In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Folk Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Data Resources
  • Collections from Continental Europe
  • General Studies from Great Britain and North America
  • Collections from Great Britain and North America
  • Origins
  • Authenticity
  • Classification Systems
  • Oral Tradition
  • Analysis
  • Social Bases
  • Twentieth-Century Folk Revivals in Europe
  • Twentieth-Century Folk Revivals in the United States and Canada
  • Specific Individuals, Places, and Events
  • Traditional Singers
  • Traditional Fiddlers
  • Outside of Europe and North America

Music Folk Music
Chris Goertzen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0114


Folk music, a widely used but controversial term, means oral-tradition music by and for peasants/the working class in regional cultures where there is also a sophisticated art music that is cultivated by professionals and supported by a socioeconomic upper crust. In recent centuries, these same environments have come to nurture a third broad category of music, popular music, that is made by professionals for the masses and sold as sheet music and, more recently, audiograms of various kinds. The three categories overlap significantly. When members of an upper class discuss folk music, the conversation tends to take place in the shadow of ideology, that is, a presumption or explicit assertion of associated virtues: group identity, nationalism, nostalgia, and working-class or peasant sturdiness, rectitude, and creativity. Indeed, folk music has often been an important ingredient in asserting that a geographical area occupied by the people cultivating that music ought to become a country in the political sense, or that a country home to a given music is especially virtuous, or that people of a given nationality or ethnicity are somehow better than those of other nationalities or ethnicities. Thus, folk music may support healthy pride in group identity, but such opinions may tilt in the direction of decidedly unhealthy assertions of superiority. Insalubrious political uses of repertoires of folk music in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union soiled the term folk music in academic circles, and, by the 1960s, folk music was renamed “traditional music” in some settings. Another key ingredient leading academics to shy away from the term was that intensive study of bodies of what had long been called folk music revealed considerable differentiation among repertoires, so that it became common to refer by name to specific genres of music in oral tradition rather than to simply classify them as folk music. However, at about this same time, the term folk music reached broader use among the general public in the West, referring not only to venerable repertoires in oral tradition, but also to new personal, confessional, and political songs performed in coffee houses and having some commercial success. Today, academics remain more comfortable employing the umbrella rubrics “popular music” and “art music” than “folk music” in publications and in professional environments. Nevertheless, the term has demonstrated considerable staying power even among those same academics when teaching nonspecialized or introductory classes and when talking with colleagues not conversant with the academic field of folklore as well as in general conversation. In short, however controversial folk music has become, it remains useful as a concept.

General Overviews

Many general treatments of folk music are primarily of folk songs, and they have been delimited by the language of one culture’s or of linked cultures’ folk song texts. High-quality modern studies spanning multiple cultures, such as Nettl 1990 and Danckert 1966 (both very broad surveys), Bohlman 1988 (proposes ways of thinking about folk music), Ling 1997 (about European folk music), Porter 1978 (about the music of European immigrants to North America), and Ferris and Hart 1982 (concerning folk music today), are exceptions to that rule. Slobin 2011 offers a very brief but stimulating introduction to the field.

  • Bohlman, Philip V. The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

    A thorough, indeed intricate, exploration of basic concepts, with chapters on origins, oral tradition, classification, social bases of folk repertories, the individual folk musician, the concept of folk music in non-Western cultures, canon formation, and contemporary issues.

  • Danckert, Werner. Das Volkslied im Abendland. Bern, Switzerland: Franke, 1966.

    A broad philosophical treatment, with essays on the term Volkslied, on origins (postulated: part of the original, harmonious layer of human culture), oral tradition, early history of folk songs, and a variety of specific topics as diverse as calendric songs and Latvian folk song.

  • Ferris, William, and Mary L. Hart, eds. Folk Music and Modern Sound. Lectures presented at a conference at the University of Mississippi, 17–19 April 1980. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982.

    Conference essays grouped under the topics “The Anglo Connection” (e.g., Kenneth S. Goldstein’s “The Impact of Recording Technology on the British Folksong Revival”), “Ethnic Voices” (e.g., Mark Slobin on “How the Fiddler Got on the Roof”), “The Religious Sound” (e.g., Charles K. Wolfe’s “Gospel Goes Uptown: White Gospel Music, 1945–1955”), etc.; this writer’s favorite being Dena J. Epstein’s “Myths about Black Folk Music.”

  • Ling, Jan. A History of European Folk Music. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 1997.

    Intended as a textbook. A nice introduction to folk music in general, followed by an eclectic survey of folk music genres defined by function (not by geography).

  • Nettl, Bruno. Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents. 3d ed. Revised by Valerie Goertzen. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

    First published in 1965. Intended as an accessible survey, organized geographically. However, the introductory matter is an extraordinarily clear and careful discussion of basic aspects of folk music. Also, this third edition contains bibliographies for many corners of the topic that, while now dated, remain very handy.

  • Porter, James. “Introduction: The Traditional Music of Europeans in America.” Selected Reports in Ethnomusicology 3.1 (1978): 7–26.

    A general introduction to the musical repertoires of immigrants, with penetrating analysis of types of musical repertoires and, especially, processes of change that imported repertoires have experienced.

  • Slobin, Mark. Folk Music: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780195395020.001.0001

    A brief, elegant, very personal précis of the field of folk music; exemplifies a modern approach in which researchers explicitly eschew defining “folk music,” but still find a way to talk about it.

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