What Are The Characteristics Of A Folk Song?

Folk songs have been around as long as there have been folks to sing them, and, despite being one of the oldest types of music, new so-called folk music is still being created today.  But, we wanted to explore some of the defining characteristics of real folk music, as opposed to pop music which parades itself as folk music these days.  

After much researching and listening, we’ve compiled a list of qualities and characteristics that we believe help to define a truly authentic folk song, ranging from topical songwriting, to acoustic instrumentation, to lack of irony, to name but a few things.  Let us know if you agree with us, or have something to add… 

#1 – Topical Songwriting

Historically speaking, when something happens in our world, musicians are often there to write about it and reflect on it.  Not all folk songs are written about specific events or issues, but many certainly are, and we think this has been a characteristic of folk music since the beginning. 

characteristics of a folk song

One example of this type of writing is Neil Young’s song, “Ohio”.  This anti-war song came about when Neil Young heard about the famous “Kent State Shootings”, where 4 unarmed college students were shot by the National Guard during a protest. 

This event sparked a national outcry, and when Neil Young heard about it, he quickly got his band together and wrote this song to talk about the event.  By Neil’s own account, this was something he reacted to right away, and his song was his own emotional response to the event, done in much the same way a news reporter might report a breaking story.

Neil Young’s Ohio – Lyrics

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming,

Four dead in Ohio.

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago.

What if you knew her

And found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago.

What if you knew her

And found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming,

Four dead in Ohio.


#2 – Addresses Social & Political Issues

In addition to simply being topical, when musicians write folk songs, they are also often addressing social and / or political issues.  In other words, folk singers are often protesting some form of injustice, in the name of freedom and equality.  A folk song doesn’t need to be politically charged, but they often are, and this is another characteristic of the genre.  “Ohio” qualifies on both counts of being topical (news of the day) and politically charged. 

Bob Marley’s famous “Redemption Song” is another song that addresses social and political injustices, such as slavery, but in terms of being topical, one might argue that it is more general.  “Redemption Song” talks about pirates and merchant ships, but doesn’t mention any dates or talk about any one specific person or event, so it doesn’t really qualify as “news”.  Still, when one thinks of a folk song, “Redemption Song” readily comes to mind, although it is a more purposely generalized than a song like “Ohio”.

Bob Marley’s Redemption Song – Lyrics

Old pirates, yes, they rob I

Sold I to the merchant ships

Minutes after they took I

From the bottomless pit

But my hand was made strong

By the hand of the Almighty

We forward in this generation

Triumphantly.

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom

Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our minds

Have no fear for atomic energy

Cause none of them can stop the time

How long shall they kill our prophets

While we stand aside and look Ooh

Some say it’s just a part of it

We’ve got to fulfill the book

Won’t you help to sing

These songs of freedom

Cause all I ever have

Redemption songs

Redemption songs

Redemption songs


#3 – Acoustic Instrumentation

Songs can be written in any number of ways, but, for most folk singers, they choose to write their folk songs with an acoustic guitar.  In 1941, Woody Guthrie famously placed the message “This machine kills fascists” on his acoustic guitar, which was a political statement unto itself.

This Machine Kills Fascists - Woody Guthrie, two guitars-8x6Speaking of Woody Guthrie, who is perhaps the most legendary folk singer that has ever lived from the United States, and the man has written some of the most famous folk songs of all time, featuring mainly his voice and acoustic guitar. 

One of those songs that comes to mind is “This Land Is Your Land”, which does make mention of specific locations, and is also socio-political in nature, speaking of freedom for all.  Unlike “Ohio”, it is not fixed on one specific event, and rather than rallying against anything or anyone in particular, it evokes a more inclusive, happy feeling, although it does have some subtle anti-authority messages worked into the song as well.

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”

This land is your land This land is my land

From California to the New York island;

From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters

This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,

I saw above me that endless skyway:

I saw below me that golden valley:

This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps

To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;

And all around me a voice was sounding:

This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,

And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,

As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:

This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,

By the relief office I seen my people;

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking

Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,

As I go walking that freedom highway;

Nobody living can ever make me turn back

This land was made for you and me.


#4 – For The Common Folk

Typically, folk songs are written by regular folk for regular folk.  You could argue that this applies to any song, really, but in this day and age, there is a little something called “irony” that makes a song less and less relatable to your average person. 

The argument we’re making is that a true folk song relates to everyone, not just musically, but lyrically.  And these lyrics should be simple and straightforward.

Let’s look at this song, which is actually called “Common People”, by a British band called Pulp.

According to what we’ve said so far, “Common People” would not qualify to be a folk song based purely on its synthetic nature (no acoustic guitar), but also because it has a keen sense of cultural irony that it flaunts.

Aside from that, “Common People” is a song that definitely has some characteristics that would certainly qualify it as being a “modern” sort of folk song.  It discusses socio-political matters, and, actually, in its own self-referential and clever way, is a song that stands up for “common people”, as folk songs often do.

Pulp’s Common People – Lyrics

She came from Greece she had a thirst for knowledge

She studied sculpture at Saint Martin’s College, that’s where I caught her eye.

She told me that her dad was loaded

I said in that case I’ll have a rum and coke-cola.

She said fine and in thirty seconds time she said, I want to live like common people

I want to do whatever common people do, I want to sleep with common people

I want to sleep with common people like you.

Well what else could I do – I said I’ll see what I can do.

I took her to a supermarket

I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere, so it started there.

I said pretend you’ve got no money, she just laughed and said oh you’re so funny.

I said yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.

Are you sure you want to live like common people

You want to see whatever common people see

You want to sleep with common people,

you want to sleep with common people like me.

But she didn’t understand, she just smiled and held my hand.

Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.

Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.

But still you’ll never get it right

‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall

If you call your dad he could stop it all.

You’ll never live like common people

You’ll never do what common people do

You’ll never fail like common people

You’ll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw

Because there’s nothing else to do.

Sing along with the common people, sing along and it might just get you thru’

Laugh along with the common people

Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you and the stupid things that you do.

Because you think that poor is cool.

I want to live with common people, I want to live with common people [etc..]


#5 – The Oral Tradition

At this time of digital recording technology, the so-called “oral tradition” is not so much a tradition as it once was.  In the days before records, the only way to keep a song alive was through singing it.  This oral tradition helped to keep songs from being forgotten, but also as a way to popularize them and take them from place to place.  This tradition is also assisted by the practice of busking, who tend to take their show on the road with acoustic instruments.

traveling troubadours

Today, certainly, songs are still sung, but, more often then not, you simply need to play someone a song which already exists in the form of some sort of digital media.  Originally, when troubadours would travel the land, singing songs, and playing their lyre, mandolin, this was the first way in which the oral tradition manifested itself, as well as being a way to spread news across the land.

People don’t rely so much on the oral tradition anymore, since technology has made it somewhat redundant, however, a folk song, by definition, does lend itself to being passed on this way, as well as though sing-alongs.  For these purposes, the song should be simple, with economical use of language, and memorable.  This doesn’t mean it has to be short, as the next section will explain!

But first, let’s take a quick look at Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary

Now, despite being about fictitious subject matter, this song still has all of the check points of a folk song that we have discussed, such as being simple, memorable, lively to sing, meant for anyone and everyone, and acoustic.  It still mentions the names of places, as well as talks specifically about Puff the dragon. 

Puff The Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary – Lyrics

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff

And brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff

Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail

Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail

Noble kings and princes would bow whene’er they came

Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name

Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys

Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys

One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more

And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar

His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain

Puff no longer went to play along the cherry lane

Without his lifelong friend, Puff could not be brave

So Puff, that mighty dragon, sadly slipped into his cave

Oh, Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honali


#6 – Stanzaic Prose

A stanza, or the use of stanzaic prose, is a major feature of a folk song, not to mention all kinds of songs.  What is a stanza?  Basically, it is a group of four lines that make up a verse, also known as a “recurring metrical unit”. 

In folk songs, because they’re simple, we have verses and choruses, and a lack of bridges or middle eights.  The stanza is like a chapter of the story, referred to as exposition in film, and helps to develop the story that is frequently included with folk songs.  With a lot of folk songwriters, we see a proliferation of stanzas, because sometimes these stories reach epic preportions, kind of like the musical equivelant of Ben Hur.

Take, for example, Bob Dylan’s famous song, “Hurricane”.  It fits the bill in many ways as a folk song, especially in that it has plenty of recurring metrical units, AKA verses!

Hurricane by Bob Dylan – Lyrics

Pistols shots ring out in the barroom night

Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall

She sees the bartender in a pool of blood

Cries out “My God they killed them all”

Here comes the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For something that he never done

Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world.

Three bodies lying there does Patty see

And another man named Bello moving around mysteriously

“I didn’t do it” he says and he throws up his hands

“I was only robbing the register I hope you understand

I saw them leaving” he says and he stops

“One of us had better call up the cops”

And so Patty calls the cops

And they arrive on the scene with their red lights flashing

In the hot New Jersey night.

Meanwhile far away in another part of town

Rubin Carter and a couple of friends are driving around

Number one contender for the middleweight crown

Had no idea what kinda shit was about to go down

When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road

Just like the time before and the time before that

In Patterson that’s just the way things go

If you’re black you might as well not shown up on the street

‘Less you wanna draw the heat.

Alfred Bello had a partner and he had a rap for the corps

Him and Arthur Dexter Bradley were just out prowling around

He said “I saw two men running out they looked like middleweights

They jumped into a white car with out-of-state plates”

And Miss Patty Valentine just nodded her head

Cop said “Wait a minute boys this one’s not dead”

So they took him to the infirmary

And though this man could hardly see

They told him that he could identify the guilty men.

Four in the morning and they haul Rubin in

Take him to the hospital and they bring him upstairs

The wounded man looks up through his one dying eye

Says “Wha’d you bring him in here for ? He ain’t the guy !”

Yes here comes the story of the Hurricane

The man the authorities came to blame

For something that he never done

Put in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world.

Four months later the ghettos are in flame

Rubin’s in South America fighting for his name

While Arthur Dexter Bradley’s still in the robbery game

And the cops are putting the screws to him looking for somebody to blame

“Remember that murder that happened in a bar ?”

“Remember you said you saw the getaway car?”

“You think you’d like to play ball with the law ?”

“Think it might-a been that fighter you saw running that night ?”

“Don’t forget that you are white”.

Arthur Dexter Bradley said “I’m really not sure”

Cops said “A boy like you could use a break

We got you for the motel job and we’re talking to your friend Bello

Now you don’t wanta have to go back to jail be a nice fellow

You’ll be doing society a favor

That sonofabitch is brave and getting braver

We want to put his ass in stir

We want to pin this triple murder on him

He ain’t no Gentleman Jim”.

Rubin could take a man out with just one punch

But he never did like to talk about it all that much

It’s my work he’d say and I do it for pay

And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way

Up to some paradise

Where the trout streams flow and the air is nice

And ride a horse along a trail

But then they took him to the jailhouse

Where they try to turn a man into a mouse.

All of Rubin’s cards were marked in advance

The trial was a pig-circus he never had a chance

The judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums

To the white folks who watched he was a revolutionary bum

And to the black folks he was just a crazy nigger

No one doubted that he pulled the trigger

And though they could not produce the gun

The DA said he was the one who did the deed

And the all-white jury agreed.

Rubin Carter was falsely tried

The crime was murder ‘one’ guess who testified

Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied

And the newspapers they all went along for the ride

How can the life of such a man

Be in the palm of some fool’s hand ?

To see him obviously framed

Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land

Where justice is a game.

Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties

Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise

While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell

An innocent man in a living hell

That’s the story of the Hurricane

But it won’t be over till they clear his name

And give him back the time he’s done

Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been

The champion of the world.


 

The Refrain

The refrain is basically the chorus in a song, and gets repeated, sometimes to the point of madness for the listener.  As we all know, it is hard to get a good chorus out of our heads.  In folk music, this is the same thing, although typically the song has all of the other afforementioned characteristics as well.

Here is the famous Pete Seeger song, “If I Had A Hammer”, where the refrain is the same as the title, which is often the case with folk songs, not to mention a lot of other songs.  Of course, we’re talking about a metaphorical hammer here, which might be used to solve the world’s ills, this being one of the more optimistic and hopeful song for the ages.  Also, this folk song is a great example of the 4 line stanza.

If I Had A Hammer by Pete Seeger – Lyrics

If I had a hammer,

I’d hammer in the morning

I’d hammer in the evening,

All over this land.

I’d hammer out danger,

I’d hammer out a warning,

I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

If I had a bell,

I’d ring it in the morning,

I’d ring it in the evening,

All over this land.

I’d ring out danger,

I’d ring out a warning

I’d ring out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

If I had a song,

I’d sing it in the morning,

I’d sing it in the evening,

All over this land.

I’d sing out danger,

I’d sing out a warning

I’d sing out love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

Well I got a hammer,

And I got a bell,

And I got a song to sing, all over this land.

It’s the hammer of Justice,

It’s the bell of Freedom,

It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.

It’s the hammer of Justice,

It’s the bell of Freedom,

It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters,

All over this land.


 

#7 – Profit vs Pure Intention

Perhaps the most contentious aspect of this discussion, the last thing we will mention that is an important characteristic of a folk song is the fact that it must be pure and honest, as opposed to written for profit. 

Because there is a big part of the hippy movement of the ’60’s still attached to folk music, there is still an idea that a real, authentic folk song is most likely going to be opposed to capitalist ideals. This is partly why you had that guy yelling “Judas!” at Bob Dylan when played electric guitar at a show in Manchester in 1966.

bob dylan 1966

In this day and age of folk music being applied to any music that has an acoustic guitar and some shakers, this idea of not-for-profit music basically disqualifies most mainstream musicians from calling themselves true folk singers. 

Groups that many of us associate with folk music (as a genre) like the Lumineers or even the Arcade Fire are immediately disqualified from being “folk” due to having record deals and songs that appear on TV and in movies.  

Of course, were this one principle the defining characteristic of folk music on its own, that would basically disqualify everyone, including many of the original folk singers from the ’60’s, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and even Woody Guthrie, all of whom have profited from their music in some way at some point in time.  

Defining what music was originally made with profit in mind is virtually impossible, and so, we leave it in as simply food for thought. 


 

We hope this list of characteristics provided you with some insight into what makes folk music authentic.  Thanks for reading!

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