Folk Music and American Culture

Updated on June 13, 2018
JenniferWilber profile image

Jennifer Wilber works as an ESL instructor, substitute teacher, and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English.

Acoustic guitar is frequently used in modern folk music.
Acoustic guitar is frequently used in modern folk music. | Source

What is Folk Music?

There are many different types of folk music, and just what defines folk music can differ from person to person. Folk music encompasses various styles of traditional music around the world, and every culture has its own style of folk music. Most folk music is music that is passed down from generation to generation by memory, rather than printed or recorded. It is generally simple music for everyday people. Despite its simple origins, folk music has gained popularity as commercial music in recent years. But just what is “folk music,” exactly, and how has it shaped American culture?

The term “folk music” was originally understood to mean “traditional music.” It is used to communicate the hopes, sorrows and convictions of ordinary working-class people’s lives. Folk songs are sung almost everywhere, from churches and workplaces to front porches and while rocking a child to sleep (The Ginger Group). Traditional folk music is generally considered informal and is usually musically unsophisticated and uses simple melodies. It is usually not created by professional composers, but rather, by everyday people. The original composer of most folk songs is generally unknown, as they are usually passed down orally rather than printed as sheet music (Willoughby 49).

Folk music in many cultures is traditionally passed down between generations and is learned by hearing and memorization. The songs may go through many changes over time as they are reinterpreted and sung by different people. They may change because the singer forgets the actual lyrics of the song, or because the singer simply wants to add their own changes or improvements to better suit their own community. These changes are accepted and celebrated as a valued part of the folk music tradition (Willoughby 50).

Some American folk music comes from traditional African musical styles.
Some American folk music comes from traditional African musical styles. | Source

American Folk Music

American folk music was inspired by the music of early settlers to the country. Most of the music came from white people of British origin or descent and African Americans. The musical styles of the white immigrants mixed with those of the freed slaves as people began to move to different areas of the United States. The folk music of Anglo-Americans was a combination of the folk culture of the northeastern United States and British songs and hymns (Willoughby 47-8). African American folk music derived from the songs of slaves in the deep south, which were influenced by the traditional African music of their ancestors and the Christian hymns of the slave owners. Sometimes the music of the freed slaves, and the styles that it inspired is classified as “roots” music, rather than “folk” music (The Ginger Group).

Since the early days of our nation, music was one place where people of different races could transcend the social limitations of segregation. Partially because of the efforts of John Lomax, African American musicians became known as “folk heroes.” In a nation that was so shaped by segregation, music was one of the few ways that all people could be equal, regardless of race or social class (The Ginger Group). The folk music of African Americans originally comprised of negro spirituals, which derived from the songs of slaves and adaptations of folk and religious songs from the white culture. Various styles emerged from these negro spirituals, including jazz, blues, and black gospel music (Willoughby 58-63).

Narrative ballads are a type of folk songs that trace their origin to Scotland and Ireland.
Narrative ballads are a type of folk songs that trace their origin to Scotland and Ireland. | Source

Different Types of Folk Music

The term “folk music” covers a wide variety of styles and types of songs, so there is no one definition of “folk music.” There are many different types of folk music in America alone.

“Narrative ballads” are songs that tell a story. They were originally brought to New England by immigrants from the British Isles, especially Scotland and Ireland.

There are also “lyric songs,” which include love songs, ceremonial songs, hymns, and songs about farming, rural life, industrialization, and freedom. These songs convey emotion in a more private way than do ballads.

Another type of folk music is “work songs.” There are work songs specific to black and white Americans. Sea chanties, railroad songs, and lumbermen’s songs are considered work songs. These types of songs were written to help make long hours of hard work, or even oppression as was the case with slaves, more bearable. Work songs usually use a call-and-response pattern.

“Children’s songs” are also considered folk songs. These include lullabies, camp songs, and game songs. These are generally short and simple. All children’s songs are easy to remember.

“Protest songs” encouraged social and political change and emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. These songs inspire social reform or advocate improvement of social conditions. This type of folk song is still popular today.

“Rally songs” are similar to protest songs, and are primarily used to garner support for politicians, promote union organization, and to encourage patriotism.

Another type of folk music is “dance music.” The fiddle is the primary instrument used in this type of music, but the banjo and the guitar are also common, though the guitar wasn’t used until the twentieth century. This type of music is commonly played by bluegrass groups today.

The term “folk music” covers a wide variety of styles and is listened to by a wide variety of people (Willoughby 53-57).

The banjo is a common instrument used in certain types of folk music.
The banjo is a common instrument used in certain types of folk music. | Source

Folk Music vs. Popular Music

Sometimes the line between folk music and popular music isn’t always clear. Folk music is sometimes written down and recorded, and some musicians write music in a folk style and perform it commercially, blurring the line between folk and popular styles of music. Artists such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan have recorded folk songs and made the genre more accessible commercially (Willoughby 57-8). During the 1960s, folk music began to gain popularity in the mainstream and became a popular type of music itself. Protest songs against war and social conditions such as segregation were especially popular with the younger generation of the time (The Ginger Group). Various new types of popular music were inspired by folk music, including “Folk Rock,” “Electric Folk,” and “Progressive Folk.” Some people may see these new styles as simply a modern evolution of folk music, whereas others may see it as nothing more than commercialism. I personally think that the commercialization of folk music is simply an expression of the commercialization of our culture itself.

Folk music has changed and evolved along with American culture.
Folk music has changed and evolved along with American culture. | Source

Folk Music and Culture

Folk music is an expression of the culture that it was created in. Every culture has their own traditional folk music that defines it. Folk music can change as the culture changes, and the music of different cultures can combine to form new styles of music as different cultures become integrated. In America, it was natural for the music of white European immigrants to merge with the music of former slaves of African descent to create new styles of music. Because our culture is so diverse, it only makes sense for our traditional folk music to be diverse as well. From protest songs to narrative ballads to the commercialized pseudo-folk music of today, it is all a reflection of our culture and society and the progress and hardships that we as a nation have endured over the years.


The Ginger Group. "American Roots Music." PBS. 2001. 15 May 2009 < historical_background.html>.

Willoughby, David. "Traditional Folk and Religious Music." The World of Music. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007. 46-63.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jennifer Wilber


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      • profile image

        Dylan J. Bonne 

        10 months ago

        I love the summary of the history and meaning of folk music

      • dahoglund profile image

        Don A. Hoglund 

        19 months ago from Wisconsin Rapids

        This was a good summary of the history and meaning of folk music in

        America. It took me a long time to learn about it and I agree with everything you write here.


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