Folk music, like country, pop, jazz, and rock has continually undergone evolution and redefinition. It seems that the broader the umbrella, the more winds catch it to redirect and reshape it.
In the 19th century, folk songs were either created spontaneously or adapted from British or European songs by anonymous singers. Singers performed either without accompanying instruments or with portable instruments like guitars, banjos, mandolins, or fiddles.
The early part of the 20th century brought certain types of anonymous folk music, country, cowboy, and blues songs for example, to the surface of public awareness through records and radio. Musicologists such as John and Alan Lomax traveled the rural areas of America to document and record the voice of the common American.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, Woody Guthrie crossed the traditional boundary that separated folk from pop by committing his songs to paper and audio recordings, and attaching his name to them as composer.
Guthrie also changed the focus of the music from that of entertainment and community-building to that of public awareness and motivation towards change. While the era of the social concern folk song was born, the ties that folk music had to acoustic instruments was maintained.
The definition of folk music as an acoustic-based music was challenged and changed by Dylan at Newport in 1965. In the years immediately following, folk was blended with elements of rock or pop to form a less traditional and more electric hybrid; but the blending was only a temporary experiment.
During the 1970s and 1980s a few artists, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, and occasionally Dylan himself maintained the thin thread of folk music continuity in the wave of heavy metal, techno, disco, punk, and glam rock.
Since the early 1990s, a series of MTV Unplugged albums provided acoustically challenged rock performers to step away from their amplifiers, distortion pedals, reverb boxes, and synthesizers to perform the purity of the message apart from the electronics.
A new wave of folk-influenced rock artists is currently redefining the concept of folk music by incorporating acoustic guitars and pianos with electronic instruments. These singer-songwriters, like Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, and Natalie Merchant, are crafting lyrics and performing songs that are introspective, reflective, poignant, and cerebral.
In view of the 19th or early 20th century definitions, these contemporary artists certainly do not qualify as folk musicians, but the insightful focus provided by Guthrie and the expanded instrumental palette established by Dylan opens the door for a broader appreciation of folk music.
From the time of the early 1800s, folk music texts have been about documenting and expressing the deeper levels of the human existence. From the hopeful shouts of the spiritual singers to the social commentary from Guthrie to the biting metaphors of Dylan, folk music has been about creating music which expresses the commonness of mankind’s emotions.
If the essence of the folk song is in finding a way to articulate the hopes, joys, fears, and frustrations of the common individual, then perhaps the musical expressions of hip-hop and rap are also a part of the folk music of the 21st century. In the poetry slams and rap competitions, the voice of the 18th century working man and woman, the African-American slaves, the dust bowl migrants, civil rights workers, and anti-war protesters are heard once more. The rhythms are certainly more complex, the words more like Dylan than “Down in the Valley,” but the origin of the folk music is still the same: the heart of the common American.
Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros: “This Train is Bound for Glory”