Folk Music

Chris Goertzen

in Music

ISBN: 9780199757824
Published online February 2013 | | DOI:
Folk Music

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  • Applied Music
  • Ethnomusicology
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  • Musicology and Music History
  • Music Education and Pedagogy


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Folk music, a widely used but controversial term, means oral-tradition music by and for peasants/the working class in regional cultures where there is also a sophisticated art music that is cultivated by professionals and supported by a socioeconomic upper crust. In recent centuries, these same environments have come to nurture a third broad category of music, popular music, that is made by professionals for the masses and sold as sheet music and, more recently, audiograms of various kinds. The three categories overlap significantly. When members of an upper class discuss folk music, the conversation tends to take place in the shadow of ideology, that is, a presumption or explicit assertion of associated virtues: group identity, nationalism, nostalgia, and working-class or peasant sturdiness, rectitude, and creativity. Indeed, folk music has often been an important ingredient in asserting that a geographical area occupied by the people cultivating that music ought to become a country in the political sense, or that a country home to a given music is especially virtuous, or that people of a given nationality or ethnicity are somehow better than those of other nationalities or ethnicities. Thus, folk music may support healthy pride in group identity, but such opinions may tilt in the direction of decidedly unhealthy assertions of superiority. Insalubrious political uses of repertoires of folk music in Nazi Germany and in the Soviet Union soiled the term folk music in academic circles, and, by the 1960s, folk music was renamed “traditional music” in some settings. Another key ingredient leading academics to shy away from the term was that intensive study of bodies of what had long been called folk music revealed considerable differentiation among repertoires, so that it became common to refer by name to specific genres of music in oral tradition rather than to simply classify them as folk music. However, at about this same time, the term folk music reached broader use among the general public in the West, referring not only to venerable repertoires in oral tradition, but also to new personal, confessional, and political songs performed in coffee houses and having some commercial success. Today, academics remain more comfortable employing the umbrella rubrics “popular music” and “art music” than “folk music” in publications and in professional environments. Nevertheless, the term has demonstrated considerable staying power even among those same academics when teaching nonspecialized or introductory classes and when talking with colleagues not conversant with the academic field of folklore as well as in general conversation. In short, however controversial folk music has become, it remains useful as a concept.

Article.  9638 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Applied Music ; Ethnomusicology ; Music Theory and Analysis ; Musicology and Music History ; Music Education and Pedagogy

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