Folk music as a contemporary genre of popular music originated from the 1940’s in the United States and the United Kingdom. However, the term folk music can also refer to traditional songs with no known composers that are preserved by oral tradition. In this article, we’re using the former definition.
Starting from the 1940’s, musical artists in America started to write songs that drew inspiration from the European folk music tradition. In that sense, it shares its roots with another popular genre of music today, country. It all started with a resurging interest in folk dancing in the New York City area, which, in turn, facilitated a new interest in folk music as well. This is known as “the second folk music revival”, as the first one took place in the late 19th Century in Europe, and mainly affected classical music.
The first folk act to achieve commercial success was The Weavers, a New York-based 4-man band. Interestingly, this band was heavily tied to far-left political movements at the time through its members. Another famed folk musician, Woody Guthrie was also a self-proclaimed socialist. This later hurt the whole genre during the “Red Scare” era of the 1950’s, when the fear of Communist infiltration in the US was at its height.
However, by the late 1950’s, new successful folk artists emerged, such as The Kingston Trio from California in the US, or Ewan MacColl over in Great Britain. In the 1960’s, the fused genre of folk rock emerged. In the same decade, the legendary folk duo Simon & Garfunkel gained mainstream success.
In contemporary folk music, almost exclusively acoustic instruments are used, mainly string instruments, such as the acoustic guitar, fiddle, or banjo. “Plucking” is a common style of guitar playing heard in folk songs. You can also hear the accordion, or woodwind instruments, like the flute or the harmonica on the tracks.
The vocals and the lyrics have huge prominence in the songs. They tend to feature vocal harmonies, when two or more singers sing slightly different variations of the melody, creating a new, harmonized sound.
Modern folk music tends to use suspended chords a lot. A suspended chord means a “transitional” chord between two others in which the (major or minor) third is omitted and replaced with a perfect fourth or a major second. As for the tempo, the average for a song in this genre is between 100 and 110 beats per minute.
Just like with most other genres, love and relationships are common topics in folk songs. Other common themes are the plight of ordinary people, feelings of isolation, sadness, and on a much lighter note, having fun and partying. The lyrics tend to tell a narrative.
Paul Simon was one of the members of the legendary folk duo Simon & Garfunkel. He decided to go solo in the early 1970’s and has seen considerable success since. Bob Dylan rose to prominence in the early 1960’s, and is still around and popular today.
Mumford & Sons is a famous folk rock band from London, UK. Their biggest to date are “I Will Wait” and “Hopeless Wanderer” (both 2012). The Lumineers is of the same fused genre but from Denver, Colorado in the US. They produced such hits as “Ho Hey” (2012), “Ophelia” (2016), and “Sleep on the Floor” (also 2016). Other famous folk singers these days include Sierra Hull, Jewel, and James Taylor.