Throughout most of human prehistory and history, listening to recorded music was not possible, and the work of economic production was often manual and communal. Music was made by common people during both their work and leisure. Manual labour often included singing by the workers, which served several practical purposes. It reduced the boredom of repetitive tasks, it kept the rhythm during synchronized pushes and pulls, and it set the pace of many activities such as planting, weeding, reaping, threshing, weaving, and milling. In leisure time, singing and playing musical instruments were common forms of entertainment and history-telling—even more common than today, when electrically enabled technologies and widespread literacy make other forms of entertainment and information-sharing competitive.
The terms folk music, folk song, and folk dance are comparatively recent expressions. They are extensions of the term folk lore, which was coined in 1846 by the English antiquarianWilliam Thoms to describe "the traditions, customs, and superstitions of the uncultured classes." The term is further derived from the German expression Volk, in the sense of "the people as a whole" as applied to popular and national music by Johann Gottfried Herder and the German Romantics over half a century earlier.
Indians always distinguished between classical and folk music, although in the past even classical Indian music used to rely on the unwritten transmission of repertoire.
A literary interest in the popular ballad was not new: it dates back to Thomas Percy and William Wordsworth. English Elizabethan and Stuart composers had often evolved their music from folk themes, the classical suite was based upon stylised folk-dances and Joseph Haydn's use of folk melodies is noted. But the emergence of the term "folk" coincided with an "outburst of national feeling all over Europe" that was particularly strong at the edges of Europe, where national identity was most asserted. Nationalist composers emerged in Eastern Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain and Britain: the music of Dvorak, Smetana, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakov, Brahms, Liszt, de Falla, Wagner, Sibelius,Vaughan Williams, Bartók and many others drew upon folk melodies. The English term "folklore", to describe traditional music and dance, entered the vocabulary of many continental European nations, each of which had its folk-song collectors and revivalists.
However, despite the assembly of an enormous body of work over some two centuries, there is still no certain definition of what folk music (or folklore, or the folk) is. Folk music may tend to have certain characteristics but it cannot clearly be differentiated in purely musical terms. One meaning often given is that of "old songs, with no known composers", another is that of music that has been submitted to an evolutionary "process of oral transmission.... the fashioning and re-fashioning of the music by the community that give it its folk character."Such definitions depend upon "(cultural) processes rather than abstract musical types...", upon "continuity and oral transmission...seen as characterizing one side of a cultural dichotomy, the other side of which is found not only in the lower layers of feudal, capitalist and some oriental societies but also in 'primitive' societies and in parts of 'popular cultures'."
Locations in Southern and Central Appalachia visited by the British folklorist Cecil Sharp in 1916 (blue), 1917 (green), and 1918 (red). Sharp sought "old world" English and Scottish ballads passed down to the region's inhabitants from their British ancestors. He collected hundreds of such ballads, the most productive areas being the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Cumberland Mountains of Kentucky.
For Scholes, as for Cecil Sharp and Béla Bartók, there was a sense of the music of the country as distinct from that of the town. Folk music was already "seen as the authentic expression of a way of life now past or about to disappear (or in some cases, to be preserved or somehow revived)," particularly in "a community uninfluenced by art music" and by commercial and printed song. Lloyd rejected this in favour of a simple distinction of economic class yet for him too folk music was, in Charles Seeger's words, "associated with a lower class in societies which are culturally and socially stratified, that is, which have developed an elite, and possibly also a popular, musical culture." In these terms folk music may be seen as part of a "schema comprising four musical types: 'primitive' or 'tribal'; 'elite' or 'art'; 'folk'; and 'popular'."
Revivalists' opinions differed over the origins of folk music: it was said by some to be art music changed and probably debased by oral transmission, by others to reflect the character of the race that produced it. Traditionally, the cultural transmission of folk music is through playing by ear, although notation may also be used. The competition of individual and collective theories of composition set different demarcations and relations of folk music with the music of tribal societies on the one hand and of "art" and "court" music on the other. The traditional cultures that did not rely upon written music or had less social stratification could not be readily categorised. In the proliferation of popular music genres, some music became categorised as "World music" and "Roots music".
The post-World War II folk revival in America and in Britain brought a new meaning to the word. Folk was seen as a musical style, the ethical antithesis of commercial "popular" or "pop" music, while the Victorian appeal of the "Volk" was often regarded with suspicion. The popularity of "contemporary folk" recordings caused the appearance of the category "Folk" in the Grammy Awards of 1959: in 1970 the term was dropped in favour of "Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording (including Traditional Blues)", while 1987 brought a distinction between "Best Traditional Folk Recording" and "Best Contemporary Folk Recording". The term "folk", by the start of the 21st century, could cover "singer song-writers, such as Donovan and Bob Dylan, who emerged in the 1960s and much more" or perhaps even "a rejection of rigid boundaries, preferring a conception, simply of varying practice within one field, that of 'music'."
Many Asian civilisations distinguish between art/court/classical styles and "folk" music, though cultures that do not depend greatly upon notation and have much anonymous art music must distinguish the two in different ways from those suggested by western scholars. For example the lateAlam Lohar is a good example of a classical South Asian folk singer of great repute.
The Hungarian group Muzsikás played numerous American tours and participated in the Hollywood movie The English Patient while the singer Márta Sebestyén worked with the bandDeep Forest. The Hungarian táncház movement, started in the 1970s, involves strong cooperation between musicology experts and enthusiastic amateurs. However, the traditional Hungarian folk music and folk culture barely survived in some rural areas, and it has also begun to disappear in Romania.
The movement revived broader folk traditions of music, dance, and costume together and created a new kind of music club. The movement spread to ethnic Hungarian communities around the world. Today, almost every major city in the U.S. and Australia has its own Hungarian folk music and folk dance group; there are also groups in Japan, Hong Kong, Argentina and Western Europe.
It is sometimes claimed that the earliest folk festival was the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, 1928, in Asheville, North Carolina, founded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Sidmouth Festival began in 1954, and Cambridge Folk Festival began in 1965. The Cambridge Folk Festival in Cambridge, England is noted for having a very wide definition of who can be invited as folk musicians. The "club tents" allow attendees to discover large numbers of unknown artists, who, for ten or 15 minutes each, present their work to the festival audience.
In Spain Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909) produced piano works reflect his Spanish heritage, including the Suite Iberia (1906–1909). Enrique Granados (1867–1918) composed zarzuela, Spanish light opera, and Danzas Españolas - Spanish Dances. Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) became interested in the cante jondo of Andalusian flamenco, the influence of which can be strongly felt in many of his works, which include Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Siete canciones populares españolas ("Seven Spanish Folksongs", for voice and piano). Composers such as Fernando Sor and Francisco Tarrega established the guitar as Spain's national instrument. Modern Spanish Folk artists abound (Mil i Maria, Russian Red et al.) modernizing whilst respecting the traditions of their forebears.
Flamenco grew in popularity through the 20th century, as did northern styles such as the Celtic music of Galicia. French classical composers, from Bizet to Ravel, also drew upon Spanish themes, and distinctive Spanish genres became universally recognised.
Folk revival of the 1950s in Britain and America
In 1950 Alan Lomax came to Britain and met A.L.'Bert' Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, a meeting credited as inaugurating the second British folk revival. In London the colleagues opened The Ballads and Blues Club, eventually renamed the Singers' Club, possibly the first folk club: it closed in 1991. As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the folk revival movement built up in both Britain and America.
Filk music can be considered folk music stylistically and culturally (though the 'community' it arose from, science fiction fandom, is an unusual and thoroughly modern one).Neofolkbegan in the 1980s, fusing traditional European folk music with post-industrial music, historical topics, philosophical commentary, traditional songs and paganism. The genre is largely European.
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