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Folkmusic and culture In America's Folk Songs and Tin Pan Alley

Updated on January 10, 2016

Street Singer


Tin Pan Alley


Folk, pop and country

Recurring questions are: what is folkmusic? How does it differ from popular music or country music? Except among scholars, I’m not sure anyone asked such questions before the “folk music revival” in the 1950's and 60's.When I was in grade school in the 1940's some folk songswere on the pop charts and played on the radio. One song I think of is “Goodnight Irene” sung by the folk group “The Weavers” of which Pete Seeger was a member. The song was written by a singer known as Leadbelly ut his real name was Huddie Leadbetter. Another song I remember was “On top of Old Smoky” sung by Burl Ives. As I grew up, I noticed singers such as Bing Crosby would announce that they were going to sing an old folk song. So folk songs were just part of the mix.

When I was in college folkmusic was very popular. My curriculum included a course in American Music History. The Professor was a German, who had fled from Germany during the Hitler regime. One aspect of American culture, by the way, is that music instruction was somewhat dominated by Germans. At least in those days. Interestingly, he was also a singer who had gone to South America and made his living as a street singer. He told us that outside of America folk music and popular music were pretty much the same.

Often there is an interplay in which a pop song from what used to be known as tin pan alley would live on and become a folk song. At the moment I am listening to “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone” sung by Arlo Guthrie but the copyright is 1927 Warner Bros. On the other hand the commercial world will periodically dig up old songs such as happened during the folk song revival.

Country music dates back to about the 1920's when it was called Hillbilly music. Artists such as the Carter family found that there was a market for their music in the cities. The music was traditional music brought over from Europe, mostly English, Scot and Irish. Because the people in the hill country were isolated, the music was often the same songs found in collections like Child’s ballads. So these songs evolved into Country music and writers started writing new songs in a similar style. In the meantime, as radio develops and country/hill people acquire records and sheet music they hear, “city” music and start adopting it for themselves.

Influence of children

Ironically many of today’s folk singers and collectors are not from the “folk” such as those people who work with their hands etc. Many such as Pete Seeger come from educated affluent roots. Charles and Ruth Seeger, Pete’s parents, were college music scholars. Pete himself went to Harvard but dropped out. Collectors, such as the Lomax’s were collectors who were also educated. Much of the information here comes from a book by the Lomax’s and the Seeger’s “Folk Song USA.”

I was born about ten thousand years ago
there ain’t nothing in this world that I don’t know
I saw Peter, Paul and Moses
play ring around the roses
and I’ll whip the man that says it isn’t so

American folk song–“I was born ten thousand years ago”

According to the above reference folk song depends on appeal to children. In a sense it reminds of something Gene Autry the cowboy movie star said in his autobiography. He said that the cowboy movie had to have enough action to keep the kids interested and the star had to be attractive enough to women to get the mothers to bring the kids to see the show. Likewise the songs have to appeal enough to kids to entertain them but enough appeal to the adults to want to sing them. If the kids don’t like the songs, chances are parents will quit singing them.

As well as appealing to children, the above song appeals to me and, I think most adults, at least Americans. It smacks of the tall story tradition in american culture, from Paul Bunyon to Davy Crockett .

Protest in song

Last night I had the strangest dream
I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war.

Protest song written by Ed McCurdy and sung by just about every singer of the folk revival of the sixties. It has been called the best of the antiwar songs.

The protest song has a long tradition in folk music In the United States anti war has also had a tradition on the left. During the first World War the left was very antiwar until Germany invaded Russia. They changed and became for war.

It is a good song and a very nice sentiment. However, maybe one of the reasons I am no longer a a liberal is that it is a dream. The idea that war could be stopped by a bunch of diplomats getting together and signing a bunch of papers just does not work. Even if they signed the papers, what would it accomplish? . Ask the American Indians how well that worked out.

The song above is also something of an example of how the folk process works, at least in the modern world. McCurdy rewrote a song called “Last night I had a Happy dream” whose theme was a bit different..

Last night I had a happy dream, though
restless where I be
I dreamed again, brave Irishmen, had set
old Ireland free.

Wildwood flower

Folk Music and politics

The devil went down to Georgia
He was looking for a soul to steal
And he was in a bind
'Cause he was way behind
And was willin' to make a deal

Charlie Daniels

If you go to folk music concerts or festivals you’ll run across a politically liberal attitude. I remember years ago that a friend of mine asked me why there aren’t any conservative folk singers. At the time I didn’t think much about it, but in retrospect I see his point.

You will find some conservative folksingers but they are called country singers, such as Charlie Daniels, who wrote the “Devil Down in Georgia.” That song is what I would call a folk-like song in the tradition of folk ballads such as “Tying a knot in the devil’s tail.”

So he shakes her out and he built him a loop and he lassoed up the devil's hind feet
[ harmonica ]
Well they stretched him out and they tailed him down while the iron was gettin' hot
And they cropped and swallow forked both his ears and they branded him up a lot
They pruned him up whit a dehorning saw and they knotted his tail for a joke

Generally folk musicians in America have been left leaning, at least since the 1920's. Performers such as Woody Guthrie and Burl Ives performed for labor unions and other politically liberal groups. Whether this was out of conviction or because it is where they had to go to make a living, is unclear.

An interesting incident in my experience was at a Pete Seeger concert sponsored by the student socialist club at the University of Minnesota back in the early 1960's. Seeger was on a platform with a banjo. On another platform were three muscians with jazz instruments such as saxaphones. Certainly not folk muscians, I thought. As it turned out the muscians were there because the Musicians Union had a requirement that a concert haad to have three back up musicians which seemed a bit odd since they could not play the kind of music people had come to hear. I read in the papers later that the union and the student group had a disagreement about payment since the socialist student group refused to pay for the musicians. Seems a bit strange as socialist, I thought were supporters of unions. I guess it is a matter of whose money is involved.

Woody Guthrie, I read somewhere, was a card carrying member of the Communist Party, when he worked on the WPA, where he wrote songs that have come down as patriotic songs, such asa “Roll on Columbia” but probably do have a tinge of supporting government projects. Maybe only natural under the circumstances. A very good song, I think.

Pete Seeger

public domain
public domain

Kinds of folkmusic

One thing that is confusing when discussing or learning about folkmusic is the variety of things that might be considered folkmusic. I will try to describe them although other people may have different classifications. These are the ones I think are most useful but I may always run across songs that don’t quite seem to fit any of these categories or into more than one.

Traditional songs and ballads

These are songs which usually trace back to unknown songwriters and have passed down ordinally from singer to singer. Later they may be printed and spread through print or other media. In addition to the changing of songs through the “folk-process” songs may be changed to meet copyright standards. Once a song is performed in public venues the arrangement may be copyrighted. Another singer may change the arrangement so as not to infringe on the copyright.

Folk-like songs
These are songs that are written and sung which sound like traditional songs and sometimes become thought of as folk songs. I have often thought a singer was singing an authentic traditional song and later found it was a modern composition.

Songs of protest
Songs of protest. Such song go back as far as songs have been sung. In the 1940's, 1950's they were especially popular. Noted singers and songwriters were Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton and many others. The most popular causes to sing about were war, unions and sometimes things in the headlines.

Political songs
Songs have been written about political events such as the assassinations.” Booth killed Lincoln”
and Charles Guiteau”the man who killed President Garfield. Others have been election songs of which I know there have been some in every election although I have never had the occasion to look up.

This started. I think, with groups led by the Kingston trio in the late 1950's of singing traditional songs in a popular style. Many debates were had in those days as to how authentic such music was. Later Bob Dylan upset his fans by using electronic instruments. Some people felt that folk music had to be played on acoustic instruments. Since nobody really knows on what kind of instruments were used originally (early collectors on wrote down words and not musical notation) I find the argument a bit weak. However, it got to the point that anything played acoustically was somehow considered “folk.” Although I side on the concept that all versions of a song are valid, I find it strange that now people who play “folk” music amplify even acoustic instruments. I went to an Arlo Guthrie concert once that for me was ruined by a bad sound system. The object of amplified instruments, it seems to me, is to be heard in heard by large audiences in mega-concerts. In a small intimate setting I see no sense in it.

Classical music
This would be folk themes used in classical compositions such as done by Aaron Copeland.

Ethnic songs
Songs from other cultures and ethnic groups are often thought of as folkmusic and sometimes they are the folkmusic of their own group. The 1950's before the folk music craze saw top songs such as the Calypso songs of Harry Belfonte. Irish groups such as the Irish Rovers became popular. Various Latin music was also popular, often dance music.

Occupational groups

Cowboy songs, both folk and country music. Even popular singers like Bing Crosby sang about cowboys. Sea Shanties and other songs about sailors and fishing. Lee Murdock is a singer I like that specializes in this type of song, mostly about the great lakes.


Two books I like on the subject are rather old and might be hard to get is: The Ballad Mongers by Oscar Brand and All the years of American popular Music by David Ewen.The last book covers all kinds of American music from colonial days on.

Singing along

When I grew up audiences were not inclined nor encouraged to “sing-along” especially in the Northern part of the country. Singing was more of a tradition in the South, so I imagine singing along was also. However, I have no personal experience with that. For myself, I come from a Scandinavian background. We are a people much more reticent when it comes to public displays of any kind. I was also very shy and self-conscious.

Two influences changed that in the early sixties. One was Mitch Miller and his television show: "Sing Along with Mitch” which ran from 1961-1965. The show was popular but tended to draw older viewers, whereas the producers wanted the younger audience. Miller was an influential figure in popular music in the 1950's - 1960's. He signed on many major artists for Columbia records including being “instrumental in getting Bob Dylan signed on to” Columbia.

“Sing along with Mitch” was based on popular songs performed by Miller and a chorus. It also featured a bouncing ball which was a large dot that “bounced” above the words. I was not a fan, but it is hard to ignore the influence of a large audience being encouraged to sing along at home.

The other influence was folk song concerts and such performers as Pete Seeger. He was what some would call “awesome” in his ability to get people to sing with him. I watched him once at a concert when he seemed to put his banjo right up to the microphone and sang loud and fast. I swear that by himself he gave the impression that everyone was singing so there was nothing to do but join right in.

I think it was at that same concert he told a story about himself and some other performers playing at a logging camp up North to some Scandinavian logger. He said they sang and sang and the audience just sat there. After awhile, with so little audience response, they go discouraged and started to pack up to leave. One of the loggers said “aren’t you going to play for us anymore?” Seeger figured out that enthusiastic response just was not part of the culture there. When they discovered they were appreciated they unpacked again and played until two. O’clock in the morning.

With the popularity of folk music sing along became common and has persisted. At one point in 1963 I went to a concert of the New Christy Minstrels, a popular folk choral group. The audience started to sing along but were asked not to. I think it threw a damper on things and it is the only time I have seen it happen.

Singing along has become a part of the culture thanks to Mitch Miller and folk music.


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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the comment. Actually this was one of my early hubs.I guess I hadn't acquired many followers yet.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Can't believe I am the first to comment! I remember Mitch Miller and the bouncing ball. My family sang along with it. We did a lot of singing in my family. Washing dishes was always a good occasion to try and work out some harmony. Road trips in a car...another good occasion! During the Viet Nam war many songs that were produced were probably also considered folk songs. "Where have all the flowers gone...Long time passing..." I remember singing and strumming a guitar with my brother singing that and others. Rating this useful and up! Good hub!


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