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Basic definitions

According to Forcucci (1984), "folk music has been with us since the dawn of history" (p. 16). However, it was not until the early 1900s that scholars began to consider folk music as a legitimate facet to be studied as a part of a culture. The definition of folk music has undergone debate for many years.

A broad general definition of "folk" music is that it is music of the "folk" or of the people.

(Nettl & Myers, 1976; Forcucci, 1984)

These folk are sometimes identified as the rural or peasant people of a country (Nettl & Myers, 1976), although Rhodes (1966) believed that folk music exists in all classes of society. Sometimes the folk are considered a particular ethnic group or nationality (Nettl & Myers, 1976).

To Park (1967), folk music is part of a folk culture. And the culture's lore, including its ballads and stories, is passed down by word-of-mouth from generation to generation. Different folk cultures, sometimes referred to as folk communities (literally geographic communities) developed in isolated areas where there was limited outside contact (Malone, 1968). The people within these communities worked to preserve their traditional cultural values. Some other definitions and descriptions of folk music are:

Forcucci's eight generalizations

To Forcucci (1984), the folk singer's art is storytelling, and the responsibility lies in telling the story rather than entertaining the audience. Because the oral transmission definition of folk music is obsolete and much of the music is transmitted by the mass media today, Forcucci put folk music into two basic categories: traditional folk songs and modern urban folk songs. He gave eight generalizations by which one may define folk music:

1. Folk songs represent the musical expressions of the common people.

2. These songs are not composed in that they are not the works of skilled, tutored musicians. It is more accurate to say that they have been created rather than composed.

3. These songs are ordinarily the product of an unknown person or group of persons. The credits often read: Anonymous; American Folk Song; Traditional; or Southern Mountain Song. [But Forcucci notes that there are folklike songs where the author is known, but that these songs are "patterned to fit the mold of what typical American folk songs should sound like," p. 18.]

4. The words or lyrics of folk songs are usually colloquial in nature to reflect the speech patterns and expressions of a particular people or region.

5. These songs are highly singable, primarily because they were first presented with the singing voice rather than have been written down in musical notation beforehand.

6. Folk songs are simply structured, both musically and verbally. It is their naivete that gives them their charm.

7. These songs can be effectively performed without instrumental accompaniment. When they are accompanied, a less formal instrument (such as a guitar, banjo, accordion, dulcimer, or Autoharp) is considered appropriate.

8. Folk songs are indigenous to a particular region or people because they reflect the musical/verbal preferences of that people or region in their materials. (Forcucci, 1984, pp. 18-19)

What is folk music today?

The definition of folk music today varies depending on who is talking and in what context. In an editorial for Sing Out! magazine, editor Mark D. Moss noted that the folk magazine had wrestled with a definition of folk music for years. He said that "our community vehemently refuses to take responsibility for defining folk music" (Moss, 1995, p. 2). Moss prefers to think of folk music as an umbrella which covers blues, Cajun music, ballads, and "rooted" music from around the world, along with the music of the contemporary singer-songwriters (Moss, 1995).

Some artists in this genre such as Dar Williams specifically consider themselves to be "folk" artists (Price, 1995). But other artists do not like to be labeled. They feel they should not have to fit into any one musical style because that would be too confining for the expression of their art. Artist Patty Larkin and many others see themselves as acoustic singer-songwriters with rock, jazz, or other influences, and "folk" is the community to which they belong (Larkin, 1995). Some musicians do not want to be associated with the word "folk," just as some managers and labels do not want their artists to be associated with it. They feel that others do not understand what folk music is all about, and to have that label is a negative thing (Deitz, 1989).

The definition of "folk" is an ongoing debate, and it can get ugly. One example is when a reader wrote to Sing Out! and other folk publications urging people to blacklist Larkin because she declined to define herself as a folk artist in a television interview on NBC's "Today Show" even though she plays in the "folk circuit." In reality, when the interviewer commented that Larkin did not consider herself a folk artist, Larkin said that she preferred to think of herself as an acoustic-based singer-songwriter (Larkin, 1995).

The most prestigious booking agency for folk artists, Fleming, Tamulevich & Associates, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, helped to create the folk music market (Alarik, 1995). During an interview with Jim Fleming and Dave Tamulevich, each had slightly differing views of the definition of folk music, and they work together daily.

Agency founder Jim Fleming said, "I think it's the community and not the music. . . I don't think it's defined unless you want to get into what's traditional versus contemporary. I think 'folk' as a term defines the community." And Dave Tamulevich, agent and folk artist, said this: "To me, what distinguishes folk are the words. In all the genres, there's not any better writing, communicating thoughts and feeling, than in folk music. . . There are probably more people out there who are folk artists than people realize" (J. Fleming & D. Tamulevich, personal communication, July 1995).

When Bob Blackman, folk music radio disc jockey for WKAR in Lansing, Michigan, was asked to define folk music, he said, "I try to avoid that." He talked about his familiarity with the academic definitions of folk music, but he thinks most people now look at folk in a broader way. He said that in record stores, albums placed under the folk label are usually acoustic singer-songwriters with a few bluegrass and blues artists. He said that the music is accessible to people and that if they want to sing or play it themselves, they usually can. With pop music, it isn't always so easy. He said that folk music is music of the people (B. Blackman, personal communication, July 1995).

At 62, Rosalie Sorrels has been on the folk circuit since the early 1960s and released her twentieth recording in 1995. She is considered a role model for female singer-songwriters. In an interview with Billboard magazine, Sorrels cited the group Los Lobos when discussing "real" American folk music. She said, "They take their music from where they came, and they take it back to the people that they extracted it from. They sing their roots, sing their current situation, and they sing it to their people and to everybody" (Deitz, 1995b, p. 99).

Another artist who has been on the North American folk music scene since the early 1970s is Canadian Garnet Rogers. He played in the Stan Rogers Band with his brother Stan and a bassist until Stan's death in 1983, then he set out on a successful solo career. Garnet said that "folk music is journalism. It has to say something about the human condition and people's lives and how they relate to one another, to themselves or to their jobs" (Murri & Murri, 1990, pp. 13-14).

The study of modern folk music

In the 1960s, when folk music was experiencing one of its twentieth century revivals, some folklorists and musicologists would not accept the worthiness of studying the modern folk music as true "folk," because their definitions were strict and inflexible, such as the requirements that the music be old and passed on through the oral tradition. But Rhodes (1966) pointed out that the meanings of words change over time and so do definitions. He argued that the definition should not become "so narrow that it excludes a vast repertory of songs in which the people express themselves" (p. 14), and that the definition should change to fit the current social environment.

Stekert (1966) believed that it is important to study folk music of the current day and not to wait until it is dead. Rhodes agreed:

Folk music is a vital, living art, not an archeological antiquity. It continues to be a medium through which the people express their thoughts, feelings and interests even as the folk did in the past. The subject matter and the musical style have changed with the changing times, but the fundamental principle of folk song and its relation to the people have remained the same. (Rhodes, 1966, p. 15)

Many different kinds of music have folk music roots or are related to folk music, such as indigenous American country music - hillbilly, rockabilly, country and western, Negro spirituals and bluegrass - and the blues (Rhodes, 1966). Alan Dundes (in Bohlman, 1988) believed that it was reasonable to define the different folk groups to include ethnic, religious, familial, national, and tribal, among others. And Bohlman (1988) pointed out that it is important to recognize that the music is created by individuals. Folk music, then, in all of its abundance, is as diverse as its many creators.

As has been demonstrated in the lengthy discussion of the definition of folk music, for many people the definition has evolved to fit the setting of the day. For others, the definition will always be that music which is passed on strictly in the oral tradition. Bohlman (1988) advocates the study of modern folk music to "avoid demoting it to the status of an archaic genre" (p. xvi), and he believes that folk music is thriving in these modern times, even though it bears "only occasional resemblance to the pristine models advocated by conservative scholarship" (p. xvi). After going through many of the definitions of folk music, perhaps it is easiest to get a feel for the form and function of twentieth century American folk music by briefly tracing part of its history from the early 1900s to the present day. More definitions will emerge through the description of the functions of the particular eras.

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