Folk Fiction: Roots and Ramblings of an American Genre


By Caitlin White

When I was younger, my grandfather would teach me songs. First, he’d sing the song in full, then he’d slowly go through it line by line, verse by verse, until I could copy both the lyrics and the melody. I didn’t realize that I was learning folk songs at this time, or participating in what I would later learn to be “oral tradition.” All I knew, at the age of five or six, was that if my grandpa liked the songs, then I did too.

It’s no surprise that my grandfather, raised in rural Texas and California, born to survivors of the Dust Bowl and a descendant of Native Americans, spent his time teaching me “Waltzing Matilda” and other traditional songs so warped by the passage of time that they would only be recognizable to the last generation of my family. Be this as it may, these completely original versions mean more to us than ever now that my grandfather has passed—they are literally remnants of his life, a reminder that can be taken out and shared among us. These songs became more than songs, they became part of our heritage, part of my family’s community, and part of our shared culture.

This is how those songs functioned in early America too. American folk music began in the south, spurred by poor immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, England, and the rest of Europe, blended into new forms by the influx of African-American slaves and their own traditional music. These people were carving their life out of an uninhabited, brutal landscape. Some of them weren’t there by choice, from the slaves to indentured servants, to men separated for years at a time from their families, trying to fashion a new life out the wilderness. For folks like my grandpa, Bill White, music was often the only respite from a day spent embroiled in intense, thankless physical labor, a way to escape the onslaught of hunger, fear, exhaustion and uncertainty that plagued most days. Music was the lifeblood of the working class. In America, and in the countries that came before it, music was created and enjoyed by communities and passed on in whatever form live renditions survived in.

But can folk music still be created in a society that doesn’t rely on oral tradition anymore, that is couched in plentiful creature comforts, that sells this style of art for profit?

Folk music didn’t originate in America, far from it: It was brought here by people from every culture and country, converging into one giant sound that now fits somewhere between the blues, country, and bluegrass. The persistence of folk music in American culture rests on a few small but immoveable pieces. Mostly, it seems to be musicians who were influenced by vernacular music at a young age, those who see what it stands for and feel the value of it—either literally or figuratively—in their bones. But can folk music still be created in a society that doesn’t rely on oral tradition anymore, that is couched in plentiful creature comforts, that sells this style of art for profit? A brief glance into the past reveals that these delineations, as always, are never as clear as they seem to be.

In a sense, the modern folk heroes we claim aren’t really folk at all—Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Peter Seeger, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, John Prine, even Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and Robert Johnson. Sheerly by force of their individuality, these artists supersede the original ideas and roots of the genre. Despite their passionate, creative music, they represent the first steps toward commercialization, towards sell-out, towards individual identity elevated above the collective.


  • marc heilbrunn

    harmonicait the great, you be writin the shit outta these

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