What actually is folk?
The definition of 'folk' is hard to pin down. In the traditional sense, it refers to music that is passed down through generations through singing, as early folk musicians were often illiterate. Consequently, songs were not written down and the original writer is often unknown. Folk music is tied to the culture of the country it is from and most countries have their own forms of folk music. The lyrics frequently have their roots in folklore, as well as everyday life matters such as relationships, marriage, and work. Folk music may also lend itself to dance and cultural festivities.
A number of songs we know today have been passed down through the generations and have unknown origins, notably; House of the Rising Sun famously covered by The Animals, Greensleaves famously covered by Jethro Tull, and Matty Groves covered by Joan Baez.
Folk music often encompasses protest lyrics. Protest folk music saw a revival in the 1940's and early 50's with the likes of Woody Gunthrie and Peter Seeger. It again saw a revival in the 1960's, where artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez composed music about the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Depression and the Vietnam war.
See our blog on protest music for a brief history on protest music and folk.
So what is 'contemporary' folk?
Today, artists have drawn inspiration from traditional folk, which has led to the birth of contemporary folk. This includes genres such as indie-folk, singer-songwriter, and americana. Artists such as Donovan, Joni Mitchell and more recently Mumford and Sons have all drawn inspiration from traditional folk music, be it from instrumentation, lyrics or both.
So what do we think of when we say something is 'folky'? It probably is primarily acoustic, guitar-based, has simple production and melodic singing and harmonies. It might incorporate traditional instruments such as fiddles, mandolins, banjos, and Irish flutes.
Lyrical topics can be broad, but often consist of social issues, political topics, and more personal lyrics of love and loss.
Is traditional folk dying out?
Folk music as something that is passed on from one generation to the next is no longer necessary. Music can nowadays be easily shared with the click of a button. However, traditional folk music, with lyrical stories of unknown originals accompanied by traditional instruments, is still being sung and played today in folk clubs and festivals across the country, demonstrating that traditional folk is definitely not on its way out.
The UK is home to around 300 folk festivals, which are well attended by all ages. We also recently got involved with the University College London Folk and World Music Society, where we collaborated on a folk album with a variety of young talented musicians. The music on the album features both traditional and contemporary folk.
We have visited folk clubs, notably the famous Cecil Sharp House. They predominantly attract an older crowd, with a handful of younger people. This does lead to the question: will the new generation keep these small intimate folk clubs going, or will regular members dwindle until these groups cease to exist?
However, over the last few years we have seen traditional folk elements making their way into the mainstream, notably Ed Sheeran's new album Divide, which showcased his Irish roots, through the use of traditional instruments and lyrical topics. Other examples of folk inspired artists who have made it into the UK Top 40 include Noah and the Whale (7#), Lumineers (8#) and Mumford and Sons (24#).
The folk community of musicians has to adapt to the digital age and we are seeing the growth of Facebook pages, Meetup groups, folk bloggers, and other online folk communities for folk musicians and lovers of the genre to share music, knowledge and organise events.
It is certain that this important, authentic genre will always be loved by a few, and will continue to inspire the new musicians and artists of the day.
Folk club. Photo credit: Hinnerk K/ Wikimedia Commons
Mumford & Sons. Photo credit: Harsh Light/ Wikimedia Commons
Charlie Fink of Noah & the Whale. Photo credit. Photo credit: Kafuffle/Wikimedia Commons