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Folk Music

  Folk music is a term used by musicologists to distinguish types of ‘vernacular’ music from ‘art’ or cultivated music, and usually means orally-transmitted music as opposed to notated or ‘literate’ music. However, in a society which has no written or separately identifiable art music the term is irrelevant. In general, therefore, the term folk music has validity when referring to the non-literate music of Western cultures, and to those musical traditions of Asia and the Orient which are not recognized as art music. It is, however, largely inapplicable to the traditional music of Africa and some South American countries. At its congress in 1955, the International Folk Music Council passed the following resolution defining folk music:

‘Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (1) continuity that links the present with the past; (2) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group, and (3) selection by the community which determines the form or forms in which the music survives. The term can be applied to music that has been evolved from rudimentary beginnings by a community uninfluenced by popular and art music, and it can likewise be applied to music which has originated with an individual composer and has subsequently been absorbed into the unwritten tradition of a community. The term does not cover composed popular music that has been taken over ready-made by a community and remains unchanged, for it is the refashioning and re-creation of the music by the community that gives it its folk character.’

At the time (the 1950s) the scope of folk music was generally understood to embrace narrative songs and ballads, erotic and courtship songs, seasonal and festival songs, work and trade songs, and dance and instrumental music. The IFMC\'s definition was therefore subsequently thought to be too restrictive and too heavily weighted in favour of Western culture, and the meaning of the term ‘folk music’ has since continued to be the subject of heated academic debate. Indeed, who the ‘folk’ are is something upon which folklorists have seldom agreed. For some, folk music was simply rural, peasant music; for others it has meant the indigenous music of a particular ethnic group, or of a specified section of a society regardless of its rural or urban context. It was the acceptance that folk music can exist in towns and cities, in forms, for example, such as black American Blues or Jewish klezmer music, that broadened the concept of folk music and prompted the IFMC to change its name in 1981 to the International Council for Traditional Music. A further distinction must be made between oral and aural, particularly in an age where technological advances in communications and broadcasting media permit learning by hearing rather than by a direct word-of-mouth tradition. Consequently, the term ‘folk music’ can only be used loosely and arbitrarily, for the distinctions between folk, popular and art music are becoming increasingly fuzzy.

Another problem facing the folk music historian is the question of authenticity in the early song collections. It is now assumed that many collectors were guilty of some form of mediation, for example, in the rewriting and rearrangement of the song\'s text, rendering its publication suitable for an educated and critical reader, in the expurgation of lewd, bawdy lyrics, in the censorship of tunes in a musician\'s repertoire that did not conform to the predefined notion of what constituted ‘folk’, and in the modification of melodic and rhythmic elements to suit ‘cultivated’, European musical taste.

In European culture, the general public\'s view of folk music has been conditioned largely by the concerted effort of the collectors and revivalists who, in wishing to promote their nation\'s folk music as a socially beneficial tool, often painted a romantic and idealized picture of rural life. There is a popular belief that a nation\'s folk music must somehow embody the essential traits of that nation\'s culture and people. This conviction has at times provoked a politically nationalistic view of folk music, and one not only held by the general public but also by some folk song scholars. Cecil Sharp, an eminent collector of English folk songs in the early 1900s, concluded that: ‘The discovery of English folk-song places in the hands of the patriot, as well as the educationalist, an instrument of great value. The introduction of folk-songs into our schools will not only affect the musical life of England; it will also tend to arouse that love of country and pride of race, the absence of which we now deplore.’ Lamentably, this concept of folk music has, at times, been exploited by dictatorships and authoritarian governments. For example, in Nazi Germany folk songs were used to emphasize the ‘purity’ or superiority of its cultural heritage in contrast to the ‘degenerate’ and ‘culturally contaminated’ music of its European neighbours. In the USSR during the 1950s, traditional folk tunes from all its ethnic groups were adapted to verses praising Stalin, collectivism and the rule of the proletariat. At the same time in England, another revivalist movement emerged which, supported by the Communist Party of Great Britain and other left-wing organizations, spawned numerous ‘folk clubs’ where semi-professional singers performed the songs collected at the turn of the century.

In American society, folk songs have been used for various social and political causes, especially as protest songs. The American view of folk music, in contrast to the European, was deeply affected by the songs of the poor and oppressed segments of its society, in particular by Afro-American forms such as the Blues. The use of folk song to voice protest became increasingly popular with white Americans, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, when causes such as the civil rights movement and the pacifist campaign opposing the Vietnam War bred a new generation of singer-songwriters, including the internationally successful Bob Dylan, who mixed traditional Anglo-American folk styles with elements of urban popular music.

In the 1960s, the term ‘folk music’ was adopted by the commercial recording industry as one of its marketing labels. Using the superficial paraphernalia of what passed by popular belief as ‘folky’, it promoted a prestigious and stereotypical image of the ‘professional’ folk singer whose self-penned songs consciously avoided the saccharine sentiments of the pop music ballad. The public came to revere the solitary, in-touch-with-Nature minstrel-poet, juggling with surreal imagery and symbolism, or the protesting hobo-troubadour whose menu of complaints has since become today\'s ecologically ‘green’ agenda. In the late 1960s a new brand of commercial folk music emerged as a fusion of traditional Anglo-American elements with amplified Western rock and Blues, marketed as ‘folk-rock’. By the end of the 1980s much of the world\'s folk music, whether genuine or contrived, had been subsumed under the recording industry\'s new banner ‘World Music’.

If, according to the IFMC, one of the characteristics of folk ‘is the refashioning and re-creation of the music by the community’, then it appears that the term itself has been widely subjected to the same process of variation. SSt

Further reading Dave Harker, Fakesong; the manufacture of British ‘folksong’ 1700 to the present day; , Bruno Nettl, Folk & Traditional Music of the Western Continents.



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