country Music, for example, wonderfully demonstrates that folk process—the coming together of music from different cultures, the blending of styles, the sharing (or borrowing) of melodies, all continuously evolving into something new—which would become much of the music we enjoy.

Interestingly, the National Endowment for the Arts defines folk this way: 

The folk and traditional arts are rooted in and reflective of the cultural life of a community. Community members may share a common ethnic heritage, cultural mores, language, religion, occupation, or geographic region. These vital and constantly reinvigorated artistic traditions are shaped by values and standards of excellence that are passed from generation to generation, most often within family and community, through demonstration, conversation, and practice. Genres of artistic activity include, but are not limited to, music, dance, crafts, and oral expression. 

That’s fine as far as it goes, but it leads to other interesting (and perhaps for some surprising) conclusions. Read it carefully. Under this definition, both rap music and Jazz would qualify as “folk” (and I believe they do), but the NEA definition leaves out entirely the rich vein of topical-protest-reform music that has been part of the folk tradition for centuries. Other ethnomusicologists divide “folk music” up into categories like “traditional folk,” “urban [or modern] folk,” “folk-style,” “folk-rock,” and even “folk-pop.” While I certainly accept all of these under the broader folk umbrella, it is disturbing to realize that even academic scholarship can stoop to the “genre-fication” (my own word?—perhaps inadequate, but it hopefully getting the point across) which is common practice in both the recording and broadcast industries. 

Yet this common practice is often, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet observed, “more honour’d in the breach than the observance.” For example, when the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” dominated the Billboard charts in 1959, the powers that be of The Recording Academy took notice. However, the Academy’s fledgling Grammy Awards had no folk category. So that same year, at the very first Grammy ceremony, the Kingston Trio —three young men from Hawaii and Northern California who, because of the Calypso music in their repertoire, had named their group after Kingston, Jamaica, though they had never been to the Caribbean—won the Best Country and Western  Recording award for “Tom Dooley,” a 19th Century folk song from North Carolina. Genres, sub-genres, categories: they all seem to matter until they don’t. The fact that they can be decidedly fungible makes me wonder: are they really necessary at all? 

Several years ago, Michael Nesmith (remember the Monkees?) gave a powerful speech upon being recognized for his pioneering work in music videos. He decried industry labels as marketing devices that insulted both musical reality and musical taste. Thirty years later, there were still folks in the music world who insisted on separating songs into limiting categories. I know those who insist that Folk cannot include modern singer-songwriters. Yet songs written from experience and shared with an audience (as many of our “singer-songwriters” do) is as honest an expression of the folk tradition as any other. 

That doesn’t mean that individual listeners can’t create their personal categories for the music they like. We all set our boundaries and check-off boxes for songs we enjoy and songs we don’t. But I would argue that we have to be careful about applying our boundaries to the bigger questions beyond our personal preferences. When answering the question “What is folk music?” are we arguing for an actual formal definition or simply categorizing the particular music we like. It would be well, I think, to heed the words of the late Jessye Norman, a dramatic soprano who defied genre restrictions. “Pigeonholing,” she said, “is only interesting to pigeons.”

While the modern pop music recording industry (really a product of the last 75 years or so) can be fairly criticized, it should not be decried at the expense of the artists and the songs themselves. I think of all the old Irish songs that punk-ish bands like the Dropkicks and the Pogues have recorded, or “House of the Rising Sun” recorded by so many varied artists and acts to popular success. With me, I guess, it’s an exercise NOT in musical purity (which narrows and restricts) but in intellectual purity (which insists on an open mind and a broader perspective). Ultimately, however, we have to be careful not to pretend to define music by genre when we’re, in truth, defining it by whether we like it or not.

We should also be prepared to look more deeply into the roots of songs. It is human nature, I guess, to sometimes use definitions to rule things out, rather than to welcome them in. The NEA says folk songs are “reflective of a cultural community,” while Forcucci insists on linking folk songs to “a particular region”—to a specific place. Well, certainly all cultures create their own roots/folk music, so culture should never be used as a defining disqualifier. Place? Not sure why that should ever be used to limit the definition of folk music either. Unless you’re focusing on Americana, or English-language folk, or British Isles folk, or Western European folk… and those are awfully limited definitions for me. Some people define folk music as rural rather than urban, but that fails to take into account the increased urbanization over the past century-plus and those older folk songs with urban origins. Time (and possibly age) is one of the defining factors that might play a role in defining folk music. There could be some sort of roots/generational requirement for folk music, but I’m damned if I (or anyone) actually “knows” what it is. And even with the necessity of a “time” component, contemporary interpretations of older songs or modern music written and performed in a (too-be-defined) folk “style” would still qualify in my book. I also like to examine the origins of a song, old or new, and its roots and influences. Music evolves, and you can find a bit of folk in many (I would argue most) songs.

To me, all the changes in music since the days of its more traditional roots are part of the process of it being “constantly reinvigorated”, as clearly stated in the NEA definition. And it is not necessary to be a folk-arranger or a “folksinger” to interpret a folk song. Singing a folk song doesn’t automatically make someone a “folksinger”. If you accept topical songs of protest as part of the folk spectrum (which I do), then Bobby Darin’s “Simple Song of Freedom” is a folk song (which I believe it is), but I would not describe Bobby Darin as a “folksinger.” Some of Lady Gaga’s music does indeed have folk roots (very little music doesn’t) but that doesn’t make her in any way a “folksinger.” Another example would be Amanda Palmer, who was brilliantly featured at the Newport Folk Festival a couple of years ago. I wouldn’t call Amanda Palmer a “folksinger” per se (although her music is generally much closer to the folk idiom than Lady Gaga’s), but her “Ukulele Song” is clearly a folk-style piece celebrating a folk-style instrument, while songs like “Oasis” are absolutely in the tradition of topical-reform-protest songs delineating contemporary social and cultural issues (in this case: rape, the treatment of women, the celebrity-obsessed apathy of today’s youth). Is she a “folksinger”? Probably not. Can those songs (and a few others of hers) be called “folk songs.” Absolutely yes. The tough one is someone like Dylan, who despite his later pop and rock status remains a folksinger in my definition, because he is, first-and-foremost, a folk-poet. Folk-rock and folk-punk often feature older and obviously folk songs performed in a more modern style: part of the natural evolution of the music over time (there’s that pesky “time” again). But unless a particular band’s repertoire is primarily folk-rock (like the Byrds) or folk-punk (like the Dropkick Murphys) I might not necessarily call them “folksingers.”

But what about when we, the listener, become the singer? Generations of children know “Puff the Magic Dragon” (written by Peter Yarrow and Leonard Lipton) NOT from the Peter-Paul-&-Mary hit recording, but from hearing it sung to them by a loving parent or grandparent. It is still being passed down, generation to generation that way. Is that not the folk tradition? And when we sing the songs ourselves—“Puff” to our kids or grandkids, “This Land is Your Land” around a campfire—don’t we become the folksingers? Yes, both those songs have known creators, defying Forcucci’s requirement, but what about centuries from now, when perhaps many of today’s songs are old, when their creators are forgotten, etc. Will they be “folk” then?

Which brings us back to genrefication (no hyphen nor any quotation marks this time: according to the Urban Dictionary it’s a real word and has been since at least 2008, so not originally mine . . . oh, well). A couple of years back I heard from a gentleman named Jeff, who, while agreeing that “all ‘genre’ labels are artificial,” pointed out that “culture is always artificial, all of it — that’s just what it is. it’s how we humans order our world(s).” Jeff continued: “I do, however, believe in the idea of musical ‘genres.’ Jazz is something. Blues is something. Classical is something. Opera is something. Pop is something. Indie is something. Country is something. True, there are lots of opinions about what each is. that’s how the name game is played.”

Ah, yes: the name game. I see Jeff’s point, and I generally agree. Jazz is indeed something, and Blues is indeed something. But just consider how many hundreds. even thousands of times those two different genres have intersected. Look at the old spiritual/gospel (folk music by any historic traditional definition) roots of both Jazz and Blues. Likewise, Classical and Opera are definitely each unto their own, but yet not. Think of how many times those two genres have come together (through Mozart, Verdi, and hundreds of others). And think of the traditional folk songs that composers like Schubert, Schumann, and Vaughan-Williams turned into Classical compositions. Pop, Country, and Indie have also often intersected, as has folk with all three and more. I guess my point is not to object to artificial labels. Rather, I’m simply calling for us to acknowledge their artificiality and to recognize that there is indeed a game being played. That’s why THE FOLK REVIVAL (Thursdays 7-10 PM eastern time at wicn.org) is not just about playing music but also about informing and kindling discussions like this. We are inheritors of a long and diverse, busy musical heritage, and we should take the time to discover, explore, and understand, the historical/genealogical reality behind the artificiality of the game.

Concluding his thoughts on the subject, Jeff also said that “Folk music is something. . . To call and consider it ‘everything’, for me, demeans its meaning and its significance.” I certainly appreciate and understand that position, but I must respectfully disagree. To me, the “significance” of folk music is precisely that it is (almost) “everything.” In a February 2019 article from the Montreal Gazette covering the annual Folk Alliance International conference, longtime Canadian radio folk host Mike Regenstreif was quoted as saying that “the word ‘folk’ in the context of something like Folk Alliance International is a very broad term, an umbrella term. It’s not a guy in a coffee house singing his own songs with an acoustic guitar, although that’s certainly part of it. It envelops all of that, plus various ethnic and international styles, from klezmer to Arabic music, to Celtic music, African music. New Orleans brass-band music is a folk tradition, although you might commonly think of it as jazz or funk.” Regenstreif takes something from a historical perspective. “Sure, there’s always been a certain amount of policing (of genre borders),” Regenstreif said. “If you think back to 1965 when Dylan went electric at Newport, some of the old-guard folkies were very upset about it. Today, what Dylan was doing back then is very common in the folk scene.” And the contemporary music scene, he notes, has its own “something new” to offer in regards to defining folk. “There are valid arguments to be made that hip-hop is a valid folk form,” he says. “It’s part of a community. I wouldn’t say that what Kanye West does necessarily has anything to do with folk music, but certainly, with the street-level artists, the case could be made.”

Hmmmmm. But if you can then show that the music Kanye West offers emerges in a direct line from “street-level” hip-hop, then maybe it too has a claim to folk relevance. It’s a near-thing, but certainly worthy of a discussion. There is, after all, an evolutionary process to all this.

There’s a wonderful song by Ron Kavana and Terry Woods (The Pogues, The Bucks) written with veteran sideman Rod Demick, called “What a Time!”, recorded most successfully by the Black Brothers. The chorus refers to an important transitional period in the history of folk music evolution, at least in the United States:

What a time it must have been
When the century had turned
And all the music came together
In the brave new world

The verses specifically referenced that particular manifestation of “the folk process”:

When eviction and the famine packed the ships that sailed from Cork
They were bound for Ellis Island in the harbor of New York
This new world, this land of plenty, must have seemed so very strange
But they had their fiddles, pipes, and songs to help them through the change.

There were Germans, Poles, Italians playin’ polkas oompah-style
But the boys who had them reelin’, they came from auld Erin’s Isle
Touhy, Ennis, Coleman, Morrison, and the bands made up by Chief O’Neill
Daddy Rice he softshoe-shuffled while he fiddled jigs’n’reels.

In the Appalachian mountains the tunes took on new names
Likewise in Philadelphia where the Irish Minstrels reigned
Every Friday night the Flanagans played the Tub of Blood, New York
Singin’ Tura Lura Lura, My Irish Molly-O
Drinkin’ rare auld Irish whiskey from Cavan and Mayo.

On the railroads, down the coalmines, in workcamps and vaudeville halls
Irish music met black rhythms with a sound that shook the walls
Such a joyful syncopation this odd couple then did make
At the time some called it crazy, it’s called rock’n’roll of late.

“Tradition,” said Gustav Mahler (paraphrasing Sir Thomas More), “is not the worship and preservation of the ashes, but the passing and handing on of the fire.” 

I see the spirit of Mahler’s statement embodied in several folk festivals each year. For example, over three days on the Museum Stage at this past summer’s Newport Folk Festival, there appeared an indie folk-pop group; a contingent of Native American drummers and singers accompanying a genre-defying guitarist; a brilliantly gritty singer-songwriter; a band from Dublin reinterpreting traditional Irish music with contemporary sound; a dynamic South Asian folk-punk quintet; a progressive folk-jazz instrumental ensemble; a sweet-voiced folk-pop artist with a style marrying vintage to modern; a Colombian joropo band combining Andalusian, Indigenous American, and African roots with skilled musicianship and foot-stomping dance; a deeply expressive improvisational stream-of-consciousness singer and artist; and an inspirationally harmonious folk duo from  the Pacific Northwest. All part of the annual “For Pete’s Sake” feature, brilliantly curated by the Decemberists’ Chris Funk, each of these acts demonstrated the carrying on of tradition—passing the fire, handing it on beyond the past and well into the future. 

At the New Bedford Folk Festival just a few weeks earlier, I hosted a venue that featured a father-son blues team from New Orleans, a father-son Quebecois duo from Montreal, a pair of folk singing sisters from New England, a husband-wife-daughter Latin trio, and an Irish step-dancer: all on the same stage together at the same time. Again, the juxtaposition of divergent styles and sounds created something very special.

And despite my inability to characterize these lineups without using genre descriptives, what the enthusiastic audiences all heard were not categorizing clichés. What was played was just good music—songs from a wide range of cultures and perspectives, but in the end, they were simply songs. I was, and I am, reminded of something Woody Guthrie once shared. “A song was just a song to me,” he said in 1948. “I never even heard any song called a folk song. After all, every song is a song by the folks and for the folks. I don’t recall ever writing any songs for cows, chickens, fish, monkeys nor wild animals of any kind.” 

I guess for me, if it can be played/performed acoustically or straight electrically, without layers of production or computer jiggling, it might just qualify as folk in one way or another. If its roots are deep in traditional styles, wherever its branches and leaves have taken it in the modern world, then I’d consider it folk. If it reflects the human condition, expressed in a narrative or resounding in protest or a call to action, there’s folk in it.

What a time it must have been—what a time it still is, and will continue to be when music comes together in this brave new world and in all the brave new worlds to come.

In any event, if it speaks to your soul, your spirit, your heart, your humor, and/or your mind; if it tells a story; if it takes a stand on an issue; as long as a horse ain’t singin’ it: it just might be folk.

Currently Communications Manager and School Historian at St. Mark’s, Nick Noble is also an alumnus (SM Class of 1976). He is the author of seven books, including histories of Brantwood Camp and the Town of Southborough. His latest book—The Echo of Their Voices: 150 Years of St. Mark’s School—was published in 2015. In addition to all that, he is an award-winning radio personality, hosting THE FOLK REVIVAL on WICN (Worcester Public Radio) since 2007.

Works Cited

Wikipedia contributors. “Folk music.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Oct. 2019. Web. 5 Nov. 2019.

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