What is folk music?
We take a look at the history and development of this enduringly popular musical genre - and salute those composers who deployed it best
What is folk music?
Essentially, folk music is a music genre that includes both traditional folk music (many of it dating back centuries) and contemporary folk music, which evolved during what was called the ‘folk revival’ of the mid 20th century.
There are some key factors that define a piece as ‘folk music’.
Traditionally, a piece of folk music should have some or all of these characteristics:
- It’s transmitted (passed from one user to the next) orally, rather than via a written score
- The original composer is often unknown – instead the tune and/or words spread organically
- The music is played on traditional instruments
- It may have themes of cultural or national identity
- It’s often functional, meaning that it is associated with other activities – for example, a particular song may be sung at harvest time
- It has tended, historically, to be rural in origin
- It was often, traditionally, more participatory than presentational. A group of people would take part in singing and playing a folk song together, rather than sitting to watch a performer.
How did folk music evolve?
Many folk songs have been around for centuries, or for as long as humans have been working the land together. However, the development of a folk music canon essentially started in the 19th century, when academics and amateur scholars started to preserve popular songs, as they feared that these musical traditions would otherwise soon be lost.One major collector was Francis James Child, who collected the words of more than 300 English and Scots ballads, some of them pre-Tudor, in the late 19th century. A little later, Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) was an important figure in the English folk song revival of the early 20th century, gathering thousands of tunes from rural England (and also from the Southern Appalachians region of the United States).
Starting in the mid-20th century, folk music enjoyed another revival, which resulted in the creation of a whole new subgenre of music. This 'second' folk revival reached its peak in the 1960s. The music from this time is often called 'contemporary folk' or 'folk revival', to distinguish it from the earlier forms.
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How has folk music influenced classical music?
Folk music has had a huge influence on classical music, and many composers have assimilated folk tunes into their music. This cross-fertilisation peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this time, alongside growing nationalist movements across Europe, composers including Dvořák, Bartók, Sibelius and Vaughan Williams used the indigenous folk music of their native countries to inspire their music.
Antonín Dvořák, for example, was able to seamlessly intertwine some of the folk music of Moravia and his native Bohemia (now both part of the Czech Republic) into his chamber and symphonic music. Of all composers, Dvořák might be said to be best manage this synthesis of a national music with the symphonic tradition, using folk influences effectively within a classical framework.
Elsewhere, Béla Bartók drew heavily on the folk music of his native Hungary. Famously, Bartók and his fellow Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály travelled around the land, collecting and recording hundreds of indigenous folk tunes.
Among Bartók's most popular works based on his folk tune collection are the Romanian Folk Dances. These were originally composed for piano in 1915, and then transcribed for full orchestra two years later. Similarly, the first movement of Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin is full of Hungarian folk harmonies and intervals.
How did folk music influence British and Irish composers?
Back home, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a key figure in what’s known as the First English Folk Song Revival. From 1903 onwards, the great English composer collected more than 800 songs, in particular during a ten-year stint when he travelled to 21 English counties.
Vaughan Williams used a phonograph to record some of these songs - but most were painstakingly notated by hand. Works of Vaughan Williams in which folk music play a prominent role include the Norfolk Rhapsody No 1, the English Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Greensleeves and Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.
Vaughan Williams wasn't the only British or Irish composer to draw on folk music, though. Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford, Gerald Finzi, Arthur Butterworth and Malcolm Arnold all assimilated folk song and dances into their music.
Six of the best and most famous folk tunes
This English and Scottish folk song has an unusual protagonist. The titular John Barleycorn represents both barley, and the drinks made from it - such as beer and whisky. The song tells of how Barleycorn is attacked and killed - effectively a description of the process of barley cultivation. In many versions, though, Barleycorn gets his revenge by re-emerging as beer!
There is written evidence to date 'John Barleycorn' back as far as the Elizabethan era or beyond. It survived, through oral transmission, into the 20th century - at which point various performers set down recorded versions.
More like this
'Rosemary Lane' / 'The Oak and the Ash'
A traditional English folk ballad, 'Rosemary Lane' narrates the seduction of a domestic servant by a sailor. A somewhat bawdy song, it's been popular in rugby clubs, army barracks and the Navy - but some traditional versions were often collected from women as well as men.
Most memorably covered by folk revival duo Simon & Garfunkel, 'Scarborough Fair' was originally sung to various melodies, all with the famous refrains 'parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme' and 'Then she'll be a true love of mine.'
The melody by which it's known today was collected from Mark Anderson, a retired lead miner from County Durham, by the singer-songwriter and folk song collector Ewan MacColl in 1947.
'(What Shall We Do with) The Drunken Sailor'
A traditional sea shanty, 'The Drunken Sailor' was sung on board sailing ships from the 1830s onwards. There are various sets of lyrics, but in many versions each verses suggests a different way of punishing the inebriated mariner. These can include 'Scrape the hair off his chest with a hoop-iron razor' and 'Put him in oil 'till he sprouts a flipper'.
'The Raggle Taggle Gypsy'
A ballad from the Scottish borders, 'The Raggle Taggle Gypsy' has a thrilling storyline. A rich young landowner returns home to find all the servants gossiping: his new wife has gone, seemingly kidnapped by gypsies. He sets off in pursuit - only to find that she has gone off of her own free will, preferring to sleep under the stars than in his gilded prison.
This traditional folk ballad is popular throughout the English-speaking world and beyond. Although there are variations, the basic storyline is the same. It tells of a woman, Barbara, who visits the bedside of a heartbroken young man. The latter pleads for her love - but Barbara refuses.
The young man later dies, and Barbara hears his funeral bells; grief-stricken, she dies as well. The two of them are buried in the same church, where a rose grows from his grave and a briar from hers. The plants intertwine, forming a true lovers' knot.
Pic: Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Steve has been an avid listener of classical music since childhood, and now contributes a variety of features to BBC Music’s magazine and website. He started writing about music as Arts Editor of an Oxford University student newspaper and has continued ever since, serving as Arts Editor on various magazines.