The History and Evolution of Folk Music In America

Before there were books, there was music and storytelling being passed down through the “oral tradition”, or word of mouth. Folk songs date back to a time when people would sit around fires telling stories of great adventures, love stories, or battles.

cowboys folk songs oral tradition

Folk songs grew out of this storytelling tradition as another way to pass stories from one generation to the next. They’re considered oral histories in some cases – especially those that date back hundreds of years.

Folk Songs and Oral History

Not only do folk songs tell stories of history, they’re not history that can be found in any traditional history books, either. Folk music has always been part of the working-class and poor of the country. It tells the stories no one else wants to tell and rarely enjoys a commercial success that other genres enjoy. The surge of folk music is almost always in relation to a hardship, tragedy, or hard subject matter to the community as a whole.

slavery songs

Spirituals During Slavery – Early 1800s

These folk songs were sung while workers spent time in the fields. The songs were often used to coordinate their work efforts. The slaves weren’t allowed to use drums as they had in their native country, so they shifted to songs they could sing together while working.

During the time of the Underground Railroad, slaves escaped from areas that encouraged slavery to areas in the north where slavery was being abolished. The songs they sang like “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were directly related to the path they would take to escape through the Underground Railroad.

Child Labor – Late 1800s to Early 1900s

During the industrial revolution, there were incredible problems directly involved with how workers were treated in factories. Whether it was fair wages, child labor, or a manageable amount of hours for factory workers, there was much that plagued the American worker. Folk songs like “Eight Hour Strike” by Billy Pastor helped spread the idea of allowing workers to have an 8-hour workday.

Coxey’s Army

This was a time when unions were starting to become established because workers understood that together they carried more strength. Songs like “Labor’s War Cry” were sung by workers. Coxey’s Army, which was a march on Washington, happened in 1894, and “Co-Join Coxey’s Army” was a song that helped inspire the marchers that were needed.

Stock Market Crash – 1930s

The 1930s were hard economic times for many in the United States. The stock market crashed in 1929, which was followed by a drought that impacted farmland throughout the Midwest. In 1920, the first licensed radio station began to broadcast. This brought all kinds of music into homes when it was desperately needed.

One of the most famous folk singers in the U.S. was Woody Guthrie. He traveled all over the country with his folk music. His songs “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” and “Roll On, Columbia” were uplifting to many. His most famous song “This Land is Your Land” is still known by people today – almost 100 years later.

Civil Rights and Vietnam – 1960s

Folk songs sometimes fade as they’re not needed to tell a story. Other times, they become more important to many people. As the country experienced war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement, songwriters were there to write uplifting and influential songs that would inspire an entire generation of people.

Singers like Bob Dylan who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” were an important part of the anti-war movement. Odetta Holmes was dubbed the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement” and her song “This Little Light of Mine” is one that is still heard today. Martin Luther King Jr. called her the queen of American folk music.

Nelson Mandela and Violence – 1980s

While some people argue that the 80s were a time of superficial music, this was actually the time when protest songs, and urban folk music become known. The protest song became more than just an acoustic guitar and inspiring lyrics. It transcended the music genre from rap to rock. One of the biggest protest songs of the 80s was a hip hop song called “Stop the Violence” by Boogie Down Productions.

Songs like “Free Nelson Mandela While You Keep Rockin’ in the Free World” became an anthem for freeing Nelson Mandela. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” became a classic and the band says they wanted the song to speak to the bitterness and hate that’s seen all across the world.

Are Folk Songs Still Relevant Today?

Contemporary artists haven’t had time to grow the large, generational following as some of the greats from the 60s, but that doesn’t mean that folk songs aren’t still relevant today. Folk singers today concentrate on equality struggles, but they also tend to stay within their circle and within folk traditions of not being mainstream.

Some notable songs include “Hope the High Road” that has lyrics like “wherever you are, I hope the high road leads you home again/To a world you want to live in”.

The lyrics speak globally to a wide audience. It’s about a world where we all want to live.

Over the last few hundred years, folk music has evolved, but at its core is a genre of music that inspires its listeners, gives them hope, and allows them to be heard on a grand scale.

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