What is folk music?

Seiners session Sept 2019
Musicians at the Seiners Arms, Perranporth for the weekly Cornish folk tune session.

I didn’t even question what folk music was until I was already immersed in playing it. Then I started to come across people who thought it meant something different to what I had thought…

What do people mean when they talk about folk music?

Here are some of the many possible answers that I have come across in my travels as a musician:

Old stuff – traditional songs and tunes, preferably those preserved for posterity by collectors, or retrieved like lost treasure from historical records. When published for a middle-class Edwardian market, these usually came with the lyrics ‘cleaned up’ and an easy-play piano accompaniment added by the editor.

Bob Dylan  – who started out singing folk and country music and quickly blossomed into singer/songwriter territory, along with many other musicians of his era riding the wave of the folk revival.

Enya – multi-layered, synth-heavy Rachmaninoff-inspired Celtic vibes (I could write quite a lot about the term ‘Celtic’ too but will save that for another day!), particularly if it it has a haunting whistle solo.

Anything with a banjo / fiddle / mandolin – for people comfortable with the blurred boundaries of genre, but that’s a bit too vague for me.

While I can see where they’re all coming from, these ideas didn’t quite fit with what I thought of as folk music, based on my experience of Cornish folk music which felt to me more rooted in a vibrant local scene, alive and current while maintaining links to the past, with strong ties to landscape, language and identity. So I did a bit of reading to see if there was a definition of folk music – of course there is, that’s what academics do – here’s my take on what I found.

The two things at the heart of folk music

1. Community

Essentially folk music is a bunch of songs and tunes chosen and shared by a group of people. Music is a powerful connector and motivator, bringing people together through a sense of shared identity or with a common cause. Perhaps you’ve heard Cornish people unite as they sing Camborne Hill, or listened to Grace Petrie continuing a long tradition of protest songs. Wanna start a movement? Make sure you’ve got some great music on board… there’s nothing like singing or playing together to make people feel connected to each other and to an ideal.

2. Change!

However, the other key identifier for folk music is – change. Musicians are a creative bunch, and songs and tunes morph as individuals play and adapt them (and make up new words on the spot when the originals are suddenly missing from memory). People create new music using the styles and gestures of a tradition to connect their new creation to a particular culture. Good tunes travel, too, across continents and cultures as people share music together. Heard something new but think it sounds familiar? Chances are it is – someone (there’s an academic reference out there somewhere that I am too lazy to look up) has analysed an enormous quantity of folk tunes from around the world and reckons they are all derived from the same 40 or so tunes. I guess that wherever you are, that makes it feel like home.

Others may disagree, and probably will, but these were my takeaways from what I have read.

What about tradition?

It’s called traditional music after all (sometimes). I suppose that ‘tradition’ is part of the selection criteria for the shared repertoire, but will be more important for some groups (or subsets of a group) than others. In my experience there is often a respect for or recognition of the age and provenance of a song or a tune, but it’s not always the most important factor. More often than not it boils down to ‘is it fun?’ As a good friend of mine says, if you’ve done it once, found it fun and decided to do it again, you’ve made a tradition! I’m sure that accounts at least in part for the strange nature of many British folk traditions. (And perhaps explains why the Cornish keep singing Lamorna).

Why ask these questions?

Why not just get on with playing it? Because I have a project in mind that will take folk tunes and dances usually found in the relatively small but generous world of folk music, and re-use them in different cultural setting – that of corporate Christian worship – and wanted to give serious thought to what this could mean. Doing a little reading and thinking about this has expaneded my understanding of what folk music is, which can only be a good thing!

Further reading for the truly dedicated

Some books I can recommend, AKA books I have cribbed from, plagiarised, etc.

For an academic but readable introduction and some fascinating examples: Folk Music: A Very Short Introduction, by Mark Slobin (OUP 2011).

For the word from the daddy of folk music research: Bruno Nettl: The Study of Ethnomusicology.