What is a "Folk Song"?

A Brief Definition

A banjo player performs at the 12th Annual GRAMMY Block Party And Memebership Celebration at Owen Bradley Park on May 11, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Jeff Gentner/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Definition: The term, "folk song," covers a vast array of musical styles, from traditional country and western to Cajun and Zydeco; Appalachian music to the songs of the urban diaspora. Academically and within the tradition of American folk music, a folk song is one that uses traditional melodies and/or modes to speak on a particular topic. Often, topical folk songs address social and political issues such as work, war, and popular opinion; although not all folk songs are topical or political.

Some are personal dirges or ballads about family stories, love songs, or even nonsense songs

Many folk songs have been around so long that nobody is entirely sure who their composers were. Often these songs are passed down within a community and they evolve over time to address the issues of the day. Such songs include "We Shall Overcome," and "We Shall Not be Moved," as well as other spirituals and empowerment anthems.

Other timeless folk songs have definite origins, such as Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," or "If I Had A Hammer" by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. These songs are often so poignant, honest, and timeless, they become enmeshed into the culture and are known by just about everyone.

Folk songs are typically about a community of people, and the issues they feel are important to them. However, in popular music, critics, artists, and fans tend to use the phrase "folk song" to refer to music made using acoustic instruments.

Pop music audiences identify political music on acoustic instruments, especially, as "folk songs"; but also recognize group singing, simple harmonies, and the use of traditional instruments such as banjo or mandolin as "folk music," even when the performance or recording is being made primarily for profit and aimed at a large audience.

Though these songs do in fact incorporate elements indigenous to American folk music, there is a difference between the "folk songs" of popular music and "folk songs" created by folksingers. Usually this difference is in the relationship between the artist and audience, and the motivation behind singing the song. Many folksingers would agree that when a song is sung primarily for profit and the popularity of the artist, it is pop music; when it is a song that rises out of the need of the artist or community and is sung to inform or incite an audience to action (whether that action is deep thought, joining in the singing, or social action), it is generally folk music. There are, of course, many blurred lines between those two motivations, which explains the amount of confusion and disagreement among music fans, critics, and others regarding what, exactly, the phrase "folk music" means. 

Many of the musicologists who went into the field during the 19th and 20th Centuries to collect and document the folk songs from various communities, did not collect political songs because those were in a different class of music. However, the influence of Woody Guthrie - who married the troubadour tradition with modern popular music (verse-chorus-verse) while singing about news headlines and historical stories - helped to change that.

By the time the folk music revival of the 1950s and '60s came along, many audiences around America started to conflate political protest music with "folk music." Though many in the folk revival were playing actual traditional folk songs, or creating new songs in that tradition, the political music of the era was more resonant and provocative due to the socio-political climate of the time. Thus, the popularization of "folk songs" developed its own image as a form of music which is acoustic and carries a strict social conscience. Some music historians see that as one among many moments in the evolution of American folk music, while others see it as a definitive period for both folk and pop music. 

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer when it comes to defining a style of music. Many of the pop music artists who get credit for being folksingers these days are, in fact, drawing from some part of the tradition of American folk music, recognizing the influence of the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie, among others, on the development of the form.

They are also, however, pulling strongly from the tradition of rock and pop music, as many also cite the influence of more modern mainstream bands like the Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and Nirvana. In the scope of folk music, the songs they sing speak on behalf of the American experience, as all those elements have collaborated in the formation of a wider American culture since the advent of radio and television, the internet, and so forth. Though some of the "folk songs" of today may not remain relevant generations from now, it is hard to argue that they are not speaking on behalf of the communities where the artists reside, using traditional instruments and often familiar (if not completely borrowed) melodies.

Thus, contemporary folk songs cover topics from love and relationships to racism, terrorism, war, voting, education, and religion, among other things.

Pronunciation: foke sahng