American folk music

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The term American folk music encompasses numerous music genres, variously known as traditional music, traditional folk music, contemporary folk music, or roots music. Many traditional songs have been sung within the same family or folk group for generations, and sometimes trace back to such origins as the British Isles, Mainland Europe, or Africa.[1] Musician Mike Seeger once famously commented that the definition of American folk music is "...all the music that fits between the cracks."[2]

Roots music is a broad category of music including bluegrass, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun and Native American music.[not verified in body] The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered "roots music" because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.

Early American folk music[edit]

Most songs of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods originated in England, Scotland and Ireland and were brought over by early settlers. According to ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, American folk music is notable because it "At its roots is an English folk song tradition that has been modified to suit the specific requirements of America."[3] Therefore many American folk songs, such as those documented by the American Folklorist Francis James Child in his catalogue of ballads known as the Child Ballads, can be traced back to their pre-colonial origins in the British Isles.[4] For example, "Barbara Allen" remains a popular traditional ballad originating in England and Scotland, which immigrants introduced to the United States.[5] The murder ballad "Pretty Polly", indexed by another scholar of American folk music, George Malcolm Laws, is an American version of an earlier British song, "The Gosport Tragedy".[6] The oldest surviving folk song of local Anglo-American origin is the ballad "Springfield Mountain" dating back to 1761 in Connecticut.[7]

The typical instruments played in early American folk music were the fiddle, the guitar, the mandolin, the mouth organ, the fife, and the dulcimer, although guitars went through a significant change as the previously popular English guitar was replaced around the 1830s by the Spanish guitar.[8][9]

In addition to ballads, American colonials also imported numerous English country dance tunes, mainly jigs, reels, and hornpipes, which were played during community dances or contra dances.[10][11] Some dance tunes as well as dances themselves were also adapted from Irish and Scottish sources.[12] The musical collections Howe's 1000 Jigs and Reels, Ryan's Mammoth Collection, and 1000 Fiddle Tunes contain many of the dance tunes Americans and their colonial predecessors danced to for nearly two centuries.[13] Popular dances that rose to prominence in America in the nineteenth century, which could be set to traditional dance tunes, were quadrilles, mazurkas, barn dances, redowas, marches, and polkas.[13] "Soldier's Joy" is an example of a typical British fiddle tune.[8]

In New England, one of the areas with the earliest history of colonization as well as the highest percentage of settlement by ethnic English people, numerous English ballads survived within American folk music into the twentieth century. These include older popular ballads such as "Lord Randall" , "The Golden Vanity" , The Elfin Knight , The Gypsy Davy, "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight", "Barbara Allen", Lord Bateman, The House Carpenter, The Farmer's Curst Wife, Lord Lovel, and Henry Martin.[14] Later broadside ballads imported into New England from the British Isles include "The Yorkshire Bite", "The Bold Soldier", "Butcher Boy", "Katie Morey", "The Half Hitch", and "The Boston Burglar".[14] Locally composed, traditional New England folk songs include "Springfield Mountain", "The Jam on Gerry's Rock", "Young Charlotte", "Peter Amberly", "Jack Haggarty, and "The Jealous Lover".[14] The folk music of the rest of Northeastern United States, including Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, was similar to that of New England, aside from a marked influence from the high numbers of non-British immigrants, such as the Germans, Dutch, and Swiss.[14]

In the Southeastern United States, popular local folk songs included "Sourwood Mountain", "Charming Betsy", "Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss", "Buffalo Gals", "Arkansas Traveler", "Turkey in the Straw", "Old Joe Clark", "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad", " Shady Grove", "Katy Cline", "Ida Red", and "Cindy".[15] The southern murder ballad "Poor Ellen Smith", which recorded a murder so inflammatory its public performance had to be outlawed, was most likely written in Winston, North Carolina by one of the murder's cellmates.[16][17] Unlike the Northeast and New England, the Southeast had significant influence from African-American music and as a result instruments such as the banjo were widely adopted.[15] However, English traditional music was still present in the Southeast with older Child ballads such as "Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor", "The Maid Freed from the Gallows", "Fair Margaret and Sweet William", "The Wife of Usher's Well", "The Two Sisters", and "Matty Groves" surviving alongside some English ballads also played in the Northeast like "Barbara Allen".[15]. Popular broadside ballads in the Southeast were "Pretty Polly", "Pretty Little Miss in the Garden", "Knoxville Girl", "Jack Monroe", "The Sailor Boy", "Awake, Awake You Drowsy Sleeper", "Rich Irish Lady", "The Nightingale", "The Girl I Left Behind", and "The Miller's Will".[15] Notable songs written in Appalachia include "Little Mohea", "John Hardy", and "Omie Wise".[18] Unlike in the Northeast, Southeastern ballads of English origins tend to be appreciably altered with their lyrics shortened and smoothed out, reducing the number of stresses per stanza.[18]

Folk songs in the Midwest largely reflected the tastes of New England and the Mid-Atlantic states.[19] However, there were some ballads uniquely popular to the Midwest such as the broadside ballad "Mary of the Wild Moor" and the locally produced ballads namely "The Little Brown Bulls", "Fuller and Warren", "Charles Guiteau", "Canady-I-O", and "Paul Jones."[19] Many folk songs were also produced that were unique specifically to the Great Lake region, evoking the area's nautical culture. These include "It's me for the Inland Lakes", "Loss of the Persian", and "The Buffalo Whore".[20] Farther west in states like Iowa, Kansas, the Dakotas, and Nebraska regional songs included "The Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim", "The Lane County Bachelor", "Comin' Back to Kansas", "The Dreary Black Hills", and "Dakota Land".[21] The famous "Ballad of Jesse James", which celebrated the titular bankrobber's life, first appeared in Springfield, Missouri.[22]

Few Child or broadside ballads have been found in the Northwestern United States as the documented folk songs in the area are usually work songs connected to relatively recent folk experiences within the mining, lumber, and other industries of the nineteenth and twentieth century.[23]

Similar to the Northwest, older traditional ballads were far less common in the Southwest, with only "Barbara Allen" and "Lord Randal" being regional favorites.[24] Popular local songs and ballads were, among others, "Texas Rangers", "The Yellow Rose of Texas", "Joe Bowers", "Sweet Betsy from Pike", "Ho for California!", and "Buffalo Skinners". [25]

Some songs entered the folk tradition through the flourishing American popular music industry. One such popular song that became a folk tune was "Old Dan Tucker" written by Dan Emmett.[26]


Spirituals have their origins in white American ministers appropriating European folk melodies and setting them to religious lyrics, creating uniquely American folk hymns.[27] African Americans adopted this religious folk music, adding their own style and themes such as slavery and emancipation.[27] "Sacred music, both a Capella and instrumentally accompanied, is at the heart of the tradition. Early spirituals framed Christian beliefs within native practices and were heavily influenced by the music and rhythms of Africa."[28] Spirituals are prominent, and often use a call and response pattern.[28] "Gospel developed after the Civil War (1861-65). It relied on biblical text for much of its direction, and the use of metaphors and imagery was common. Gospel is a "joyful noise," sometimes accompanied by instrumentation and almost always punctuated by hand clapping, toe tapping, and body movement."[28]

Work songs[edit]

Sea shanties[edit]

Sea shanties functioned to lighten the burden of routine tasks and provide a rhythm that helped workers perform as a team.[1] One of the oldest sea shanties sung in America may have been "Haul in the Bowline" which could date back as far as the rule of Henry VIII in the sixteenth century.[29] Other popular shanties include "Blow the Man Down", "Blow, Boys, Blow", "Reuben Ranzo", "Shenandoah" and "The Greenland Whale" as well as African-American shanties such as "Mobile Bay" and "I'm Goin' up the River".[30][29]

Cowboy songs[edit]

Cowboys songs are typically ballads that cowboys sang in the West and Southwest. The familiar “Streets of Laredo" (or "Cowboys Lament") derives from an Irish folk song of the late 18th century called "The Unfortunate Rake",[6] which in turn appears to have descended from the even earlier "The Bard of Armagh". While "Streets of Laredo" uses the same melody as "The Unfortunate Rake", "St. James Infirmary Blues" adapts the story to a different tune. This illustrates how folk songs can change in the retelling and appear in a variety of versions.[1] Similarly the popular cowboy song "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie, about a dying cowboy begging not to be buried alone in the wilderness, is based on an earlier poem, "The Ocean Burial".[31] Similarly, the popular song "Buffalo Skinners" is based on the earlier lumberjack tune "Canaday-I-O".[32]

Other songs originated wholly on the frontier such as the famous "Home on the Range" written in Kansas in 1873 by Dr. Brewster Higley and Dan Kelly.[33] "The Old Chisholm Trail" too was a distinctly American ballad tied to the experiences of cowboys on the long treks on the Chisholm Trail.[34]

Railroad songs[edit]

One of the most popular railroad folk songs in American history was The Ballad of Casey Jones, a song about a train conductor who sacrificed himself to prevent a collision.[35] The "Ballad of John Henry (folklore)" is about an African-American folk hero said to have worked as a "steel-driving man".[6]

Roots music[edit]

Many roots musicians do not consider themselves folk musicians. The main difference between the American folk music revival and American "roots music" is that roots music seems to cover a broader range, including blues and country.

Roots music developed its most expressive and varied forms in the first three decades of the 20th century. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were extremely important in disseminating these musical styles to the rest of the country, as Delta blues masters, itinerant honky tonk singers, Cajun musicians spread to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The growth of the recording industry in the same period was also important; higher potential profits from music placed pressure on artists, songwriters, and label executives to replicate previous hit songs. This meant that musical fads, such as Hawaiian slack-key guitar, never died out completely, since a broad range of rhythms, instruments, and vocal stylings were incorporated into disparate popular genres.

By the 1950s, forms of roots music had led to pop-oriented forms. Folk musicians like the Kingston Trio, blues-derived rock and roll and rockabilly, pop-gospel, doo wop and R&B (later secularized further as soul music) and the Nashville sound in country music all modernized and expanded the musical palette of the country.

The roots approach to music emphasizes the diversity of American musical traditions, the genealogy of creative lineages and communities, and the innovative contributions of musicians working in these traditions today. In recent years roots music has been the focus of popular media programs such as Garrison Keillor's public radio program, A Prairie Home Companion and the feature film by the same name.

Regional forms[edit]

American traditional music is also called roots music. Roots music is a broad category of music including bluegrass, country music, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun and Native American music. The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered "roots music" because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, contemporary folk music, rhythm and blues, and jazz.

Appalachian music[edit]

Appalachian music is the traditional music of the region of Appalachia in the Eastern United States. It derives from various European and African influences—including English ballads, Irish and Scottish traditional music (especially fiddle music), hymns, and African-American blues. First recorded in the 1920s, Appalachian musicians were a key influence on the early development of Old-time music, country music, and bluegrass, and were an important part of the American folk music revival.

Instruments typically used to perform Appalachian music include the banjo, American fiddle, fretted dulcimer, and guitar.[36]

Early recorded Appalachian musicians include Fiddlin' John Carson, Henry Whitter, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the Carter Family, Clarence Ashley, Frank Proffitt, and Dock Boggs, all of whom were initially recorded in the 1920s and 1930s. Several Appalachian musicians obtained renown during the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, including Jean Ritchie, Roscoe Holcomb, Ola Belle Reed, Lily May Ledford, and Doc Watson.

The Carter Family was a traditional American folk music group that recorded between 1927 and 1956. Their music had a profound impact on bluegrass, country, Southern Gospel, pop and rock musicians. They were the first vocal group to become country music stars; a beginning of the divergence of country music from traditional folk music. Their recordings of such songs as "Wabash Cannonball" (1932), "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (1935), "Wildwood Flower" (1928), and "Keep on the Sunny Side" (1928) made them country standards.[37]

Country and bluegrass artists such as Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff, Dolly Parton, Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and Don Reno were heavily influenced by traditional Appalachian music.[36] Artists such as Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Bruce Springsteen have performed Appalachian songs or rewritten versions of Appalachian songs.

Cajun music[edit]

Cajun music, an emblematic music of Louisiana, is rooted in the ballads of the French-speaking Acadians of Canada. Cajun music is often mentioned in tandem with the Creole-based, Cajun-influenced zydeco form, both of Acadiana origin. These French Louisiana sounds have influenced American popular music for many decades, especially country music, and have influenced pop culture through mass media, such as television commercials.

Oklahoma and southern US plains[edit]

Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie emerged from the dust bowl of Oklahoma and the Great Depression in the mid-20th Century, with lyrics that embraced his views on ecology, poverty, and unionization in the United States., paired with melody reflecting the many genres of American folk music.

Before recorded history American Indians in this area used songs and instrumentation; music and dance remain the core of ceremonial and social activities.[28] "Stomp dance" remains at its core, a "call and response" form; instrumentation is provided by rattles or shackles worn on the legs of women.[28] "Other southeastern nations have their own complexes of sacred and social songs, including those for animal dances and friendship dances, and songs that accompany stickball games.

Central to the music of the southern Plains Indians is the drum, which has been called the heartbeat of Plains Indian music. Most of that genre traces back to the hunting and warfare that was a strong part of plains culture.[28] During the reservation period, they frequently used music to relieve boredom and despair. Neighbors gathered, exchanged and created songs and dances. This is a part of the roots of the modern intertribal powwow. Another common instrument is the courting flute.[28]

Shape-note or sacred harp singing developed in the early nineteenth century as a way for itinerant singing instructors to teach church songs in rural communities. They taught using song books that represented musical notation of tones by geometric shapes that associated a shape with a pitch. Sacred harp singing became popular in many Oklahoma rural communities, regardless of ethnicity.[28]

Later, the blues tradition developed, with roots in and parallels to sacred music.[28] By the early 20th century, jazz developed, born from a "blend of ragtime, gospel, and blues"[28] "Anglo-Scots-Irish music traditions gained a place in Oklahoma after the Land Run of 1889. Because of its size and portability, the fiddle was the core of early Oklahoma Anglo music, but other instruments such as the guitar, mandolin, banjo, and steel guitar were added later. Various Oklahoma music traditions trace their roots to the British Isles, including cowboy ballads, western swing, and contemporary country and western."[28] "Mexican immigrants began to reach Oklahoma in the 1870s, bringing beautiful canciones and corridos love songs, waltzes, and ballads along with them. Like American Indian communities, each rite of passage in Hispanic communities is accompanied by traditional music.

The acoustic guitar, string bass, and violin provide the basic instrumentation for Mexican music, with maracas, flute, horns, or sometimes accordion filling out the sound."[28] Other Europeans (such as Bohemians and Germans) settled in the late nineteenth century. Their social activities centered on community halls, "where local musicians played polkas and waltzes on the accordion, piano, and brass instruments."[28]

Later Asians contributed to the musical mix. "Ancient music and dance traditions from the temples and courts of China, India, and Indonesia are preserved in Asian communities throughout the state, and popular song genres are continually layered on to these classical music forms"[28]

The American Southwest and South Texas[edit]

Tejano and New Mexico music, heard throughout the American Southwest and South Texas, is rooted in the musics of the Native American and Hispanic/Latino communities of the regions. Tejano music is also heavily influenced by Regional Mexican and Country music, while New Mexico music is much more influenced by Hispano folk and Western music. Both styles have influenced one another over the years, and incorporated American popular music styles.

Other forms[edit]

Folk composer and musician Robert Schmertz composed and wrote pieces related to historical events in Western Pennsylvania.[38][39]

20th century folk revival music[edit]

Starting in the mid-20th century a phenomenon termed the folk music revival began, forming a new contemporary type of folk music. It was somewhat centered on but not limited to the United States. While sometimes termed the American Folk Music Revival, it was somewhat international and does not fit some narrower definitions of American folk music even when the artists were American. Prominent artists from this movement include Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, The Weavers,[40] Burl Ives, and others. A more commercially oriented version of folk music emerged in the 1960s, including performers such as The Kingston Trio,[40] The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez,[41] The Highwaymen, Judy Collins, The New Christy Minstrels, and Gordon Lightfoot, as well as counterculture and folk rock performers including Bob Dylan,[42] The Byrds, Arlo Guthrie, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.[43]


In 2004, NPR published the book titled The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to American Folk Music,[44] Linda Ronstadt wrote the foreword.

The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance by Michael F. Scully (University of Illinois Press, 2008)

In 2007, James P. Leary published Polkabilly: How the Goose Island Ramblers Redefined American Folk Music, which proposes a redefinition of traditional American folk music and identifies a new genre of music from the Upper Midwest known as Polkabilly, which blends ethnic music, old-time country music, and polka.[45] The book was awarded the American Folklore Society’s Chicago Folklore Prize for the best book in the field of folklore scholarship.[46]

Film and TV[edit]

Hootenanny, a weekly musical variety show broadcast on the ABC network in the U.S. in 1963–1964, primarily featured folk musicians.

The soundtrack of the 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou? is exclusively roots music, performed by Alison Krauss, The Fairfield Four, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake and others.

In 2001, PBS broadcast a 4-part documentary series, American Roots Music, that explored the historical roots of American roots music through footage and performances by the creators of the movement.

The 2003 film A Mighty Wind is a tribute to (and parody of) the folk-pop musicians of the early 1960s.

A six-hour public television series, The Music of America: History Through Musical Traditions, appeared in 2010.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Folk Music and Song", American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
  2. ^
  3. ^ Nettl, Bruno (1 February 1976). Folk Music in the United States: An Introduction. Wayne State University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-8143-3757-8. OCLC 1018058006.
  4. ^ James E. Seelye Jr.; Shawn Selby, eds. (3 August 2018). Shaping North America: From Exploration to the American Revolution [3 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. p. 348. ISBN 978-1-4408-3669-5. OCLC 1029074501.
  5. ^ Raph, Theodore. The American Song Treasury, Dover Publications (1986)
  6. ^ a b c "Folk Songs and Ballads", American Roots Music, PBS
  7. ^ Cohen, Norm (2005). Folk Music: A Regional Exploration. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-313-32872-5. OCLC 145510879.
  8. ^ a b Nettl 1976, p. 71.
  9. ^ Jeffrey Noonan (2008). The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 10–11. ISBN 978-1-60473-302-0. OCLC 1037458807.
  10. ^ Holenko, John (7 October 2010). Contra Dance Encyclopedia. Mel Bay Publications. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-60974-377-2. OCLC 1100953153.
  11. ^ Elizabeth Burchenal, ed. (1918). American Country-dances, Volume 1. G. Schirmer. pp. v–vii. OCLC 367708189.
  12. ^ Dudley Laufman; Jacqueline Laufman (2009). Traditional Barn Dances with Calls & Fiddling, Volume 1. Human Kinetics. pp. 24–25. ISBN 978-0-7360-7612-8. OCLC 1004439899.
  13. ^ a b Sky, Patrick (24 June 2014). Ryan's Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes. Mel Bay Publications. pp. 16–17. ISBN 978-1-60974-037-5.
  14. ^ a b c d Cohen 2005, p. 83-86.
  15. ^ a b c d Cohen 2005, p. 109-111.
  16. ^ Paul Slade (1 November 2015). Unprepared To Die: America’s greatest murder ballads and the true crime stories that inspired them. Soundcheck Books. pp. 216–218. ISBN 978-0-9929480-7-8. OCLC 1016085986.
  17. ^ Thomas G. Burton; Ambrose N. Manning, eds. (1971). Folksongs, Volume 2. Research Advisory Council of East Tennessee State University. p. 6. OCLC 79866841.
  18. ^ a b Cohen 2005, p. 112-113.
  19. ^ a b Cohen 2005, p. 149-151.
  20. ^ Cohen 2005, p. 151-153.
  21. ^ Cohen 2005, p. 156-159.
  22. ^ William Emmett Studwell; B. Lee Cooper; Frank Hoffmann (1997). The Americana Song Reader. Psychology Press. p. 51. ISBN 978-0-7890-0150-4.
  23. ^ Cohen 2005, p. 169-172.
  24. ^ Cohen 2005, p. 179.
  25. ^ Cohen 2005, p. 181-187.
  26. ^ Alan Lomax (1 January 1994). John Avery Lomax (ed.). American Ballads and Folk Songs. Courier Corporation. p. 261. ISBN 978-0-486-28276-3. OCLC 1001902878.
  27. ^ a b Nettl 1976, p. 82-83.
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture - Folk Music". Archived from the original on 2012-11-03. Retrieved 2012-06-14.
  29. ^ a b Cohen 2005, p. 100-104.
  30. ^ Ronald D. Cohen (2006). Folk Music: The Basics. Routledge. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-415-97159-1.
  31. ^ Cohen 2005, p. 199.
  32. ^ Edith Fowke; Joe Glazer; Kenneth Ira Bray (1 January 1973). Songs of Work and Protest. Courier Corporation. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-486-22899-0. OCLC 1019954652.
  33. ^ Theodore Raph (1 January 1986). The American Song Treasury: 100 Favorites. Courier Corporation. p. 360. ISBN 978-0-486-25222-3. OCLC 1015764163.
  34. ^ Simon J. Bronner (1 August 2002). Folk Nation: Folklore in the Creation of American Tradition. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 124. ISBN 978-0-7425-8023-7. OCLC 1002095559.
  35. ^ Stewart H. Holbrook (14 January 2016). The Story of American Railroads: From the Iron Horse to the Diesel Locomotive. Courier Dover Publications. p. 429. ISBN 978-0-486-81007-2. OCLC 1030387871.
  36. ^ a b Ted Olson, "Music — Introduction". Encyclopedia of Appalachia (Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 2006), pp. 1109—1120.
  37. ^ Heatley, Michael (2007). The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock. London, United Kingdom: Star Fire. ISBN 978-1-84451-996-5.
  38. ^ Swetnam, George (October 1975). "Historical Society Notes and Documents: Robert Watson Schmertz". The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine. 54 (4): 537–538. open access
  39. ^ "Composer, Architect Entertains Avon Club". News Record. October 27–28, 1973. p. 11.
  40. ^ a b Gilliland 1969, show 18.
  41. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 19.
  42. ^ Gilliland 1969, shows 31-32.
  43. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 33.
  44. ^ "Amazon". The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to American Folk Music, by Kip Lornell (Author), Linda Ronstadt (Foreword). Retrieved May 17, 2007.
  45. ^ "Journal of American Folklore: Review", Retrieved 27 April 2013.
  46. ^ "Chicago Folklore Prize", Retrieved 27 April 2013.

Further reading and listening[edit]

External links[edit]