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The Roots of American Folk Music

At the beginning of the 20th Century, scholars used the term “folk music” to describe music made by whites of European ancestry, mostly in the relatively isolated rural South. As the century progressed, the definition of “folk music” expanded to include the song styles – of Southern blacks as well, often labeled as “the blues”.

“Folk music” was seen as s a window into the cultural life of these groups, a way of communicating and expressing the hopes, sorrows and convictions of ordinary people, separated from the ‘highbrow”  music performed the concert halls.

Folk music is music made by the other groups of Americans: incorporating Native American, Mexican-American, “hillbilly” and Cajuns themes and styles.  They were sung in churches and front porches, in the fields and in the workplace, while rocking children to sleep, and at social gatherings and parties, not for the concert halls. There were no written lyrics, they were passed down from parent to child, from generation to generation; and often changed to reflect the emotions of the singer and the time.

In the 1960s, Folk music became “popular”, meaning urban whites were introduced to it by such singer/songwriters as Bob Dylan, and became a distinct style of “popular” music that echoed those unknown rural folk musicians.  Spirituals sung by African-American slaves became the “protest songs” of 1960s youth and civil rights organizers.

It can be said that true “American music” is not music created for orchestras and concert halls, but for the front porches and back yards of rural American.  Contemporary singer-songwriters of different ethnic backgrounds continue to use music as a way l not just to entertain, but to call attention to social issues while also preforming.

“Entertainment with a message” could be the real definition of American Music.