The inspiration for this playlist was my neighbor, who casually commented on one of my blog posts that she only knew folk music. As my “about me” blog entry states “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” (Albert Einstein), I of course thought what a great idea for a new playlist!
American folk music encompasses several musical genres. Songs tend to be traditional, often sung for generations, many tracing root back to Great Britain, mainland Europe, or Africa. Non-electrified instruments are the norm in folk music, including acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, harmonica, and hand percussion. Mike Seeger, folk musician and half-brother to perhaps the most famous folk musician Pete Seeger, offered that American folk music is “all the music that fits between the cracks.”
In Folk Music, the earth sings, the mountains sing, the rivers flow, the crops sing.Gandhi
I think American folk music can be described by paraphrasing US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 quote to describe his threshold test for obscenity “I know it when I see it.” I can’t fully define the parameters that define folk music, but “I know it when I hear it.”
American folk music is a broad musical genre drawn from a wide array of musical traditions from populations and ethnic groups. It includes several genres and themes, such as Appalachian music, bluegrass, railroad songs, protest songs, cowboy songs, and sea shanties.
Rising to popularity first in the 1930s thanks to the Carter Family, with songs such as “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” In the 1960s, folk music became a part of pop culture, with themes including the Civil Rights Movement as well as countercultural influences. Popular folk singers included Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Denver, Arlo Guthrie. Also popular were The Kingston Trio, The Serendipity Singers, The Journeyman, The New Christy Minstrel, The Seekers, The Brothers Four, The Limelighters, and The Rooftop Singers. Some folk blues and folk country artists appear, including Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson, and Roy Acuff. And even more mainstream folk and pop artists included Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds, The Youngbloods, Crosby Stills & Nash, The Mamas & The Papas. The Singer-Songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s, think Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Carole King, Jim Croce, Gordon Lightfoot, Harry Chapin, Don McLean, Dan Fogelberg, Tracy Chapman, often had folk offerings, though with a bit more of a pop sound, as part of their repertoire. The folk tradition is being carried on by some current artists, including the likes of Bruce Springsteen, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Nickel Creek, Dave Rawlings, Sean Rowe, and Gillian Welch.
Music Themes include:
Spirituals, originating with white ministers setting European folk melodies to religious lyrics, as well as African American adaptations with themes including slavery and emancipation, such as “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” and “We Shall Overcome,”
Work Songs, including Cowboy Songs and Sea Shanties which functioned to lighten the burden of work and keep rhythm as a team, such as “Blow The Man Down” and “Shenandoah,” as well as Railroad Songs, such as “The Ballad of John Henry” and “Frieght Train.”
Protest songs were prominent in the 60s, with the very popular songs “If I Had A Hammer,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” “The Times They Are A Changin,” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.”
Appalachian Music, such as “Wabash Cannonball” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, with popular artists including the Carter Family and Doc Watson, influencing country artists such as Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, as well as Folk and Rock artists Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, all included in this playlist.
My Spotify folk playlist “This Land Is Your Land” is organized (if you have the premium version of Spotify) as follows:
Standout folk songs: a collection of my favorites, by great folk artists
Female folk songs: a very “easy listening” style of folk
Wow, Mama Cass, Joni Mitchell – singing “Both Sides Now” and Mary Travers all in one room together:
And the same song from the Apple TV Academy Award winning movie CODA:
Pop/mainstream folk song: very pop styling, by the likes of The Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, and CSN (though a very limited selection of CSN songs on Spotify since Neil Young withdrew most of his music in protest of Spotify COVID misinformation podcasts)
Holy 60’s, Batman, check out The Byrds version of “The Times They Are A Changin’”
Guys & Gals folk songs: often lamenting lost love, unrequited love, bad blokes, or just songs in celebration of men and women. Some of these are lots of fun, such as “Old Dan Tucker,” “Buffalo Gals,” “Cotton Eyed Joe,” “Clementine,” “Oh, Suzannah,” “Tom Dooley,” and “Mr. Bojangles.”
What a cool duet by James Taylor and Johnny Cash of “Oh, Susannah”:
Location folk songs: often invoking the countryside or wilderness, though sometimes cities, including “Angel From Montgomery,” “Coming Into Los Angeles,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Yellow Rose of Texas.”
And who can forget Bonnie Raitt’s version of “Angel From Montgomery” from the No Nukes concert:
Railroad folk songs: with images of the railway or travel, such as “500 Miles,” “Freight Train,” and “Hobo’s Lullaby.”
And this version of “500 Miles” shocked me, performed by Justin Timberlake (really!):
Water and Sea folk songs: with images of sailing, the ocean or rivers, with “Calypso,” “Blow The Man Down,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
I haven’t seen this Netflix series yet, but the cast sure does a great job singing “Blow The Man Down.” You can see how these functioned as work songs:
Spiritual folk songs: including “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “I Saw The Light,” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Yet another movie I need to see, about Hank Williams, “I Saw The Light” (song clip at the end):
Assorted folk songs: more great folk songs by a variety of artists
“It Ain’t Me Babe” – Johnny Cash (covered by Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line)
Singer-songwriter folk songs: 70s and 80s singer-songwriters sang folk style and themed songs in their repertoire, such as James Taylor, Jim Croce, Don McLean, Harry Chapin, Dan Fogelberg, Carole King, and Tracy Chapman.
Kind of a cool video with a historical perspective of Dan Fogelberg’s “Sutter’s Mill.” Again a true folk theme:
Modern folk songs: 21st century folk songs by contemporary artists including Bruce Springsteen, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Nickel Creek, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Sean Rowe.
I love Darius Rucker’s version of “Wagon Wheel” just as much as Old Crow Medicine Show’s. From his video, you can see how well its theme fits into the folk genre.
I hope you have as much fun exploring this folk music as I have.
I hope that this music and my blog truly serve as a “revival: a new presentation of something old,” a springboard to return to the music of your youth, or perhaps to find artists you want to discover anew. Rediscover the passion of music in your life.
Live in the moment.
Enjoy the moment.
Love the moment.
Listen to the MUSIC!