What are the Main Genres of American Music?

“Good” music means something different to everyone these days, and this is highlighted by the growing number of genres and sub-genres that circulate in both mainstream and underground circles.

Most of these genres have evolved over the years due to several cultural and societal influences, and this is why every region of the world has its own particular “flavour” when it comes to music, from the Latin music of Mexico, to the Goan trance music of Southern India.

Today, however, we want to focus on the many musical genres of the United States of America.

For a person who has just started to explore the vast reaches of music, it can get very confusing at times learning what’s what, since every major genre does break down into smaller and more select sub-categories.  Upon closer inspection, some of these genres seem fairly ridiculous.

crunkcore cuddlecore cowpunk

To accurately depict the thousands of sub-genres that exist all around the world is a fairly impossible task, so we have learned to generalize into a reasonable number of “main” genres of music.

What Are The Main Genres Of American Music?

Each genre has its own favoured instruments that operate in particular scales or modes, a certain style of vocals (or lack thereof), and a definite rhythmical pattern behind the beats.  An experienced music lover will be able to tell the difference in genres simply by listening to a song, but, from time to time, a new permutation will always surface, eschewing convention.


What began as the Mississippi Delta Blues quickly became the biggest and most influential American music genre there is.  Adopted by the African-American population from traditional African music, blues became a medium of expressing agony through slow moving rhythms and emotional, and sometimes tragicomic lyrical situations.  The genre attained massive commercial success when artists from Chicago created a variant called Chicago blues.  You’ll find the influence of blues on other genres such as jazz, gospel, RnB, and hip hop.


This genre of music evolved in the early 20th century.  The early artists were all African-Americans.  It has also lead to the birth of many genres in its time, but jazz music is primarily associated with the use of blue notes, performed on instruments like the saxophone and the massive double bass.  The boundaries and scope of jazz is something that has lead to various debates in the music community, and the fact is that no one has yet settled for an accurate description that accurately encompasses the entire genre.

Rock n’ Roll

Rock music started hitting the streets in the 1950’s, and it evolved as a subset of rock and roll, rhythm and blues, classical and folk music that had been around since the 1940’s. The primary focus in rock is on the electric guitar, and the many solos that can be created with it.  The bass guitar and drums are also highly in focus here, and, for some time, even synthesizers were the rage (and they’re coming back!).  Today, we relate any music that is slightly ‘heavy’ with it, and this has also lead to the combination of rock with other various sub-genres.

From rock, we get the birth of folk rock, classic rock, punk rock, blues rock, jazz rock, soft rock, heavy metal, hard rock, alt rock, and prog rock.

Let’s hear from the puzzled panther himself, Darby Crash, famous punker.

Rock is something that is omnipresent in all cultural references today, and it is no secret that we associate rock musicians with a rebellious lifestyle, incessant substance abuse, tremendous fan bases all around the world, and an ever present sense of self-destruction.

Back when rock started, it was decidedly more light-hearted and fun, with only a slight edge.

Country Music 

Country music is certainly one of the oldest forms of commercial music.  It originated in the 1920’s in southern parts of the United States, and it has slowly spread to all parts of the world.  It is also known as country & western music, and has been embraced by countless artists, including The King himself, Elvis Presley.

The defining characteristic of early country music was an acoustic guitar, with just the vocals of the singer to accompany it.  In this way, it is similar to blues music, however, a different group of Americans were responsible for creating it – those who lived south of the Mason-Dixon line.

These days, country music expresses itself as rock, as pop, or even dance music, but the original version of country music was much simpler and expressed the feelings of those in the south.

Folk Music

Also called “roots” music, folk music is both similar to country and blues, in that it has historically found its origins in the lower social classes of people in society.  That said, folk music has always had a revolutionary streak, as it has typically been used as a means of protest, telling stories, and providing political commentary.

Instrumentally, folk music can be said to be similar to both country and blues, with the primary instrument of folk music often being an acoustic guitar (mouth harp can also frequently be heard).  However, folk music is not limited to simply just guitar, and there are other specifically instruments which often turn up in folk songs, such as banjos, jugs, spoons, and the accordion.

In more recent times, folk music has been embraced by anyone who appreciates what the genre stands for.  For instance, when Bob Dylan hit the scene in the early 1960’s, he fancied himself a folk singer like his hero Woody Guthrie, but Dylan didn’t come from poverty, as you might expect a true folkster to be.  By the time Woodstock rolled around in ’69, folk music was practically mainstream, but no less affecting.

Today, folk music can even refer to a sort of throwback to this hippy movement in the ’60’s.  For example, if you hear mild mannered acoustic music where a male and female are singing “la la la” or “whoa, whoa, whoa” in harmony, you could try to call that folk music, but, by its original meaning, it clearly is not.

Hip Hop and Rap

Relatively new to the growing list of American musical genres is hip hop, or rap music. The primary focus here with hip hop is on hard beats and DJ scratching, as well as a type of rhythmic spoken word put overtop.  Also, synthetic sounds are a big part of hip hop music, as well as samples, which involves clips from other recordings re-purposed to create new artistic expressions.

Although hip hop evolved out of the urban ghettos of the United States in the 1970’s, today it has come to symbolize success and has spread far into mainstream culture, not just in the U.S.A., but all around the world.  Hip hop has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

Pop Music

Pop music is perhaps the most confusing of any genre, because it really isn’t a genre at all. Pop is short for popular, and referring to music with popular appeal.  Thus, pop music can refer to any song from any genre, so long as it is popular.  There is, however, a conflicting idea that “pop” is a genre, and has its own characteristics.  For our purposes today, we will go with the former definition.

As it refers to popular music, pop music usually is considered to be offensive to some hipster music fans, who revile anything enjoyed by the masses.  This is almost a fair assessment of pop music, since it often strives to appeal to broadest group of people possible, in order to sell the most records possible.  This is generally done by targeting teenagers, who are the most impressionable fans out there (except for pre-teens, children, and babies).

Of course, it is possible for well crafted music to be “pop” music, but the basic premise of pop music is that it is meant to please the most people possible.  As such, it is frequently about everyone’s favourite topic – sex, whether it be directly mentioned or implied.

Pop music isn’t just about sex.  In fact, sometimes it can be about violence as well. Actually, whatever it is about, it doesn’t matter.  Pop music is the only genre where the characteristics of the music itself is secondary to its popularity.  Imagine if there were a genre of music called “rich”, where the only quality the music needed to have was being written by rich people.  How obnoxious…


There are, of course, more genres of music out there.  Many of them are sub-genres of the genres we’ve already mentioned, such as soul, gospel, funk, zydeco…the list is practically endless.

We hope you found this article interesting.  If so, please leave us a comment below!

An Intro to Traditional Japanese Music – What Are The Ancient Forms?

traditional japanese music when did it start

Traditional music is part and parcel of any culture.  Traditions and culture differ from one country to another, and so of course does the music.  Japanese traditional music is popular not only in Japan, but also in the West.

In recent years, many pieces of traditional Japanese musical compositions were showcased throughout the world. Traditional music plays an important role in Japanese Culture, even today.

intro to traditional japanese music

When Did Traditional Japanese Music Start?

There is not much information available today about ancient traditional Japanese music from pre-historical times.  However, there is evidence to suggest that music was given a certain importance during the Yayoi and Jomon period.

During the late Yayoi period, many tombs were built for both poets and musicians alike. The historical records show that popular songs and legends from this time period were recorded in the chronicles “Kojiki” and “Nohon Shoki”.  

The chronicle “Kojiki” was compiled during the reign of Emperor Temmu.  By that time, songs and poetry had already begun to be integrated into traditional Japanese music.  


The Importance of This Music

Although Japan has a unique culture and tradition of its own, many of its ceremonies and musical styles were borrowed from other countries.  

The Imperial State of Japan used not only the Chinese language, but also imported some facets of its culture, including some of their traditional music.  

A traditional form of music called Gagaku dominated the courts of the nobles and kings during the Nara and Heian period.  The other forms of traditional Japanese musics were Noh, Shakuhachi, Koto, and Shamisen.

A point worth mentioning here is that vocal music plays a huge role in Japanese music.

Popular Traditional Japanese Music

A few of the popular traditional and ancient forms of Japanese music are listed below.


Gagaku was popularly known as the music of the courts.  It was mostly developed at the court of the upper class people and powerful nobles.  This form of music gained significant popularity during the Heian period (794-1192 AD).  

Gagaku is classified into three categories: 1. original foreign music, 2. pure Japanese music, and 3. music composed in Japan under the influence of neighbouring countries. Gagaku has its origins in China, Korea, and other southeast Asian countries.  

Gagaku that originated from China is known as To-gaku, and the one that has its roots in Korea is known as Komagaku.  Both these forms of traditional music use the orchestra and do not have any vocals in it.  

Gagaku, when accompanied with a dance called Bugaku, is known as Kangen.  Some of the popular instruments that were used in this form of music are mouth organ, flute, drum, and zither.

Here is an example of To-gaku music called “Koromogae Saibara”.

One of the pure traditional Japanese musical forms is the Kokufukabu.  This is an ancient music that includes both vocals and instruments.  

This music is usually performed in the temples and also for the court ceremonies.  This ancient music has its roots in Japan, but was composed under the influence of the tradition and culture of neighbouring countries that include Saibabra and Roei.  

Both these forms of music have vocals and are accompanied by musical instruments.

Another traditional Japanese music that gained significance during the Hein period was Shomyo.  This is a vocal music that was used in Buddhist temples at the time of prayer services.

Here is an example of a Shomyo chant called “Shingon”. 


This traditional Japanese musical form became popular during the 14th century.  Noh is a form of drama and has its own music called Nohgaku, accompanied by a dance known as Shimai.  Nohgaku uses both vocal and musical instruments.

Here is an example of Nohgaku music – an entire album’s worth!

Shakuhachi, Koto, and Shamisen

These are the traditional Japanese musical forms that were around during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573 – 1603).  During this period, many new musical instruments were introduced.  

Shakuhachi was played by the Buddhist priests.  This form of ancient Japanese music got its name from the instrument Shakuhachi, and was performed during the religious festivals and ceremonies.

Another form of traditional music is Koto.  The music composition of Koto is known as Sokyoku.  It gained significance during the Edo Period.  

There is also the music of the shamisen, which is a form of music that was composed by the Ikuta School.  This form of ancient music is used for both the narrative and melodious singing.


Folk songs are also a part of traditional Japanese music.  These songs are mostly associated with religious ceremonies or with daily chores.  

Though not much is known about Japanese music from the prehistoric period, later, the traditional musics from Japan gained more importance.  Still today, many around the globe enjoy these styles!

8 of the Best Folk Songs of All Time That Everyone Should Know

folk songs everyone should know

These are 8 of the all time best folk songs that everyone should know. Whether you’re 9 or 90, it’s unlikely that you haven’t heard the songs on this list.  If you, by chance, haven’t heard them, hear them now, for they are classics.

Goodnight Irene by Huddie William Ledbetter

This song was originally written and recorded by Huddie Ledbetter in 1933. It’s been redone in the years since- most notably by The Weavers who recorded their own version just one year after his death.

It lasted over 25 weeks on the Billboard Best Seller chart. With its popularity, most people are more familiar with the lyrics from The Weavers than those from Ledbetter.

The success of The Weaver’s version of the song brought out more artists who did their own take on the song. Frank Sinatra, Moon Mullican and Paul Gayten all have chart topping hits with the song that same year.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? By Pete Seeger

Part of the song was written by Pete Seeger in 1955, but more was added by Joe Hickerson in 1960. He was inspired to write the song in October of ’55 when he was on his way to sing at Oberlin College.

It was after his group “The Weavers” was disbanded after being blacklisted during the McCarthy Era. The song’s verses were released in a magazine first before Seeger released a 45 single of the song in 1964.

It went on to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2002. It’s been done by some famous groups since like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. It was even translated by Marlene Dietrich and sung in English, German and French.

Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel

The song was composed by Paul Simon, and it’s considered their signature song. It was released in January 1970. It’s grown to become their biggest hit single.

It hit Billboard Hot 100 for 6 weeks. Over time, many artists have sung their own renditions of the songs from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley.

In total, over 50 artists have lent their voices to this incredible song. Rolling Stone actually printed a list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, which put this song at number 48.

Although Simon wrote the song, he insisted that Garfunkel sing it. In later years, he actually began to regret that decision. It eventually led to frayed feelings and their breakup.

Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan

As popular as this song has been over the years – it’s certainly one of the most well-known songs of our time – it’s the only song that Dylan wrote to become number 1 in America.

What might not be known about the song is that Dylan wrote this on a road trip from New York to San Franscisco with some friends. Along the way, they smoked tons of marijuana.

They actually kept their supply going on the trip because they had mailed themselves some before the trip began. They would pick it up at post offices along the way.

It was originally written and performed by Dylan and released in 1965, yet it’s a song that many generations know and love.

Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary

The lyrics for the song were based on a poem written in 1959 by a student at Cornell University named Leonard Lipton. He used a typewriter to get the poem “out of his head” then promptly forgot about it.

His housemate named Peter Yarrow looked for him years later to give him credit for the song. He’s still getting royalties today.

There’s always been a segment of people who believe that the song is referring to smoking marijuana as taking a “puff” on a joint or “draggin’” is the smoking itself.

Both Lipton and Yarrow reject the interpretation.

Sounds of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel

This is another song written by Paul Simon between the years of 1963 and 1964. It was eventually released in 1964, but didn’t meet with much success.

The duo broke up after the failure, but the next year, it began to get play on radio stations on the east coast of the U.S. The producer remixed the track and released it in 1965.

The duo reunited and released the song on their second album with the same name. It was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress in 2013 as a historically and culturally important song.

If I Had a Hammer by Pete Seeger

The song was written by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. It was first recorded by The Weavers, but the version that most people know is the one sung by Peter, Paul and Mary nearly 12 years after it was first released.

It was chosen as a song to inspire during the Civil Rights Movement.

This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie

This is one of the most popular folk songs in the United States. It might even be called the national anthem. He wrote the lyrics in answer to a song that was driving him crazy on the radio, which was Kate Smith’s song “God Blessed America for Me.”

This sarcastic version of the song was soon forgotten and didn’t resurface for almost 5 years. It was revived in the 60s as part of the struggle for social justice in the U.S. The Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2002.

Thanks for reading!  If you think we missed anything, leave us a comment so we can check it out.

Bonus Track

Philip-John K Mauro‘s folk song Heart Box was intentionally written with minimalism in mind. The song reflects many folk song formats by finger picking a delicate guitar, while singing a dynamic melody. This version has some acoustic percussion added for a well rounded live take. If you have time for new material please follow the link to his channel and enjoy.

What Are The Characteristics Of A Folk Song?

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


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 proportions, kind of like the musical equivalent 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 aforementioned 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) are immediately disqualified from being “folk” due to having record deals and songs that appear on TV and in movies.  

Of course, its next to impossible to question a group or artist’s motivations for getting into music, but certainly there has been many a group that you might call “sell outs” or “posers” because they literally just wanted to adopt the visual or sonic aesthetics of a genre without also adopting the moral ideologies that initially defined that genre. 

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!