What is a Folksong?

Photo © J. J. Littlebird

“Slowly our folk songs grew, part dream and part reality, part past and part present. Each phrase rose from the depths of the heart or was carved out of the rock of experience. Each line was sung smooth by many singers, who tested it against the American reality, until the language became apt and truthful and tough as cured hickory. Here lies the secret to their beauty. They evoke the feeling of a place and of belonging to a particular branch of the human family. They honestly describe or protest against the deepest ills that afflict us – the color bar, our repressed sexuality, our love of violence and our loneliness. Finally, they have been cared for and shaped by so many hands that they have acquired a patina of art, and reflect the tenderest and most creative impulses of the human heart, casting upon our often harsh and melancholy tradition a luster of true beauty.”

~ Alan Lomax

Once upon a time only kings and queens were rich enough to have other people play music for them and regular folks (like you and me) had to make our own music. That’s why it’s called “folk music.”

Before television, people read books. And before books, in a world lit only by fire, stories and songs were the only forms of entertainment. In that not-so-distant time, singing was a part of everyday life, as much as talking, working, eating, and sleeping. Our ancestors sang songs while pounding grain, paddling canoes, or walking long journeys. Group singing coordinated the rhythms and tempo of the work, and made the task-at-hand pass more enjoyably. Folksongs were (and still are) songs we sing together.

A song becomes a folksong when it has passed from one person’s mouth to another person’s ear, from one generation to the next, without a pencil or paper, as when parents sing to their children at bedtime. This verbal cross-generational communication is called the “Oral Tradition.” It means history by word-of-mouth and memories of other people’s memories. Once a song has become firmly entrenched in several generations of Oral Tradition, the song is said to be a “traditional folksong.”

A folksong has a life of its own – independent of any commercial medium – even if the song isn’t recorded or broadcast. Many folksongs were created by applying new lyrics to older, recycled melodies. The original composition may have been in the mind of a single person, but once it has become a folksong, anyone can freely change it, consciously or unconsciously, becoming a co-author of the song. Eventually the folksong becomes the creation of many different people from many different generations (and centuries). And this often results in the simultaneous existence of many different melodies and lyrics for the same old folksong.

Folksongs are history as seen through the eyes of ordinary people – regular folks, just like you and me. They can capture an event in time or space while providing an invitation to explore whatever else is going on at that same time in history. They often tell us what happened and when it happened, but more importantly, they tell us how people felt about those happenings.

Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents don’t bother passing on songs and stories they don’t enjoy. That’s why so many of the old songs and stories are good songs and stories. Every country on earth has its own special folksongs. Every ethnic culture in the United States has its own special folksongs and they an important part of our heritage and tradition. Many American folksongs were old songs in other countries before they came to North America.

Folksongs Bridge the Centuries

By Sam Hinton, Folksinger

“An explorer, lost and wandering in the Kalahari Desert, escaped from a threatening sandstorm one evening, by going into a small cave.  As darkness fell, the explorer settled himself for the night, but found that the knife on his belt made it hard to find a comfortable position. He removed the knife, and, not wanting to lose it in the dust of the cave floor, felt along the rock wall until he found a crevice that would serve as a shelf. Placing his knife there, he went to sleep.

“In the morning, he retrieved the knife, and found another one beside it – an ancient stone one. It had probably been left there, under similar circumstances, by a wandering hunter thousands of years before.

“The explorer experienced a sudden bond with this other human being who had responded in a manner so similar to his own, and a warm feeling of kinship bridged the centuries between that moment and the Stone Age.

“Folksongs can do this for us, too.  They can speak across time and space, of men and women whose feelings have not been very different from our own.”

The Butcher’s Boy