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Contemporary folk music

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Contemporary folk music

Contemporary folk music refers to a wide variety of genres that emerged in the early 20th century which were associated with traditional folk music. Starting in the mid-20th century a new form of popular folk music evolved from traditional folk music. This process and period is called the (second) folk revival and reached a zenith in the 1960s. The most common name for this new form of music is also "folk music", but is often called "contemporary folk music" or "folk revival music" to make the distinction.[1] This type of folk music also includes fusion genres such as folk rock, electric folk, and others. While contemporary folk music is a genre generally distinct from traditional folk music, it often shares the same English name, performers and venues as traditional folk music; even individual songs may be a blend of the two.

While the Romantic nationalism of the folk revival had its greatest influence on art-music, the "second folk revival" of the later 20th century brought a new genre of popular music with artists marketed through concerts, recordings and broadcasting. One of the earliest figures in this revival was Woody Guthrie, who sang traditional songs in the 1930s and 1940s as well as composing his own. In the United Kingdom, the folk revival fostered a generation of singer-songwriters such as Donovan, who achieved initial prominence in the 1960s. The folk revival spawned Canada's first true wave of internationally successful artists such as Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Major performers who emerged from the 1940s to the early 1960s included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. The mid-1960s through the early 1970s was associated with large musical, political, lifestyle, and counterculture changes. Folk music underwent a related rapid evolution, expansion and diversification at that same time. Major changes occurred through the evolution of established performers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, The Seekers and Peter Paul and Mary, and also through the creation of new fusion genres with rock and pop. During this period, the term "protest music" was often used to characterize folk music with topical political themes. The Canadian performers Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn and Joni Mitchell represented such fusions and enjoyed great popularity in the U.S.. The late 1960s saw the advent of electric folk groups, a form of folk rock. Starting in the 1970s folk music was fueled by new singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and John Denver.

Other subgenres of folk include anti folk, folk punk (e.g., the Irish band The Pogues in the 1980s), Indie folk, Techno-folk, Freak folk and Americana and fusion genres such as folk metal, progressive folk, psychedelic folk, and neofolk.


Definitions of "contemporary folk music" are generally vague and variable. Here it is taken to mean all music that is called folk that is not traditional music, a set of genres that began with and then evolved from the folk revival of the mid-20th century. According to Hugh Blumenfeld, for the American folk scene, in general it is:

  • "Anglo-American, embracing acoustic and/or tradition-based music from the U.K. and the United States.
  • Mainly European in its musical origins and linguistically predominantly English-based.
  • The few exceptions to this model are derived mainly from prevailing political/historical conditions in the Anglo-American world and the demographics of folk fans: Celtic music, blues, some Central and South American music, Native American music, and Klezmer."[2] This is the common use of the term "contemporary folk music", but is not the only case of evolution of new forms from traditional ones. Nueva canción, a similar evolution of a new form of socially committed music, occurred in several Spanish-speaking countries, for example.

Contemporary country music descends ultimately from a rural American folk tradition but has evolved differently. Bluegrass music is a professional development of American old time music, intermixed with blues and jazz.

Folk revival of the mid-20th century in the English-speaking countries

Woody Guthrie
Pete Seeger

While the Romantic nationalism of the folk revival had its greatest influence on art-music, the "second folk revival" of the later 20th century brought a new genre of popular music with artists marketed through concerts, recordings and broadcasting. This is the genre that remains as "contemporary folk music" even when traditional music is considered to be a separate genre. One of the earliest figures in this revival was Woody Guthrie, who sang traditional songs in the 1930s and 1940s as well as composing his own. Among Guthrie's friends and followers as a collector, performer, and composer was Pete Seeger.

In the 1930s, Jimmie Rodgers, in the 1940s Burl Ives, in the early 1950s Seeger's group The Weavers and Harry Belafonte, and in the late 1950s The Kingston Trio as well as other professional, commercial groups became popular. In 1963–1964, the ABC television network aired the Hootenanny television series devoted to this brand of folk music and also published the associated magazine ABC-TV Hootenanny. Starting in 1950, the Sing Out!, Broadside, and The Little Sandy Review magazines helped spread both traditional and composed songs, as did folk-revival-oriented record companies.

In the United Kingdom, the folk revival fostered young artists like The Watersons, Martin Carthy and Roy Bailey and a generation of singer-songwriters such as Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell, Donovan and Roy Harper; all seven achieved initial prominence in the 1960s. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Tom Paxton visited Britain for some time in the early 1960s, the first two especially making later use of the traditional English material they heard.

In 1950, prominent American folklorist and collector of traditional songs Alan Lomax came to Britain and met A. L. 'Bert' Lloyd and Ewan MacColl, a meeting credited as inaugurating the second British folk revival. In London, the colleagues opened The Ballads and Blues Club, eventually renamed the Singers' Club, possibly the first folk club in the UK; it closed in 1991. As the 1950s progressed into the 1960s, the folk revival movement gathered momentum in both Britain and America.

In much of rural Canada, traditional and country-folk music were the predominant styles of music until the 1950s, ahead even of the globally popular jazz and swing. Traditional folk took this predominance into early Canadian television with many country-themed shows on its early airwaves. All Around the Circle (1964–1975) showcased the traditional Irish- and English-derived music of Newfoundland, for example. But by far the most important of these was Don Messer's Jubilee (1957–1973), which helped to bridge the gap between rural country-folk and the folk revival that was emerging from urban coffee shops and folk clubs. The show helped to launch the careers of country-folk singers Stompin' Tom Connors and Catherine McKinnon.

The folk revival spawned Canada's first true wave of internationally successful artists such as Ian & Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. At the same time, Quebec folk singer-songwriters like Gilles Vigneault and groups such as La Bottine Souriante were doing the same in the French-speaking world. English-speaking Canadian folk artists tended to move the United States to pursue larger audiences until the introduction of so-called "Canadian content" rules for radio and television in the 1970s. At the same time, Canadian folk music became more formalized and commercialized with the rise of specialized folk festivals (beginning with the Miramichi Folksong Festival in 1958), increased radio airplay on rock, pop, and easy listening radio stations, the introduction of the Juno Award for Folk Artist of the Year in 1971, and even an academic journal the Canadian Folk Music Journal in 1973. The mid- and late 1960s saw fusion forms of folk (such as folk rock) achieve prominence never before seen by folk music, but the early 1960s were perhaps the zenith of non-fusion folk music prominence in the music scene.

According to some, during the Depression, folk music reflected social realities of poverty and disempowerment of common people through vernacularized lyrics expressing the harsh realities of hard times and poverty. Often newly composed songs in traditional style by writers like Guthrie also featured a humorous and satirical tone. Most of the audience for folk music in those years were part of the working class, and many of these songs expressed resistance to the social order and an anger towards the government.[3]

Major folk music performers who emerged during the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s

These include the following:

Burl Ives
  • Woody Guthrie (1912 –1967) was an American singer-songwriter and folk musician, whose musical legacy includes hundreds of political, traditional and children's songs, ballads and improvised works.[4] He frequently performed with the slogan This Machine Kills Fascists displayed on his guitar. His best-known song is "This Land Is Your Land". Many of his recorded songs are archived in the Library of Congress.[5] In the 1930s Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California while learning, rewriting, and performing traditional folk and blues songs along the way. Many the songs he composed were about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, earning him the nickname the "Dust Bowl Balladeer".[6] Throughout his life, Guthrie was associated with United States communist groups, though he was never formally joined the Party.[7] Guthrie fathered American folk musician Arlo Guthrie. During his later years Guthrie served as a figurehead in the folk movement, providing inspiration to a generation of new folk musicians, including mentor relationships with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Bob Dylan. Such songwriters as Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger, Joe Strummer and Tom Paxton have acknowledged their debt to Guthrie as an influence.
  • The Almanac Singers Almanac members Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie began playing together informally in 1940; the Almanac Singers were formed in December 1940.[7] They invented a driving, energetic performing style, based on what they felt was the best of American country string band music, black and white. They evolved towards controversial topical music. Two of the regular members of the group, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, later became founding members of The Weavers.
  • Burl Ives - as a youth, Ives dropped out of college to travel around as an itinerant singer during the early 1930s, earning his way by doing odd jobs and playing his banjo and guitar. In 1930, he had a brief, local radio career on WBOW radio in Terre Haute, Indiana, and in the 1940s he had his own radio show, titled The Wayfaring Stranger, titled after one of the popular ballads he sang. The show was very popular, and in 1946 Ives was cast as a singing cowboy in the film Smoky. Ives went on to play parts in other popular film as well. His first book, The Wayfaring Stranger, was published in 1948.[8]
  • Pete Seeger had met and been influenced by many important folk musicians (and singer-songwriters with folk roots), especially Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly.[4] Seeger had labor movement involvements, and he met Guthrie at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant workers’ concert on March 3, 1940, and the two thereafter began a musical collaboration (which included the Almanac Singers) and then formed The Weavers. As a songwriter, Seeger authored or co-authored "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", "If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song)", (composed with Lee Hays of The Weavers), and "Turn, Turn, Turn!", all three of which have been recorded by many artists both in and outside the folk revival movement and are still sung throughout the world. In 1948, Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo, an instructional book that many banjo players credit with starting them off on the instrument. He has recorded, sung, and performed for more than seventy years and has become the most powerful force in the American folk revival after Guthrie.[9]
  • The Weavers were formed in 1947 by Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. After they debuted at the Village Vanguard in New York in 1948, they were then discovered by arranger Gordon Jenkins and signed with Decca Records, releasing a series of successful but heavily orchestrated single songs.[10] The group's political associations in the era of the Red Scare forced them to break up in 1952; they re-formed in 1955 with a series of successful concerts and album recordings on Vanguard Records. A fifth member, Erik Darling, sometimes sat in with the group when Seeger was unavailable and ultimately replaced Seeger in The Weavers when the latter resigned from the quartet in a dispute about its commercialism in general and its specific agreement to record a cigarette commercial.[11]
  • Harry Belafonte, another influential performer,[4] started his career as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. In 1952, he signed a contract with RCA Victor and released his first record album, Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was the first LP to sell over a million copies. The album spent 31 weeks at number one, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the US charts. It introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso." Belafonte went on to record in many genres, including blues, American folk, gospel, and more. In 1959, he starred in Tonight With Belafonte a nationally televised special that introduced Odetta in her debut to a prime time audience. She sang Water Boy and performed a duet with Belafonte of There's a Hole in My Bucket that hit the national charts in 1961.[12]
Odetta performing in 2006
  • Odetta - In 1953 singers Odetta and Larry Mohr recorded an LP that was released in 1954 as Odetta and Larry, an album that was partially recorded live at San Francisco's Tin Angel bar. Odetta enjoyed a long and respected career with a repertoire of traditional songs and blues until her death in 2009.[12]
  • The Kingston Trio was formed in 1957 in the Palo Alto, California area by Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and Dave Guard, who were just out of college. They were greatly influenced by the Weavers, the calypso sounds of Belafonte, and other semi-pop folk artists such as the Gateway Singers[4] and The Tarriers. The unprecedented popularity and album sales of this group from 1957 to 1963 (including fourteen top ten and five number one LPs on the Billboard charts[13]) was a significant factor in creating a commercial and mainstream audience for folk-styled music where little had existed prior to their emergence.[14] The Kingston Trio's success was followed by other highly successful pop-folk acts, such as The Limeliters.
The Limeliters
  • The Limeliters are an American folk music group, formed in July 1959 by Lou Gottlieb (bass), Alex Hassilev (baritone), and Glenn Yarbrough (tenor).[15] The group was active from 1959 until 1965, when they disbanded.  After a hiatus of sixteen years Yarbrough, Hassilev, and Gottlieb reunited and began performing as The Limeliters again.
  • Joan Baez’s career began in 1958 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where at 17 she gave her first coffee-house concert. She was invited to perform at the premiere Newport Folk Festival in 1959 by pop folk star Bob Gibson,[15] after which Baez was sometimes called "the barefoot Madonna", gaining renown for her clear voice and three-octave range. She recorded her first album for a Vanguard Records the following year – a collection of laments and traditional folk ballads from the British Isles, accompanying the songs with guitar. Her second LP release went gold, as did her next (live) albums. One record featured her rendition of a song by the then-unknown Bob Dylan. In the early 1960s, Baez moved into the forefront of the American folk-music revival. Increasingly, her personal convictions – peace, social justice, anti-poverty – were reflected in the topical songs that made up a growing portion of her repertoire, to the point that Baez became a symbol for these particular concerns.
  • The Chad Mitchell Trio began in 1959 and emerged in the early 1960s. The group performed a mix of creatively arranged traditional songs and contemporary numbers that frequently included satiric and political overtones.
  • The Highwaymen were an early 1960s "collegiate folk" group that originated at Wesleyan University and had a Billboard number-one hit in 1961 with "Michael", a version of the African-American spiritual Michael, Row the Boat Ashore, and another Top 20 hit in 1962 with "Cottonfields". "Michael" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold record.[16][17]
  • The Rooftop Singers were an American progressive folk singing trio in the early 1960s, best known for the hit record "Walk Right In".
  • The Serendipity Singers was a nine-member group that started at the University of Colorado and became known nationally in 1964 for a heavily pop-inflected approach to folk music.
  • Bob Dylan often performed and sometimes toured with Joan Baez, starting when she was a singer of mostly traditional songs. As Baez adopted some of Dylan's songs into her repertoire and even introduced Dylan to her avid audiences, a large following on the folk circuit, it helped the young songwriter to gain initial recognition. By the time Dylan recorded his first LP (1962) he had developed a style reminiscent of Woody Guthrie.[20] He began to write songs that captured the "progressive" mood on the college campuses and in the coffee houses. Though by 1964 there were many new guitar-playing singer/songwriters, it is arguable that Dylan eventually became the most popular of these younger folk-music-revival performers.
  • Peter, Paul and Mary debuted in the early 1960s and were an American trio who ultimately became one of the biggest musical acts of the 1960s. The trio was composed of Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey and Mary Travers. They were one of the main folk music torchbearers of social commentary music in the 1960s.[15] As the decade passed, their music incorporated more elements of pop and rock.
  • Judy Collins debuted in the early 1960s. At first, she sang traditional folk songs or songs written by others – in particular the protest songwriters of the time, such as Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. She also recorded her own versions of important songs from the period, such as Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man", Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn" and Eric Andersen's "Thirsty Boots".
  • Canada's duo of Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker, performing as Ian & Sylvia, released their first album in 1963. The duo featured a creative mix of traditional American and Canadian folk songs in both English and French as well as contemporary singer-songwriter compositions by Dylan and Paxton, and numbers that they themselves composed like "Four Strong Winds" and "Someday Soon" by Tyson and "You Were On My Mind" by Fricker.

The mid-1960s through the early 1970s

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan during the civil rights "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom", August 28, 1963.

The large musical, political, lifestyle, and counterculture changes most associated with "the 60s" occurred during the second half of the decade and the first year or two of the 1970s. Folk music underwent a related rapid evolution, expansion and diversification at that same time. Major changes occurred through the evolution of established performers such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, The Seekers and Peter Paul and Mary, and also through the creation of new fusion genres with rock and pop. Much of this evolution began in the early 1960s and emerged into prominence in the mid and late 1960's. One performance "crucible" for this evolution was Greenwich Village New York. Dylan's use of electric instruments helped inaugurate the genres of folk rock and country rock, particularly by his album John Wesley Harding.[21][22]

These changes represented a further departure from traditional folk music. The Byrds with hits such as Seeger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" were emblematic of a new term folk rock. Barry McGuire left The New Christy Minstrels and recorded "Eve of Destruction" in 1965.[23] Other performers such as Simon & Garfunkel and The Mamas & the Papas created new, hard-to-classify music that was folk-inflected and often included in discussions of folk rock.[21][24]

During this period, the term "protest music" was often used to characterize folk music with topical political themes. Folk singers and songwriters such as Phil Ochs, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Arlo Guthrie and Tom Paxton followed in Woody Guthrie's footsteps, writing "protest music" and topical songs and expressing support for various causes including the American Civil Rights Movement and anti-war causes associated with the Vietnam War.[25] A number of performers who had begun their careers singing largely traditional material, as typified by Baez and Collins, began to write their own material.

The Canadian performers Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn and Joni Mitchell represented such fusions and enjoyed great popularity in the U.S.; all four were eventually invested with the Order of Canada. Many of the acid rock bands of San Francisco began by playing acoustic folk and blues. The Smothers Brothers television shows featured many folk performers, including the formerly blacklisted Pete Seeger.[26]

Bonnie Koloc is a Chicago-based American folk music singer-songwriter who made her recording debut in 1971, three years after several popular recordings by Melanie, who had released her first album in 1968 with a folk/pop blend.

The late 1960s saw the advent of electric folk groups. This is a form of folk rock, with a focus on indigenous (European, and, emblematically, English) songs. A key electric folk moment was the release of Fairport Convention's album Liege and Lief. Guitarist Richard Thompson declared that the music of the band demanded a corresponding "English Electric" style, while bassist Ashley Hutchings formed Steeleye Span to pursue a more traditional repertoire performed in the electric folk style. Exponents of electric folk music such as Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Alan Stivell and Mr. Fox saw electrification of traditional musical forms as a means to reach a far wider audience.

Mid-1970s through present day

Starting in the 1970s folk music was fueled by new singer-songwriters such as Steve Goodman, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, John Denver, and many more. In the British Isles, The Pogues in the early 1980s and Ireland's The Corrs in the 1990s brought traditional tunes back into the album charts. The Corrs were active from 1990 to 2006 and performed Celtic and pop music, and created a blend of the two. Carrie Newcomer emerged with Stone Soup in 1984 and has been performing individually since 1991.

Malicorne, a French electric folk group emerged in 1973, starting with traditional music and then later blended it with pop. Canadian Stan Rogers wrote and performed folk music with strong historical and nautical themes, emerging in 1976. Si Kahn emerged in 1974 at the more political and topical end of the folk music spectrum.

In the 1980s, the Washington Squares played "throwback" folk music. Suzanne Vega performed folk an folk-oriented pop music. The Knitters propagated cowpunk or folk punk, which eventually evolved into alt country. More recently the same spirit has been embraced and expanded on by artists such as Dave Alvin, Miranda Stone and Steve Earle.

In the second half of the 1990s, once more, folk music made an impact on the mainstream music via a younger generation of artists such as Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby and Spiers and Boden. Canada's biggest selling folk group of the 1990s and 2000s was the Celtic, rock-tinged Great Big Sea from Newfoundland, who have had 4 albums certified platinum in Canada as of 2013, and one, Up from 1995, that went 4 times platinum.

Hard rock and heavy metal bands such as Korpiklaani, Skyclad, Waylander, Ensiferum and Finntroll meld elements from a wide variety of traditions, including in many cases instruments such as fiddles, tin whistles, accordions and bagpipes. Folk metal often favours pagan-inspired themes.

Viking metal is defined in its folk stance, incorporating folk interludes into albums (e.g., Bergtatt and Kveldssanger, the first two albums by once-folk metal, now-experimental band Ulver). Mumford & Sons a folk rock and indie folk band was formed in 2007 and achieved prominence in 2010. Shenandoah Run formed in 2011 to bring contemporary American folk music of the 1960s to modern listeners.[27]

Specialty subgenres

Filk music can be considered folk music stylistically and culturally (though the 'community' it arose from, science fiction fandom, is an unusual and thoroughly modern one).[28] Neofolk began in the 1980s, fusing traditional European folk music with post-industrial music, historical topics, philosophical commentary, traditional songs and paganism. The genre is largely European.

Anti folk began in New York City in the 1980s. Folk punk, known in its early days as rogue folk, is a fusion of folk music and punk rock. It was pioneered by the London-based Irish band The Pogues in the 1980s. Industrial folk music is a characterization of folk music normally referred to under other genres, and covers music of or about industrial environments and topics, including related protest music.

Other subgenres include Indie folk, Techno-folk, Freak folk and Americana and fusion genres such as folk metal, progressive folk, psychedelic folk, and neofolk.


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Ellis, Iain. "Resistance And Relief: The Wit And Woes Of Early Twentieth Century Folk And Country Music." Humor: International Journal Of Humor Research 23.2 (2010): 161–178. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 14 September 2012
  4. ^ a b c d Gilliland 1969, show 18.
  5. ^ Library of Congress. Related Material - Woody Guthrie Sound Recordings at the American Folklife Center. Retrieved on November 27, 2007.
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b Spivey, Christine A. This Land is Your land, This Land is My Land: Folk Music, Communism, and the Red Scare as a Part of the American Landscape. at the Wayback Machine (archived June 25, 2008) The Student Historical Journal 1996–1997, Loyola University New Orleans, 1996.
  8. ^ Cultural Equality - Alan Lomax profile Burl Ives (1909–1995) by Ellen Harold and Peter Stone
  9. ^ Peter Dreier, "Pete Seeger Deserves One More Honor -- the Nobel Peace Prize"The Huffington Post 5/4/09.
  10. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 1.
  11. ^ David King Dunaway, How Can I Keep From Singing?
  12. ^ a b Clarke, SP, "Odetta- American Folk Music Pioneer"
  13. ^ Rubeck, Shaw, Blake et al., The Kingston Trio On Record (Naperville IL: KK Inc, 1986), p. 11 ISBN 978-0-9614594-0-6
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b c Gilliland 1969, show 19.
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris; Erlewine, Stephen Thomas, All music guide: The Definitive Guide to Popular Music, Hal Leonard Corporation, 2001. Cf. p.793
  19. ^
  20. ^ Gilliland 1969, shows 31-32.
  21. ^ a b
  22. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 54.
  23. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 33.
  24. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 36.
  25. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 34.
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^


These references are cited above with multiple abbreviated cites with varying locations.

  • Donaldson, Rachel Clare, 2011 Music for the People: the Folk Music Revival And American Identity, 1930–1970, Ph.D. Dissertation, Vanderbilt University, May 2011, Nashville, Tennessee
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