Okay, so 'folk music' is a huge area of the musical spectrum (more on that later) but basically, folk music is generally considered to be largely acoustic music that tells tales of ordinary people. In the English folk tradition alone, everything in the realm of human experience from love and sex to murder and robbery are covered, taking in political dissent and religion along the way.
The Stereotypical View of Folk Music…
This is of a small, dingy room, where deceptively strong real ale is supped in tankards hung from belts when not in use. Fingers may be put in ears. Spontaneous Morris dancing breaks out and people fight to the death over which verses of 'Sir Gawain's Lament' should be sung unaccompanied. The more obscure your instrument, the better. Mandolas battle with Uilean pipes and hammer dulcimers are used in anger. The language is obscure, probably at least 17th Century, and no one really knows what anyone is actually singing about. Apart from Derek, the part-man/part-knitted being who runs the club. His claim to fame is the ability to sing 12th-Century Welsh milkmaids' songs. From memory...
Well okay, so folk clubs like this do still exist, but that isn't what folk music is all about. This is a controversial view to some, but folk is music for the people, by the people. It sums up a place and a time, be that 12th-Century Carmarthenshire, Wales, or 20th-Century Kingston, Jamaica.
It can be argued that every country on earth has some form of indigenous music and/or instruments on which music is played. From Indian ragas played on sitars to reels played on Scottish bagpipes, anywhere you go in the world you can expect to hear folk music. And it isn't all the same! This has led to a new genre emerging – world music – which is basically a sexy and exotic way of summing up folk music from around the world without conjuring up images of Arran jumpers and real ale. But as well as changing with geographical location, folk can be seen to change with time.
Genres, Sub-Genres and Confusing Subtle Differences...
As previously mentioned, folk music is an extensive genre. What is folk music to one person is not to another. A good example of this could be the Oyster Band. To some, this group play hard driving electric folk music, but to others they are 'Celtic rock.' This leads to some problems in defining what is – and more importantly isn't – folk music. Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of the genres and sub-genres that make up the 'folk scene' at the time of writing:
British and Irish Traditional Music
This can be split into further genres and sub-genres, mostly based on geography (Northumbrian music is quite distinct from Welsh, Cornish from Scottish), and also on its original function. Jigs, reels, Morris tunes, sea-shanties and traditional songs all have different roots and these individual genres can be seen to change over time. A wide variety of instruments are used, including guitar, mandolin, accordion, whistles, harps and violins. Many traditional songs were originally intended to be sung unaccompanied, purely because the singer may be on their own with no instruments! Suffice it to say that there is neither time nor space to list all of the various subdivisions in this area of folk, purely because of the vast tradition of tunes and songs that abound on these islands. In fact, it is highly doubtful that anyone has ever attempted to create such an exhaustive list.
European Traditional Music
Again, geography and chronology has lead to a huge array of styles and sub-genres on the continent as it has in Britain and Ireland, and national traditional music will vary from place to place – Breton Folk music is distinct from other French forms. National dances have all produced individual and unique sounds and structures and again instruments are varied, from the bazouki in Greece to the Breton pipes in Brittany, with the usual cross-pollination that goes with increased travel.
American Folk Music
North America's traditional music reflects both the diverse cultures that created the region's population (Italian, Irish, English, Dutch, French, African and Caribbean amongst others) and also reflects its history. Perhaps time has affected the development of American folk music more than across the pond, as many of the original settlers were running away from something as well as towards the New World. Much of American folk music has a political edge as well as a storytelling element. Geographical distinctions also abound, with regional specialities such as Appalachian, Bluegrass, Country and/or Western, Blues, Gospel, etc all being distinct forms in their own right. It is now often linked intrinsically with the 1960s folk revival, with key players like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell – themselves influenced by such luminaries as Woody Guthrie – being cited as of huge importance to a newer crop of 'singer-songwriters.' A good place to start exploring the rich and varied music of America is the Smithsonian Institute's 'Folkways' recordings.
Often attributed to Peter Gabriel, the term 'world music' covers a huge array of traditional music and fusions from, well, all over the world. Youssou N'Dour, Transglobal Underground, Robert Plant, Paul Simon, Bhundu Boys and countless others have all fused elements of traditional music from around the world with more 'conventional' musical forms to create a seemingly endless array of styles and sounds.
Strictly speaking, each of these genres and sub-genres could be the focus of a complete and lengthy Guide Entry in their own right and this Entry is bound to have missed out something that other writers would have deemed essential, but that is the way these things go!
The very nature of folk music is that it is an evolutionary creature that can be adapted and fused, mixed and matched with other musical styles and it can even be said that musical genres such as reggae, techno, garage, punk and rock 'n' roll all started as forms of folk music, as there was (and still is) a strong DIY element to them and they spoke to people about matters that actually concerned them, issues that faced them or simply reflected what 'the People' wanted out of life and music.
There have been calls for many years for a national database of traditional songs and tunes to be assembled in Britain, possibly as an online resource available for use by all. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House in London contains a large archive of written lyrics and tunes as well as sound recordings, but there is a huge wealth of tunes and songs still out there waiting to be found. Most fans of 'traditional music' would have to admit that a large part of the appeal of folk music is its traditional nature, but while we should try to preserve this important part of our heritage, we should never be afraid to play with it. To paraphrase the great Martin Carthy, the only way we will lose folk is by treating it as a fragile thing.
Suggested Listening and Links
- The Dubliners
- The Copper Family
- Scottish Folk Music
- Mummers, Souling Folk Plays, etc
- Eden Burning
- Popular Music Genres