The Rise and Fall of American Folk Music

American folk music, also known as Americana or roots music, is a rich tapestry of cultural traditions. It combines elements from genres such as ragtime, jug bands, blues, Cajun music, Appalachian folk, and even Native American music.

Early Roots

American folk has deep roots, drawing from countless cultures in the national melting pot. From English, Irish, and Scottish emigrant tunes to African folk music referencing slavery and emancipation.

Gospel music, cowboy ballads, railroad songs, and sea shanties all influenced American folk as well. Delta blues, Louisiana Cajun music, honky-tonk performers, and other popular Appalachia styles played their part, too.

This was the music of the people, often produced by artists lacking any classical training. While the roots of American folk were manifold, they shared many thematic elements. Romance, daily life, and the struggles of the working man were all common subjects.

Politicization & Crackdown

By the 1940s and 50s, American folk had a stronger identity and a deep connection to its audience. Figures like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger (and his band, The Weavers), and Burl Ives marked this era.

However, the music was getting quite political. Many of the genre’s major artists were openly left-leaning in their politics and even spoke out about unionization in America. This was the source of considerable tension, with the Cold War as a backdrop.

The McCarthy era saw significant pressure upon folk musicians, with Seeger and his ilk barred from playing most prominent venues.

American Folk Music Revival

As the red panic waned in America, folk music had a second chance. The crackdown on folk musicians was extremely effective in silencing their voices. By the late 50s, though, things began to change slowly. During the 60s, the American Folk Music Revival reached its peak.

Acts like the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, or Joan Baez, became the talk of the nation. The Civil Rights movement borrowed many folk standards, such as “We Shall Overcome.” These were the days of Bob Dylan and John Denver, with folk achieving mainstream popularity.

Modern Folk Music

These days, folk music isn’t nearly as popular as in its golden era. However, it’s still a staple of American culture. Indie folk bands are incredibly common throughout the country. While they don’t quite have the profile that Dylan or Baez had, they explore the traditional roots of American sound.

Many other musical genres have also fused with folk, creating many interesting representations. Folk metal, freak folk, progressive folk, and psychedelic folk carry on the traditions that began centuries ago, with new vitality. It’s hard to tell if folk will ever experience another major revival.