Mudcat Café message #2592060 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #119490   Message #2592060
Posted By: Alec
18-Mar-09 - 04:37 PM
Thread Name: What makes it a Folk Song?
Subject: RE: What makes it a Folk Song?
I'm not familiar with the 1954 definition either but, though perhaps not ideal, the Folkfile entry reads as follows:" folksong, definition few subjects can cause such hot debate among folkies. Everyone knows what a folk song should *sound* like, and what one *shouldn't* sound like, but a firm definition eludes all.

There is a tired and unhelpful homily attributed to both Louis Armstrong and Broonzy, Bill, along the lines that all music is folk music, since horses don't make it. T'ain't so. There *is* such a thing as a folk song. Pinning down the characteristics is the difficulty.

The favorite characteristic would be a song that has filtered through a certain amount of oral tradition and folk process. This shows us what it's made of, as opposed to a modern flash-in-the-pan (as Michael Cooney once wrote, "if some of these [contemporary] songs were to go through the folk process, nothing would come out"). Yet there are many excellent songwriters who can compose in the traditional vein and make you swear that a song composed yesterday is centuries old. Also, we can't dismiss a song simply because it was released on record and simply faded away - this happened to many of the old broadside ballads, but they were revived by collectors to join the folk tradition.

There are certain characteristics, called markers, that define the type of song and let the audience relate it to it (and each other). Many of these are archaic expressions, locales, customs, etc., but their presence is no guarantee of anything. Skilled songwriters who write in the older styles can often fool anyone.

Some feel that the song should be anonymous. Other than the fact that this indicates the song has been in circulation long enough for people to have forgotten the author's name, it isn't really important. "My Grandfather's Clock" would pass inspection as a folk song, but it was written by Work, Henry Clay - the authorship makes no difference at all. The same could be said for many of the songs by Paxton, Tom or Foster, Stephen.

The basic problem is that people want a simple, concise definition for an enormously complicated subject. Not only are there centuries of different types of music packed into folk, but it's an ongoing, living tradition that changes all the time. See moldy figs for a relevant quote from Bronson, Bertrand. Much related information is available in the book "The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World", by Philip V. Bohlman, Indiana University Press, 1988. No Golden Rule emerges, but it does put things concisely into perspective.

Various writers have taken a stab at the definition. Here are the characteristics of folksong listed by "Introducing American Folk Music" (see books). Proving or disproving them is left as an exercise for the reader:

    1. Music that varies over distance but not time.
    2. Music from a specific, identifiable community.
    3. Authorship is generally unknown.
    4. Folksongs are generally passed along by word of mouth.
    5. Folksongs are most often performed by non-professionals.
    6. Short forms and predictable patterns are fundamental.

There may not be an answer. Let it be." I wouldn't treat this as "Holy Writ" but it at least describes the terrain.