What is Folk Music?

By Jan Kuhr


Folklore is described as “the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes,” which was coined in 1846 by the English antiquarian William Thoms. The term Folk music came from England, where they took the German word “volk”, meaning people, and applied it to mean the common people of England, the illiterate peasants who passed on stories and legends through song as they were unable to publish books. It is generally considered to be an expression of life in the communities in which the music was developed and is a great help to historians in discovering the way of life of a people. The term has been used since the 19th century, but Folk music has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

Where a folk song originated is rarely known to its community, and thus the anonymity of the creative process was once considered a major criteria of folk music identification. It has become clear, however, that folk songs and other pieces are the result of individual creation, either by villagers or by professional or church musicians whose work is somehow taken up in the folk culture. The repertoire of a folk community probably always included songs of very diverse origins. The form of a folk song as heard at any one time, however, is likely to have been very much affected by the entire community because of its life in oral tradition. Once introduced, a song likely, as it was passed from parents to children and to friends and associates and coworkers, it would be changed.

Traditional village society had a vigorous musical life, in which many songs in most genres were known to, and often sung by, a large proportion of the population. Nevertheless, a degree of musical professionalism must have been obtained; instrumentalists, though not formally educated, were specialists, as were singers of epic narratives and singers of occupational songs such as sea shanties. Western cultures generally share the same genres of folk music.

Since biblical times, music and dance have played a large role in Jewish culture. Jewish Folk music is very diverse, and dates back thousands of years, just like the religion. It varies greatly mainly in part because the Jews are a religion and a national people, the people of Israel. Thus, as there have been Jewish people around the globe for thousands of years, Jewish Folk music takes many forms.

Jewish folk songs are termed in Hebrew “songs of the land of Israel” and are meant to be sung in public by the audience or during social events. There are many different types of Jewish Folk songs. Some are meant to be children’s songs, others take European styles and traditions in European Folk music and combine it with the Jewish religion, while others have a military style to them. Jewish Folk songs especially are based on the hopes and the dreams of Zionist youth who wish to travel to modern Israel in order to defend their homeland. Jerusalem is a common theme as well as other parts of Israel. These songs vary widely. The tempo is often very different, and politically, some songs are left-leaning while others are more right wing. Some are even love songs, lullabies and other formats. Some are socialist in style, thanks to the influence of socialism on Jews in parts of the Diaspora. The variety and differences in Jewish Folk music is tremendous.

Russian Folk music dates back as far as the middle of the first millennium. Slavic tribes, known for their love of music, settled in what is now European Russia. Kievan Rus, the first state of what is now modern Russia, in the 10th century, had Folk music in many languages, including Slavic, but also Turkish. Many Russian Folk songs even today have very distinct styles, depending on the region. One aspect they all had in common was that they mainly had pagan ties rather than Christian references.

There are two rituals by which Russian Folk songs and dances are created: the first is by the calendar, songs associated with sowing, harvesting and other farming rituals, and the other family life such as birth, death and marriage. Individual songs are also made, mainly ballads about heroic characters in life. The calendar-based songs are very short, narrow and face very strict regulation. The calendar song cycle features smaller cycles timed to the seasons and to pagan festivals. The epic genre of music, such as spiritual verses, has remained steadily popular from the beginning of Russian Folk music to the present.

During the late 15th and 16th centuries, the literate urban classes responded more favourably to folk music than their predecessors had in the medieval period. The humanistic attitudes of the Renaissance, which brought about the elevation of nature and of antiquity, encouraged the acceptance of folk music as a genre of rustic antique song. Some music in Renaissance manuscripts is presumed to be folk song by virtue of its musical simplicity and the rural and archaic evocations of its texts. Renaissance composers made extensive use of folk and popular music. Typical genres include polyphonic folk song settings and combinations of familiar songs. Folk tunes were often used as structural and motivic raw material for motets and masses; likewise, the music of the Protestant Reformation borrowed from folk music.

Church music and folk music have been related at various times. Some church music derives from the application of religious texts to secular folk tunes. This practice may be seen, for example, in the hymns of the Protestant Reformation and in the revival hymns of 19th-century American camp meetings, which were called folk hymns because of their origins and associations with folklike groups.

The use of folk music receded in the Baroque period (about 1600–1750), but the relationship of folk music to art music became a topic of interest in the late 18th century, when Western intellectuals began to glorify folk and peasant life. Folk music came to be venerated as a spontaneous creation of peoples unencumbered by artistic self-consciousness and aesthetic theories; it was considered to embody the common experience of local inhabitants . These traits make folk music a fructifying source for art music, particularly when it is intended to evoke a particular nation or ethnic group. The nationalist movements of 19th- and early 20th-century art music drew on folk tunes and their styles, as well as folk dances and themes from folklore and village life, to develop distinctive repertoires. Leaders in these movements included Bedrich Smetana and Dvořák for Czech music, Edvard Grieg for Norwegian, Mikhail Glinka and Modest Mussorgsky for Russian, Bartók for Hungarian, Georges Enesco for Romanian, and Aaron Copland and Roy Harris for American cultures.

Today, Folk music is still heavily considered a resource for composers. Further researched areas such as, the Balkans, China, Africa and South America, are being translated, transcribed and manipulated into Western Contemporary composition. Folk music is something that is alway going to be a source for the ‚Classical’ genre due to the closeness to everyday life.