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Folk Facts
Genres > Folk
 Folk Analysis

About  Folk
An oral tradition, folk music was a way for the illiterate masses to pass down stories of war, hardship and the struggle to survive everyday life from generation to generation. Every culture has its own folk music, owing its sound to the rhythm and cadence of its own language, to its value systems, beliefs and legends.

But because of its oral nature much of that tradition has flirted with extinction, particularly English folk at the turn of the 20th century when the young generation migrated to the cities, or were carted off to war. It was only the obsessive research of collector Cecil Sharp, who after encountering Morris Dancers, was moved to meticulously catalogue nearly 5,000 songs and dances which would have otherwise have been forgotten.

One of the main differences between traditional folk music and modern folk is in the scales that it uses. Instead of the standard modern scalesmajor and minor – European folk music often used the so-called "modes" of the medieval church. These modes have a distinct, sparse drone-like quality that can still very much be heard in Irish music today. Modern major and minor scales are used widely in folk, particularly in North America.

There's a basic rule which runs through all kinds of music, kind of an unwritten rule. I don't know what it is. But I've got it.
Ronnie Wood

British folk was becalmed once again between the wars but, partly as a response to the influx of American recordings by folk artists like Woodie Guthrie, a new generation of collectors such as Peter Kennedy and the American Alan Lomax once again began to document Britain's rich folk history, and politicised performers such as Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and Bert Lloyd, whose influential reference work Folk Songs In England became the bible for the British folk revival.

MacColl and Lloyd became revered figures, mentors to most of the emergent young folk singers of the 50s and 60s, from The Watersons, Anne Briggs and Martin Carthy to The Young Tradition and Fairport Convention. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Guthrie's tales of the dustbowl and Depression, inspired the Beat Generation, among them a young Bob Zimmerman, who changed his name to Dylan.

Dylan exploited the protest power of folk song, fusing it to elements of pop, and inspiring a score of artists and groups – Joan Baez, The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher, Simon and Garfunkel to name a few. And Dylan was the first to appropriate an electric rock band as support, shocking the sedate acoustic folkies at the Newport Festival in 1965, changing the genre forever and opening the way for later bands like The Pogues to reinterpret it in radical ways.

In spite of apparent differences, folk and folk-inspired music from the roots to the avant-garde is characterised by certain common features – simple, square rhythms, extended repetition, simple harmony and directness of melodic expression.

20th century folk music is also united by the primacy of the guitar. A very personal instrument, its finger picking styles were developed by folk club artists such as Davey Graham and Archie Fisher as a way of sustaining chords, a technique appropriated by rock musicians for their music. A wider range of traditional instruments are often used, of course, including the cittern, concertina, mandola, tenor banjo, mandolin and the tin whistle.

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