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Background Information About Folk singers and Folk music.

Updated on August 1, 2014

English Minstrel at renaisance Fair


Some History

For the purposes of this hub, I consider a folk song to be primarily a traditional song, passed down from generation to generation especially in the oral tradition.

The dictionary defines a folksinger as someone who sings folk songs or sings in the style associated with folk songs. Some folksingers have been called balladeers, which are defined as a singer of ballads, since a ballad is defined as a narrative poem, often of folk origin, intended to be sung, and consisting of simple stanzas and usually having a refrain. For our purposes a folksinger and a balladeer appear to be pretty much the same. A secondary meaning of ballad one often hears in pop and country music is: a popular song, especially of a romantic or sentimental nature. We will ignore that meaning here.

One other definition is applicable here. Often a folksinger, especially in the 1960's called themselves minstrels. Minstrels were medieval entertainers who traveled from place to place, especially to sing and recite poetry. They might also be a lyric poet and/or musician. Until recently a minstrel might have been part of a troupe of entertainers made up in blackface and presenting a comic variety show. The later definition is not of too much interest here, but in passing there were contributions to folk music by the minstrel show. Dan Emmett contributed such songs as “Dixie” and what is now known as “Turkey in the straw” among many others.

Also, a trend in the 1960's was for “singer-songwriters” to become known as folksingers. Most notably among these was Bob Dylan, who started out performing traditional song and the songs of an earlier singer songwriter: Woody Guthrie. I do find it odd, any more, to go to a “folk” concert and not hear a single traditional song. Those who grew up in the sixties do seem to feel that everything was invented in that era. However, singer-songwriters have been around for a long time before that. Many singers wrote songs. Gene Autry, for example, wrote and co-wrote a number of songs. “Here Come Santa Claus” was a Christmas song he wrote. Autry did not write “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” but he sang it and it made a lot of money for him. I would, by the way, consider these to be folk songs since they have entered the popular tradition. Recently composed songs such as these can become folk songs but I find it hard to accept that someone just sits down and writes a “folk song.” I think it is the “folk” that eventually decide what is and is not a folk song, not the writer or their fans.

In response to a question about what extent the 1960's boosted folkmusic, Pete Seeger said in a TV interview that the sixties harmed folkmusic rather than helped it. The term folkmusic is not as useful as it used to be. He did say that there are many kinds of folk music that might not be called folkmusic. For example Cajun and Zedico, bluegrass and the kind we are interested in here, songs about outlaws.

Authors note

This article was originally part of my hub "Heroes, Outlaws and Other Folk." I realized that that hub had far too much material, was cumbersome and hard to read.


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I agree with you, Greensleeves. I went through sort of a personal evolution on the subject when I was young. I did not like the popular music of my time (1950's) but didn't know what to look for. I listened to Jazz, but it went out of fashion. Occasionally folk songs would show up on the radio and usually I liked them but I still thought of them as just songs. During a college summer session I went to a campus concert by a musician I do not remember but he played piano and he sang the song "Golden Vanity"

      The story intrigued me as a story with characters, plot, and action told in a few verses. After that I was a fan of folk music, before the Kingston Trio or Bob Dylan.

      Thank you or reading and commenting.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

      I can agree with so much of what you say Don. Thanks for this article.

      So often is the term 'folk' used to refer to modern songs and performers, together with cross-over genre such as folk-rock, that I prefer to use the terms 'modern folk' and 'traditional folk' to distinguish between most 20th century music and really ancient, usually sentimental or rural songs.

      And traditional folk - particularly Celtic and early American - is the type of music I most enjoy. It is music which tends to have relatively simple, memorable melodies (memorable so that they can - as you say - be passed down through the oral tradition). And it is music which has stood the test of time. Those songs which are still known today, perhaps a century or two after their creation, have survived because they are the best of their type, the most memorable, the most poignant, the most beautiful. One wonders how many modern songs - even modern folk - could survive through the centuries in the same way, especially if they had to rely on oral tradition to pass on the lyrics and melodies?

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for your comments.Everyone has a different opinion about what is or is not a folk song.I myself am inclined to now use words like root music, or traditional music.

    • profile image

      Giselle Maine 7 years ago

      Great article, wonderful explanation of what folk music is. This article is especially useful for people such as myself who don't know a whole lot about this genre of music, but who have heard the term used a lot. Thank you for demystifying this type of music!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for you comment.I agree with your opinion of Roger Miller. Back in the sixties I mentioned that I thought Miller was a folksinger to a fellow who was a radio disk jockey(another term that has changed meaning) and he thought I was being absurd.However, many of Millers obituaries referred to him as a folksinger.To me it was elements of vocal sound effects which probably came from country roots that led me to think of him as a folk singer.

    • agvulpes profile image

      Peter 7 years ago from Australia

      Great take on Folk Music. It is the people who decide what is folk music as against just 'pop'

      I may be out of line but I would include 'Roger Miller' as a modern day writer of folk songs?