Folk music is a broad term used to describe a wide variety of musical forms that developed within different cultures, often for different reasons. American folk music varies widely depending on the region, but most American folk music was influenced by the European and African cultures from which many Americans descended. We will explore some of the more popular forms of folk music and folk-inspired music. Folk music in America largely developed from a combination of music from the British Isles and other European regions and music brought here by African slaves. Folk music often uses the form known as the ballad. Ballads most often tell a story that usually contains a moral or lesson.
Listen to this recording of the Scottish/English ballad “Barbara Allen.”
Joan Baez performing “Barbara Allen”
Work songs often helped groups of people (including slaves) perform physical work. The music usually uses the tempo of the work itself and was sung by lumberjacks, railroad workers, and prison chain gangs, among others.
Listen to this recording of a Texas prison chain gang singing “Let the Hammer Reign” as they chop down trees. This piece is very similar to how slaves would sing while working on Southern plantations. Its compositional and style traits include the following: it uses a “Call and Response” technique, where a lead singer sings a line and then the group follows him with their response; it uses a simple melody; its instrumentation is only vocal; it possesses thicker texture (several singers); its tempo is constant and matched to the speed of the axes; and its dynamics are fairly constant.
Prison chain ang – “Let the Hammer Reign”
Children’s songs also have a purpose, usually to teach a simple lesson. They are, therefore, simple to sing and easy to remember. In the case of “ABC Song,” its lesson helped children remember the twenty-six letters of the alphabet.
The “ABC Song”
Protest songs are written to directly, or by suggestion, voice complaints about some injustice. Listen to Bob Dylan perform his composition “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a protest song written in the 1970s to indirectly protest social injustice and the Vietnam War. Its compositional and stylistic elements include the following: it uses the same music for each verse, its melody is simple, its instrumentation is voice and guitar, its texture is thin, and its tempo and dynamics are constant.
Bob Dylan – “Blowin’ in the Wind”
Dance music is folk music written for dancing. It’s that simple! The instrumentation of various types of folk dance music varies with the style. Acoustic instruments were used before the 1950s simply because electric and electronic instruments didn’t yet exist. Its compositional and stylistic components include the following: the form is almost always a repeating form; sometimes dance music comprises song with words while at other times, it is just instrumental; its form is almost always a repeating form; the dynamics are usually loud in order to be heard in a dance hall or other large space.
Below are links to three examples of different dance forms: a two-step, a waltz, and a square dance.
Gil Tanner & the skillet lickers, “soldiers joy”
Ernest Tubb, “Waltz Across Texas”
The Chuckwagen Team, “Golden Reel”