Timeline of the Popularization of American Folk Music

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John Lomax, the Folklorists, and Field Recordings (early 1900s)

Pete Seeger & Friends
Underwood Archives/Archive Photos/Getty Images

American folk music stretches way back to the very beginnings of the country, and recording the date the first official folk song was penned would be next to impossible.

What is possible is to talk about how and when folk music started to be presented as a "product,” and how songs native to Appalachia, for example, became accessible to folks in California. For this, we can thank the folklorists.

Around the turn of the century, historians became curious about how English and Irish folk songs had adapted into American culture. There were a slew of folklorists exploring, and most of them kept to a particular region of the country, or even a specific state. Their quest was to find the songs traditional to that area and to write them down simply to preserve them, since they were traditionally preserved through oral account.

This anthropological venture was taken up by several individuals and groups, though the most famous was John Lomax and later his son Alan. The Lomaxes were particularly fond of cowboy songs, while others like Howard Odum focused on African-American tunes. They and other folklorists would set up make-shift recording studios wherever they went and record the musicians they found. These "field recordings" would later become fuel for the folk revival of the 1940s and beyond.

Curiously enough, as Dick Weissman points out in his hugely informative book Which Side Are You On? (compare prices), many folklorists thought protest music to be completely separate from folk music. This would echo later during the protest song period, as friction arose within the community about whether folksingers should be commenting on current events.

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The Almanac Singers, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger (1940s)

Almanac Singers CD Cover
Almanac Singers CD Cover. © Prism
The Almanac Singers were together for about a year, they never had a really clear, solid line-up (more of a revolving door policy), and their members were all quite active in Left Wing politics, many of them with the Communist party. Still, they were the first real band of trained musicians who got together for the purpose of singing folk music, and they did manage to enjoy a considerable amount of popularity with their protest songs.

The Almanacs were also joined by a who's who list of folksingers who would all go on to become legends in the genre. Most notable among them were Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lee Hays. Guthrie, until that point, had been a radio host in southern California, and had become an editorialist, as well as an in-demand traveling singer/songwriter. Nonetheless, his participation in the Almanacs was toward the beginning of his career, well before he started exhibiting clear signs of the degenerative disease that eventually killed him.

Seeger, of course, went on to become a mentor and inspiration for the next generation of folksingers. After being blacklisted for refusing to testify about his Communist affiliations, Seeger continued to pen protest song after protest song, helped resurrect countless traditional tunes, was instrumental during the Civil Rights Movement.

Guthrie and Seeger, along with fellow Alamancs Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Josh White, Leadbelly, Sis Cunningham, and others, would become looked upon as the generation of influences that would spawn a protest song revival in the 1960s.

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The Weavers, Kingston Trio, and the Folk-Pop Revival (1950s)

The Weavers
The Weavers.

After the demise of the Almanac Singers, Almanac members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays hooked up with folksingers Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman to form what would become the first folk-pop group to enjoy considerable popularity. In fact, the Weavers would become one of the most influential groups in folk music history.

Considering their time with the Almanacs, and the rise of governmental oversight amid the McCarthy hearings, the Weavers made a concerted effort to divorce themselves from politics. They recorded songs like "Goodnight Irene" that had no political bent to them at all. They were backed up by ornate orchestrations and, while their songs were decidedly folk, the arrangements were decidedly pop-oriented, which introduced a completely new audience to the folk music fold.

Following the Weavers were the Kingston Trio—a group from San Francisco who popularized un-political folk music by intersplicing their performances with jokes and stories. There was a cheesiness to the Trio that spun off into several other similar folk-pop groups in the same era.

Meanwhile, probably in response to the slew of folksingers (including the Weavers) who were being blacklisted for being or associating with Communists, this period saw folk artists veering away from the precedent set by the Almanacs and their alumni.

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Bob Dylan and the Folk-Rock Revolution (1960s)

Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan. © Columbia Records

By the time Bob Dylan arrived in New York City and began playing regular gigs at Gerde's Folk City in the early 60s, the folk-pop phenomenon of the 50s was ready to give way to a new development.

Dylan's early records were hugely successful. Folk fans were enthralled with his approach to the craft. His long, narrative tunes were part recitations, part songs. He adapted the most haunting aspects of Woody Guthrie's work and updated it. He wasn't the first to bring social issues back into folk music, but he was certainly seen as a hero in that arena.

Then, at the Newport Festival in 1965, Dylan showed up with a full-fledged rock band. He wasn't the only electric guitar player there, but what irked so many folkies was that he was bent on playing rock and roll versions of his folk songs. Famously, Pete Seeger is said to have wanted to cut the cord on that performance; but even Pete Seeger couldn't stop what was to come—the inevitable rock-ifying of contemporary folk music.

With the Beatles and the Rolling Stones turning America into a haven for the emergence of rock and roll, in retrospect, folk music was going to have to do something if it wanted to both compete with the new genre, and preserve its stance as a reflection of American culture.

Following Dylan's electrification, rock groups with folk roots started popping up everywhere—David Crosby and Steven Stills teamed with Graham Nash and Neil Young for one of the most succesful folk-rock groups of all time. The Byrds had a huge hit with "Turn, Turn, Turn," which had been penned by none other than Pete Seeger. The Mamas and the Papas, and even the Grateful Dead, emerged and capitalized on the new movement, helping traditional music become known and loved by a new generation whose ears were tuned only to rock and roll.

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James Taylor and the Sensitive Singer/Songwriter (late 1960s and 1970s)

James Taylor - Sweet Baby James
James Taylor - Sweet Baby James. © Warner

The late 60s and 70s saw the re-emergence of folk-pop as artists like James Taylor became popular in what would be a wave of mostly un-political sensitive singer/songwriters. Among them, artists like Cat Stevens and Joni Mitchell performed decidedly more artfully poetic observational and confessional tunes.

Taylor's work tended more toward love songs, while Simon and Garfunkel explored more feel-good songs and updated arrangements of folk songs like "Scarborough Fair."

Meanwhile, Mitchell, a painter, became hugely popular as a singer/songwriter although her songs tended to be more personal and introspective than songwriters of the 60s like Dylan and his topical contemporary Phil Ochs.

This new wave of folk-pop singer/songwriters seemed to be riding the coattails of the 1960s' most popular folk-pop group Peter, Paul and Mary, whose work was part Kingston Trio silliness and part social protest. Nonetheless, the new adaptation of folk-pop saw singer/songwriters focusing more on issues of personal importance than on widespread issues like Civil Rights or anti-war topics like their predecessors.

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A New Wave of Folk-Pop (1980s)

Suzanne Vega
Suzanne Vega. © Melanie Nissen

New York City has, at many turns, been a vortex of folk music activity. Even in the 1980s, when folk music seemed to all but disappear from the mainstream music world, folksingers were gathering in New York with Jack Hardy's Fast Folk circle.

The artists in the Fast Folk scene included John Gorka, Shawn Colvin, Nanci Griffith, and many more. Some of these artists would spend the 80s mostly under the radar, before emerging in the late 80s–early 90s, around the time that the Seattle grunge scene took over mainstream radio.

Nonetheless, a NYC-based songwriter named Suzanne Vega, who was a regular at the Fast Folk, managed to penetrate the synth-pop of the 80s when she released a social-conscience single about domestic violence called "Luka." The song was part of Vega's second album, and its arrangement was considerably sparse in comparison to the other songs that were popular at the same time, but the song became a huge hit for the artist and, for a brief moment in the 80s, there was speculation about the return of contemporary folk music to the realm of "cool."

Around this time, Paul Simon won a wave of Grammy awards with his 1985 release Graceland, which incorporated the pop-rock of the day, his folk roots, and the African rhythms of then obscure Ladysmith Black Mambazo. James Taylor continued to enjoy considerable popularity, as well, while the end of the decade saw artists like Tracy Chapman cutting through the fluff on pop radio to sing about important social issues.

Meanwhile, for the most part, folk singer/songwriters were largely under the radar during this decade, though a few folk-pop acts enjoyed limited success.

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Ani Difranco and the Indie Folk Revolution (1990s)

Ani Difranco
Ani Difranco. © Kim Ruehl, licensed to About.com

Sometime in the early 1990s, another crowd of youngsters converged on cities around the country—mostly in Austin and Nashville, but there was one singer/songwriter in New York who was making waves early on in the decade. Buffalo native Ani Difranco became a cultural phenomenon like many folksingers do—almost completely unintentionally.

To suspect that Difranco didn't have her eye on a lifestyle that would allow her to make a hansome living at what she does would be supposition at best. Still, she made the very personal decision to refuse recording contracts that didn't reckon with her personal politics, and to not let that stop her from making an honest living as a singer/songwriter.

By the end of the decade, the media had "discovered" Difranco, and the music she was making straddled the until-then wide gap between punk rock and traditional folk music. She incorporated world rhythms and a street smarts sensibility that had been muddled in popular folk music since the onslaught of folk-pop in the 70s.

To say Difranco single-handedly instigated the independent music rush that surged through the end of the 20th century and the start of the 00's is an oversimplification. Other folksingers like Dar Williams and Greg Brown also opted to release their records indpendently. Nonetheless, you'd be hard pressed to find an indie artist that doesn't cite Difranco and her Righteous Babe label as frontrunners and heroes in the take-back-the-industry plight, particularly among female musicians and protest singers.

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The Internet and the Digitalization of Contemporary Folk Music (2000+)

By 1997, Internet users had caught on that there was potential to communicate with people all over the world. I like to refer to this period as the Online Chat Era, when we were introduced to new concepts, like chat rooms, and instant messaging.

This automatic communication naturally paved the way for independent artists to capitalize by using the Internet as a marketing tool for their music. This has been hugely beneficial for artists of all genres, but particularly for folksingers.

The Napster controversy of the turn of the century raised the issue of copyright ownership, how accessible music should be to the general public, and the importance of revisiting how artists make a living. Suddenly, the issues that the folk music community has, for decades, come to expect became controversies for mainstream music companies and artists.

Since folksingers, historically, are used to skirting around copyrights and the recording industry, adapting trends, and using the twists and turns of American culture toinfluence their craft, the digitalization of music has been almost a Godsend for folk artists, particularly those who can't afford to constantly tour.

The Internet has expanded the folk world from a few isolated communities who converge at festivals, to a worldwide network of players who "friend" each other on MySpace and share MP3s with endless listeners. Where hootenannies used to take place weekly or monthly with artists sharing their newest arrangements, they can now commune any time of day or night with musicians all over the globe, swapping songs and ideas, and innovating their craft through such discourse.

As a result, the folk artists of today sing songs infused with jazz, blues, country, gospel, and electronic music. What traditionalists consider to be an un-folking of folk music, others see as an opportunity for progress.

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What's Next?

I'm not a very good prognosticator, but what I see going on in response to the Internetting of folk music is really interesting.

On the one hand, there is a vast community of youngsters rebelling against the digitalization of the art form by resurrecting old time music and bluegrass. Here in the Northwest, an old time phenomenon is starting to spill over into the rest of the country, while groups like the Tallboys and British Columbia's Outlaw Social become known beyond their local community.

On the other hand, folk music is blending so far into the mainstream that it's developing new arms and legs. Hip-hop music, which began as a cultural music phenomenon among African-American communities (a folk art if ever there was one) has emerged as a major force to be reckoned with, and socially conscious rappers are starting to use acoustic instruments to back up their hard-hitting lyrics. Folk-hop is on the rise, and it's sure to impact how future generations approach traditional song.

In short, what's next is another inevitable transformation of American folk music. Arguably, my generation is at a threshhold, much like Dylan's generation in the 60s, where innovation is unavoidable. Likely, the globalization of communication and the debunking of the borders between genres will have its effect on folk music. Still, it's impossible to believe that folk music will suffer as a result. More likely, it will simply adapt to the new school of artists much the same as it has done for the last century.

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Ruehl, Kim. "Timeline of the Popularization of American Folk Music." ThoughtCo, Feb. 15, 2016, thoughtco.com/timeline-of-american-folk-music-1322467. Ruehl, Kim. (2016, February 15). Timeline of the Popularization of American Folk Music. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-of-american-folk-music-1322467 Ruehl, Kim. "Timeline of the Popularization of American Folk Music." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-of-american-folk-music-1322467 (accessed November 17, 2017).