The rise and fall of American folk music
Still bringing people together to croon over social issues
Folk music has resonated with fans for as long as we can remember. Also known as Americana or roots music, the genre consists of bluegrass, gospel, blues, country, Appalachian folk, Cajun, and jug bands. It paved the way for other styles of popular genres, including rock and roll and jazz.
As you can probably guess, folk music has a long history—dating back to the early 20th century. By the 1950s, the genre dominated the music charts. Fans gathered to listen to songs by their favorite artists. But folk music hasn’t always had a positive history.
Music for the people
Folk music first appeared as early as the 1920s, slowly gaining popularity during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl (from 1930-36). Everyone could relate to the songs about the struggle to find work and food, economic hardships, and the need to bond as communities.
At its core, folk music has always reflected on news and current events in the United States. It has been the music for the working middle- and lower-class societies. Everyone could listen to the songs and be moved by the lyrics and rhythms. In general, the genre offered an accurate perspective of the cultural life of the diverse groups who called America their home.
Folk music was performed in churches, workplaces, on the streets, inside people’s homes for friendly gatherings, and more. The songs were passed down through generations, and the music was played during times when American people needed to hear it the most.
Folk music gained popularity in the 1950s, mostly due to the constant outpouring of new songs, including those by Woody Guthrie, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and more. By the 1960s, the genre became a phenomenon. Americans found themselves involved in many political crises, particularly the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
Folk singers, including Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez, met in coffee shops and public places in San Francisco and New York to sing songs about their concerns with the war, civil rights, their jobs, and social issues.
The musicians wrote songs against the pro-capitalist, anti-communist U.S. government, and they didn’t stop playing until their voices were heard. They sang about their concerns—preaching to “make love, not war.” The songs inspired a powerful promise for change and activism. Many people credit music of the 1960s for influencing generations of musicians.
Fading into the background
By the 1970s, folk music started to lose its popularity. The U.S. pulled out of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement was essentially over. Musicians shifted their focus to other concerns and music genres, such as rock and roll. Some artists persevered, including Jim Croce, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens.
Not many people were producing folk music, but the ones who were wrote songs about relationships, religion, and politics. However, they didn’t have many fans. Audiences preferred the music of Michael Jackson, Madonna, David Bowie, and Elton John. Folk music didn’t have a revival until the 1990s, but even then, the genre didn’t have substantial popularity like it once had.
Today’s folk music
Today, folk music is a very different genre than it was in its origin. The reshaped acoustic music is now commonly referred to as “indie-folk” or “indie roots.” Musicians are writing about social issues, including the unrest about America’s involvement in the Middle East, economic troubles, relationships, and social change.
The “indie folk” music scene has been popularized by successful bands, including Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers.
Diehard fans defend folk music because, just like in the music of the 1920s, the musicians are reflecting on issues we need to learn. The genre may be in the background now, but it has emerged as a new, innovative, passionate style of music that influences listeners all over the world.
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