What Is A Folk Song? by Stewart Hendrickson

What is a “folk song”? This is a question that has been raised over many years with no agreed-upon answer. Here we explore the origins of this term, and the collection of these songs.

The term “the folk” was first coined in the late eighteenth century by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803). In Herder’s view each folk comes from a common language and geography, centered around a common culture, which he called “folklore.” The concept of “folk songs” as different from other types of songs suggested that these songs would soon be lost. Herder believed that the songs of the peasants were rooted in a folk culture that was untouched by modern times and foreign ways, and in danger of being lost in a rapidly changing world.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries European intellectuals turned their attention to the vernacular culture of their peasants, farmers, and craftspeople in a sort of “discovery of the people.” There was the Kultur der Gelehrten  (the learned culture) and the Kultur des Volkes  (the people’s culture). The latter was favored by Herder: “unless our literature is founded on our Volk, we [writers] shall write eternally for the closet sages and disgusting critics out of whose mouths and stomachs we shall get back what we have given.” He felt that folk culture offered a way out of Enlightenment’s stifling emphasis on reason; folk culture was a way to cleanse culture of an artificiality that he thought was poisoning modern life.

Herder called upon his fellow Germans to go out among the peasants and collect their lore and songs before it was too late and they disappeared. He published several volumes of poetry entitled Volkslieder (folk songs) in the 1770s. He argued that only authentic German folklore could provide the basis for German art and culture.

In England old ballads were collected and published, the first of which was entitled A Collection of Old Ballads published in 1723.  This was in response to a fad among the middle and aristocratic classes for things “country.” The subtitle by the anonymous editor stressed its antiquarian nature: “Corrected from the best and most Ancient Copies Extant.” These collections had great popular appeal and several more volumes were published.  This led to the first landmark ballad collection, Reliques of English Poetry, published in 1765 by an English clergyman Thomas Percy. Despite their low and middle class origins, he presented them as works of high culture, attributed to early medieval minstrels who had been respected artists in medieval courts.

To an emerging generation of romantic poets and philosophers these ballads were popular poetry, indicative of the considerable creative power of the untutored folk. Not anyone counted as folk. For Herder, the pursuit of Volk involved a distinction between “true volk” (primarily rural peasants) and “the urban rabble in the streets,”  who “never sing or rhyme but scream and mutilate.”  In order to preserve the “original true essence of this poetry,” early collectors felt compelled to make “corrections and additions” of their collected ballads.  This practice provoked many later collectors, but it continued into the nineteenth century.

In 1808 John Finlay wrote in his introduction to Scottish Historical and Romantic Ballads: “A very few years will carry into oblivion all that yet remains among the peasantry of our old hereditary song; for it is almost exclusively from the recitation of very old people, that the lately recovered pieces have been obtained.” Nearly a century later the most important and influential collector of English folk songs, Cecil Sharp, wrote: “It becomes…a matter of the highest importance that not only the songs, but that all things that relate to the art of folk-singing, should be accurately recorded while there is yet time and opportunity, They, one and all, form part and parcel of a great tradition that stretches back into the mists of the past in one long, unbroken chain, of which the last link is now, alas, being forged.”

British folk song collectors in the early nineteenth century responded to Herder’s concern that folk songs were a precious commodity in danger of being lost in an industrialized and increasingly mobilized world. With a sense of urgency they began to collect and preserve this legacy. Traditional music was passed from person to person by spoken word and was rarely written down. Therein lay its strength and weakness – people and their memories. The traditional song collector and singer Frank Hart said of the distinction between history and folk music that “those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.”

Francis James Child (1825-1896) was an American scholar, educator, folklorist, and Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University. In 1876 he began work on a collection of English and Scottish ballads now known as the Child Ballads. Child was more a literary folklorist, interested in folk song as popular poetry, and analyzing ballads as texts largely divorced from their tunes. Ballads that became popular for the masses as printed broadsides, were of little interest to him; he concentrated on songs that predated the printing press, which came to Britain in 1475. These efforts resulted in an eight-volume collection (between 1882 and 1898) entitled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads  and containing 305 different titles (each given a unique number).  For each song Child printed every known variant (thirteen hundred in all) with numerous annotations on the songs’ historical origins, the subject matter, and alterations they had suffered.

In the early twentieth century interest in folk music and collecting in England centered around Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) and his assistant Maud Karpeles. This was sometimes called “the first folk revival,” and led to organizations such as the Folk-Song Society, which merged into the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS) in 1932,

Cecil Sharp composed and taught music. Music education in England was highly based on tunes from German folk music. Sharp became interested in the vocal and instrumental (dance) music of the British Isles. He started collecting songs in Somerset in 1903, and over a period of years collected over sixteen hundred texts and tunes from 350 singers. He advocated the rescue of English folk songs and teaching of these songs in schools. He was also interested in dance and brought about the revival of Morris dancing.

By 1917 Sharp felt that his song collecting in England was complete, and was delighted to find that English folk songs survived in isolated rural regions of the American Appalachia. He, along with his assistant Karpeles, made a visit to America during 1916-1918 where he lectured on English folk songs and made field recordings of English folk songs that had survived in remote mountain hamlets of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Many of these were different versions of those he had collected in rural England. This culminated in the publication of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians collected by Cecil J. Sharp, comprising two hundred and seventy-four songs and ballads with nine hundred and sixty-eight tunes, edited by Maud Karpeles in 1932. This led to an interest among other collectors to find and preserve a treasure of songs from these isolated regions before they disappeared in face of the spread of radio and phonograph recordings.

John (1867-1948)  and Alan (1915-2002) Lomax were among other collectors who sought out remote hamlets across American where traditional folk songs still survived. In their introduction to American Ballads and Folk Songs  they said: “A life of isolation, without books or newspapers or telephone or radio, breeds songs and ballads.” Alan Lomax wrote: “Slowly our folk songs grew, part dream and part reality, part past and part present. Each phrase rose from the depths of the heart or was carved out of the rock of experience. Each line was sung smooth by many singers, who tested it against the American reality, until the language became apt and truthful and tough as cured hickory. Here lies the secret to their beauty. They evoke the feeling of a place and of belonging to a particular branch of the human family. They honestly describe or protest against the deepest ills that afflict us – the color bar, our repressed sexuality, our love of violence and our loneliness. Finally, they have been cared for and shaped by so many hands that they have acquired a patina of art, and reflect the tenderest and most creative impulses of the human heart, casting upon our often harsh and melancholy tradition a luster of true beauty.”

Francis “Frank” Warner (1903 – 1978) and his wife Anne Warner (1905 – 1991)  collected and preserved many previously unpublished traditional song versions from the eastern United States. And in the late 1940s and 1950s Paul Clayton, a folk music scholar, collector and field recorder of traditional folksongs primarily from Appalachia and New England, and America’s most-recorded young folksinger, brought hundreds of obscure folk ballads and songs into the American folk music scene.

Despite the concerns of early collectors about the imminent demise of  traditional folk songs due to a rapidly changing world, some of these songs have survived in isolated regions well into the age of radio and recordings. But this isolation could not be sustained. Maud Karpeles noted the changes in the Appalachian communities where she and Sharp collected songs only a few decades earlier: “It is surprising and sad to find how quickly the instinctive culture of the people will seem to disappear when once they have been brought into touch with modern civilization, and how soon they will imitate the manners and become imbued with the taste of ‘polite Society’ . . . And the singing of traditional songs is relegated almost immediately to that past life, which has not only been outgrown, but which has no apparent bearing on the present existence.”

After the prediction of the death of folk music for over 250 years,  it had not happened. On the contrary, by the mid-twentieth century folk music was enjoying a lively revival. Recordings had supplanted communal singing, and provided a way to preserve the songs. Maud Karpeles had to admit that the changes had not gone the way she had predicted. In a preference to Sharp’s 1952 collection she wrote: “To many a singer it was a great delight to be able to re-learn from these volumes a song that he had sung to Cecil Sharp over thirty years ago and had since forgotten. Thus, a song, originating in England and carried to America, lives there by oral tradition for some hundreds of years; it is written down and taken back to England by Cecil Sharp; then some thirty years later the song is carried back in printed form to the country of its adoption and takes on a new lease of life.”

By the mid twentieth century folklore and folk music had become a professional field of study – ethnomusicology. Seeking to maintain standards, these academics sought to define the object of their study. Robert Winslow Gordon’s 1938 definition provides a fair summary: “Folk song is a body of song in the possession of the people, passed on by word of mouth from singer to singer, not learned from books or from print. . . . Genuine folk songs are not static, but are in a state of flux; they have been handed down through a fair period of time, and all sense of their authorship and origin has been lost.” In a similar definition folk music is “the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission.” It is considered to be equivalent to traditional music. What the folk revivalists sang was referred to as “fakelore.” Pete Seeger spoke to the irony of this: “The real traditional folk singer, who lived in past centuries and learned and sang his songs within a small folk community, sang a song because he thought it was a good song, not because he thought it was old. . . . The person who beats his breast and says ‘I will sing nothing but a folk song’ is either fooling himself or trying to fool someone else.”

Before 1880 the term “folk song” had no meaning for most Americans. Of course rural whites and African Americans had been singing their traditional songs long before then, but this music was outside the view of most middle and upper class Americans. Only after the work of collectors such as Cecil Sharp did the term “folk song” begin to have meaning in American culture. But even then there was little agreement as to what the term meant – by 1906 Sharp was complaining that it had been usurped by people writing about other types of songs, particularly composed “national songs,” and that we had lost a useful term with nothing to replace it.

When Alan Lomax began working with British folklorist Peter Kennedy on recording English folk music, they agreed that urban and industrial folk music should be included. Kennedy felt that Cecil Sharp’s definition “should satisfy anybody”: “[Folk song] is the product of a race and reflects feelings and tastes that are communal rather than personal. . . . Its creation is never completed—while at every moment of its history it exists not in one form but in many.”

Ewan MacColl, an English folk singer, songwriter, actor, poet, playwright and record producer, considered the formal and the social aspects of folk song: “A folk song is a song written in the idiom of popular speech, the melody of which is a development of what the voice normally does in speech. It is current among the common people and reflects exactly their attitude to life, their dreams and aspirations, their fears and, above all, their hopes.”

We might begin by defining what a folk song is not, as compared to other types of songs. It is certainly not classical music, contemporary composed music, art songs, commercial or pop music. But then the definitions of these other types of music are also vague.

The term ‘traditional” has often been used to describe folk songs. But even that is problematic. To second-generation revivalists, the first generation is “traditional,” but that is a moving target – it is just as difficult to define “traditional.” Folk songs should not be defined by a certain period of time, but are continually evolving through the “folk process.”

Some would say that folk or traditional songs have no known composers, but research may eventually reveal the composer of any folk song.  One of the attributes of folk music is the “folk process.” As songs are passed on by oral tradition, subtle or not-so-subtle changes necessarily take place. One does not remember the exact words or tune, or prefers to sing the song in a different way, and we may not remember the composer, even if known at one time. Folk songs can be defined by whether they have passed through this process.

We might define folk songs as non-commercial songs written by ordinary “folk” about everyday things of interest to common people.  Would this mean that folk songs are still being written today? But contemporary songs are not traditional. This would, of course, exclude many so-called singer-song writer songs that often get classified as folk. We need a new term to define the genre of singer-song writer songs to differentiate them from true folk songs.

We will probably never resolve the question of what is a folk song. As the term “folk song” has lost most of its original meaning, maybe it would be best to avoid it. We should value songs because they are good and we enjoy singing or listening to them, regardless of how they are classified, or whether they are new, old, or traditional. And there are many old songs waiting to be rediscovered and treasured.

Additional Reading:

Folk Song in England, Steve Roud. Faber & Faber, 2017

Peggy Seeger, A Life of Music, Love, and Politics, Jean R. Freedman. University of Illinois Press (2017), see Chapter 10: What Is a Folk Song?

Romancing the Folk, Public Memory & American Roots Music, Benjamin Filene. University of North Carolina Press (2000)

Traditional Music And The Role Of The Festival, Sharon Armstrong. The Living Tradition Magazine – http://www.livingtradition.co.uk/articles/roleoffestival


One thought on “What Is A Folk Song? by Stewart Hendrickson”

  1. “Contemporary songs are not traditional” – I’m afraid I must disagree. There are still songs being written ‘in the tradition’ as the phrase has it. Here in Scotland, songs are still being written in the cities and indeed, in the Western Isles, in English, Scots, and Gaelic, reflecting contemporary life. These are songs being written in the tradition of folk song, therefore, in my opinion, are very definitely traditional songs. Listen to an album of Gaelic songs, both old and contemporary (and fortunately there are many still being written today) sung by a traditional singer from the Island of Lewis or Skye and I am certain you would not know which song was old and which was new. They are all traditional.
    PS Thank you Stewart for performing one of my own songs!

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