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Types of Folk Music

—By Sarah Wilfong

What do you think of when you hear the term 'folk music'? Do you visualize Scouts singing I've Been Working on the Railroad and Blowing in the Wind around a campfire? Songs like this demonstrate the communal heritage of folk music—songs everyone can enjoy singing. After all, folk music, present in all cultures, is an art form created and performed by many people; some are classically trained musicians, but the majority are not.

Throughout the U.S., many folk musicians use a thick, spiral-bound book called Rise Up Singing (edited by folk music junkie Peter Blood-Patterson). This songbook is often regarded as the folk song bible. Within the book's covers you'll find a variety of folk songs—everything from the Scottish ballad Barbara Allen, a ballad that goes back further than the 17th century and whose authorship is unknown, to Do Re Mi from The Sound of Music, written by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1959.

Now why, you may ask, is Do Re Mi considered a folk song, when it was written for a theatrical production, has direct authorship, and is really quite modern? Good question. Think of all the five-year-olds you know. Now imagine them singing Do Re Mi. Chances are they know all the words. Now think of your next door neighbor. Chances are he knows the words, too. Rodgers and Hammerstein didn't intend for Do Re Mi to become a folk song, but almost by osmosis, everyone knows it. Even your Scout troop would include it when singing around the campfire. Folk music is not limited to old songs; folk music can also include popular songs that are easily sung by many people.

Folk music is often combined with other music styles. When Eric Burdon and the Animals recorded House of the Rising Sun, an American folk song from New Orleans, and when Metallica recorded Whiskey in the Jar, a traditional Irish song, traditional folk music was fused with rock. The result? Folk-rock, a genre unto itself.

Oftentimes, musical traditions influence each other by simply existing in the same geographical area. Sixteen Tons, written by Merle Travis, is a good example of this type of blending, as it incorporates a bluesy melody into a traditional song structure. Many other examples of blending can be heard in country music and blues.

By the same token, a particular music style will not be influenced as much if it is kept isolated. When Scottish and Irish immigrants came to North America in the 1800's, they and their music were concentrated in two regions, Canada's Cape Breton and the Appalachian Mountains. The Cape Breton style of music continued to evolve through exposure to other peoples and other music. But when the Appalachian music was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century, it was found to have remained much closer to its Scots-Irish roots because the people and the music had remained fairly isolated. Strangely enough, this Appalachian-style music is now considered the backbone of American old-time music.

Geography has played a role in the development of traditional Irish music. Music from one Irish County is separated from the music of another Irish County by its own particular flavor. For example, the fiddle style in southern Clare is different from the fiddle style in northern Donnegal. Even the music of individual towns can be identified by indigenous quirks. Why? Because when travel between towns was limited, people had little exposure to music from other regions. This led to the development of highly stylized, very clean, musical segmentation.

Storytelling is another vital part of the folk tradition.

Ballads have long been the most popular vehicle for retelling stories about unrequited love, war, famine, shipwrecks, and other tragedies. Not all ballads are depressing, but the vast majority of them seem to be! Many ballads have correlating storylines; the phrases used in one ballad are often similar to phrases in another ballad, even when the ballads are from different geographical regions. There are at least thirty-five variations of Barbara Allen, some Scottish, some English, and some American, all recorded in the last twenty years!

Tall ShipMany folk songs are very practical. Teaching songs explain things while working songs help laborers work. The Woodcutter's Song tells you what type of wood to burn in your fireplace, while Haul Away Joe helped sailors maintain their rhythm while hauling up sails on a tall ship.

Folk music is unique because it relies heavily on an aural tradition to keep it alive. Even today, in spite of the fact that there are hundreds of collections of songs and tunes available, most folk musicians still rely on the tradition of learning songs by ear, from other singers, rather than by reading manuscripts.

In the last thirty years, songwriters have begun writing contemporary folk songs about modern issues and using more modern language. Songs like The City of New Orleans and This Land is Your Land have none of the archaic wording of a ballad like The Water is Wide. But just like their older counterparts, modern folk songs reflect the emotions and values of the person writing the song, and are meant to inspire similar emotions in the listener. Modern folk songs still tell stories, just in a more modern fashion.

The struggle to define folk music is ongoing because folk music is always changing. That's what makes folk music interesting, and what helps it to survive. As long as those Scouts keep belting out those campfire tunes, folk music will never die.

I leaned my back against an oak
Thinking it was a trusty tree
But first it bent, and then it broke
And so my false love did to me.
—A verse from The Water is Wide.

This verse is also found in countless other ballads from the British Isles.
© 2007 Sarah Wilfong

Sarah Wilfong, folk music fiddler and classical violinist, performs regularly in the Chicago area. To contact Sarah directly, click here.

For information about Sarah's Fiddle Soup CD, click here: Sarah Wilfong - Fiddle Soup

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042803 Tuesday, November 20, 2007