The Origins of Folk Music..
Folk Music, also known as folklore, was a term that was coined in 1846 by British antiquarian, William Thomas, to describe the traditions, customs and superstitions of the “uncultured classes.” The definition by Thomas was meant to be used with the term folklore, but that same definition can be used, in part, to describe folk music, too.
At the time that William Thomas came up with the phrase, he was describing a class of people with whom he was familiar, those who lived in Great Britain – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. He could have been talking about most other European countries at that time and of the United States, too.
In the America of 1846, slavery was rampant throughout the south. It did not exist in the North, of course, and it was to become a motivating factor in the “War Between The States.” Music back then did not include anything that might be construed as “Folk.” The best-loved songs of the day were what might be termed the equivalent of today’s popular music. Most tunes were light-hearted and “pain-free” … they didn’t dwell on misery or unhappiness or “negative messages.”
Africans who had been sold into slavery and were living as indentured servants on southern plantations had no civil rights … no freedom … no citizenship … they were not even thought to be whole persons by the laws that existed in the mid-19th Century.
It was not a pleasant experience and these unfortunate people wrote music and lyrics that attempted to tell the story of their sorrowful existence. It was the earliest “message music” … the origins in America of folklore or folk music.
This origin of Folk Music has been well documented. It was, and still is, music with a difference. Unfortunately, it did not really find an audience until the twentieth century. And even the, it was well into the new century when Folk Music took off.
What was the root cause behind its sudden popularity? There are a number of reasons. The Folk Music boom began somewhat slowly in the mid-1950s with the birth of the “Beatnik” culture (the early forerunner to the Hippie lifestyle). Coffeehouses sprung up in New York’s Greenwich Village and in other avant-garde locations around the United States.
This new movement began with “Beatnik poets and writers” like Jack Kerouac recounting the “Beatnik” experience to enraptured audiences. Over time, this form of “talking entertainment” evolved into musical entertainment. By 1960, great Folk Music Artists like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and The Kingston Trio, among many others had captured the nation’s interest and musical imagination.
Songs by Dylan, The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and others rose, rocket-like, on the charts, many songs reaching the very top – number one. This was at a time when Elvis Presley and the great Motown stars were recording fun music, as well. No matter. Folk Music had found an audience.
From its rather quiet and unnoticed origins on southern plantations in the mid-19th Century, it had become a mainstay of American musical entertainment, an art form with legions of fans. That is still true today.