Evolution of Folk Music
The Evolution of Folk Music Almost all of the music that we hear today can be traced back in one way or another to folk music. The evolution of folk music is rich in history and it is easy to see how the current events and the times created the changes that were to occur. Folk music got its roots from Anglo-American Folk Music and later evolved into what was known as the blues and continues to influence much of the music that is written to this day. Many artists have had major impacts on the music industry some of which are Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Muddy Waters and B.
B. King. Their individual styles were essential in the evolution of music. By taking a closer look at Anglo-American Folk Music and each of these artists we will be able to understand the role that each of them played in their specific genres. Anglo-American Folk Music occurred during the time that the original thirteen colonies were being created. It got its start from what was called Psalmody which is the rendering of the 150 psalms of the Old Testament; however they were present in the form of songs. Psalmody is one of the oldest traditions of western music.
Psalm tunes were carried over from the old world through the found of the colonies by the English and Dutch. They were often kept in a psalter which is a book that contained psalm tunes. Pilgrims were the first to bring psalters to Plymouth when they arrived in 1620. The religious reform in the 16th century that started in Europe had the greatest impact on the subject matter of Anglo-American Folk Music which was mainly focused on communicating religious matters. Over the course of 100 years we find that two different styles of communicating the old testaments.
One of those was in the written format and the other was in what was called “the usual way” which was through oral communication. The oral tradition is where the Anglo-American Folk style evolved from. It involved what was called “lining out” which is basically one person singing or reciting lines of psalm tunes. There were many critics of the oral tradition who said that there was not enough variation in the tunes and that there were too many changes in pace. The answer to these criticisms was found in singing school during the American Revolution here we see an increase in the musical abilities of our new nation. Of course these schools mainly resided in more highly populated areas. Out in the country you would often find what were called singing masters and composers who often were no more than just common people like craftsmen or small business owners. It was in these singing masters that we found a return to the lack of variation in tunes which was given the name “strophic form” which simple means that the music is the same for all lines. Strophic form is very common in folk music.
The American folk singer Woody Guthrie lived from 1912 to 1967. Woody grew up in Oklahoma and decided to travel out to California during the great depression in hopes of finding better opportunities. However, all he found was more heartache. The economy in California was no better than the rest of the United States. Many of Guthrie’s songs reflect the trials and tribulations of the people he met in his life and of his own life. He is one of the few artists that was truly able to connect to the common people in ways that other artists could not.
His music is about the things that happen in people’s everyday lives. He sings about people packing up and looking for better opportunities in other places. His music also varied in its tone. Some of his songs are upbeat and cheerful while others have a more sobering tone to them. In addition to singing and performing Guthrie also had a passion for writing. It is said that he made use of his G. I. bill after the war and attended a college where he took philosophy and writing along with a few other classes. However, he decided to drop out before he finished because he decided he needed to hit the road.
Woody Guthrie was unique in his style and lyrics. He never felt the need to alter his style in order to fit in with the changing fads. His style is the epitome of what folk music should sound like. We often hear him make use of the strophic form in his songs. He was an inspiration to many musicians that followed him, which included the well known Bob Dylan. Guthrie enjoyed working with other musicians as well like Pete Seeger. Many folk singers including Woody Guthrie had strong political views which often came through in their lyrics.
Much of folk music emerged during times when people felt that government was being unfair in the way the common people were being treated and that changes needed to be made in order to bring equality back. I think this is perhaps the one commonality that many folk singers had in common when it came to their music and what was driving their lyrics. Guthrie, Seeger and Dylan were all very popular during times of war which had major affects on their careers and the choices they made. A fellow folk artist who Guthrie was known to perform with from time to time is Pete Seeger.
Like Guthrie, Seeger was another folk activist who often sang songs that called for changes in political matters and more equality for the common people. The Almanac Singers was the name of the band that Seeger was a member of. Seeger formed the group in 1941 which was made up of a group of left-wing New Yorkers. Although the group made drastic efforts to try to create a band where everyone was equal they had difficulty battling the media in attempts to keep Seeger out of the spotlight. The Almanac Singers often found themselves in the company of Woody Guthrie.
The group got along easily because they had the same political views and shared the same musical style. Seeger and Guthrie were also known to write songs together. One of their most well known songs is “Pittsburg” which was a compilation of their feelings about the war, environment and corruption in the steel industry. The subject matter of Seeger’s music gave him the title of most boycotted performer in history. There have even been accounts of attacks by people at his performances because of the lyrics his band chose to sing.
Right before the Nazi’s invaded Russia the CIO had approached the Almanac Singers to go on a national tour with them. The news of the attack was released the day before they were due to leave for their tour. Since most of their song were anti war people could not make the decision to continue to support their music when it was against something that was now a necessary evil. One journalist said that the grouped “lacked the true politicians facility for changing overnight and the group soon found themselves in trouble” (Dunaway 91). This came to be the end of the band.
Another folk artist who came to be well known because of his songs of protest is Bob Dylan. It seems fitting that one of his major influences and all time idol is Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie, Dylan wrote songs about “general human conditions such as poverty” (Lorenzo and Kingman 76). One of his most well known songs is “Masters of War” which was originally written because of the cold war. However, after the release of the song it was found that the feelings that the song was able to create within listeners was the same during the time of the Vietnam War and even later to the War on Terror.
Accounts of a concert that Dylan performed at on Veterans day in 2002 said that the crowd had the same feelings and sentiments that was felt by people during the first release at similar performances. Unlike Guthrie who kept his style consistent throughout the years, Dylan was known to change up his style, sound, type and even material of his music. These changes often caused fans to feel like they no longer could relate to the music of Dylan because they had just grown accustomed to the latest styles of his music. Others were suspicious of his constant changing and often accused him of chasing trends.
However, Dylan’s compositions usually stayed true to the original style of protest songs in that they used barrow tunes from older songs with an ostinato found in the accompanying guitar while Dylan did his best to show authenticity in his voice. Regardless of how people feel about Dylan he still is seen as one of the major players in the folk music industry. Another form of music that originated from folk music is the blues. While it is said to be related to Black folk music from the south it is safe to say that Black folk music was highly influenced by American folk music.
Black folk music was well known for use of antecedents in the form of hollers and cries which was still present in some forms of blues. The blues relates very closely to folk music by means of their subject matter. It was common for “some blues to speak of a nameless depression, work or lack of it, poverty” (Lorenzo and Kingman 76). While some blues tells of hardships it also speaks often of personal lament of the relationships between men and women. One of the best known blues singers is Bessie Smith who is often referred to as the “Empress of Blues. By the end of her first recording year she was said to have sold over 2 million records and at one point in her career was responsible for saving Columbia Records from going bankrupt. Bessie Smith is most famous for her performances in which she was able to master the use of idioms and delivery her songs with such forcefulness that there are not that could surpass her in the industry. Towards the end of Smiths career she refused to adjust to the more modern tones which eventually led to her falling out of the music industry.
Even though she was one of the most highly purchased recording artists she managed to spend all of her earnings without saving anything for her later life. It is said that when she died in a car accident in 1937 that she died without a penny to her name. A major reason for her lack of financial stability could be attributed to her life long battle with alcoholism. Bessie Smith was lucky to have worked with and learned from the Mother of Blues, Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey got her start as a young child in the minstrel-show business. However her music was always closest resembled rural folk blues when compared to other blues artists.
Many of Ma Rainey’s song were found to empower females, which was often the opposite of the image that was portrayed by Bessie Smiths lyrics. I think it is important to make a connection between more traditional folk music and the blues that were sung by Smith and Rainey. It is important to remember that many folk singers were inspired by the changing times and unfair poverty that was being forced upon the majority of people during those times. Similarly, the blues era occurred immediately following the abolition of slavery.
Much of the blues was focused on the expression of individual emotional needs. Considering that blacks had just been given their personal freedoms they were still imprisoned by their social and financial standings. It seems to make sense then that the music would focus on the one thing that they really did gain freedom in which was their love lives and the ability to choose who they would have relationships with. “Freely chosen sexual love became a mediator between historical disappointment and the new social realities of an evolving African American Community” (Davis n. ag). Many of the songs by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were about the changes in what was believed to be the “place” of women in the world. They were singing for more equality and for people to realize that the sole purpose of a woman was no longer to please her husband and to care for a household but that she could be independent and earn a living and take care of herself and her family if need be. Both the blues and folk music had important messages to communicate in regards to the changes occurring in society. Another well known blues singer was Muddy Waters.
He was actually born with the name McKinley Morganfield but he was given the nickname Muddy by his mother and later decided to legally change his name. Waters musical style helped blues to transform into the next style of music which would be names rock and roll. Waters was responsible for introducing amplified music to blues. He is often referred to as the father of modern Chicago Blues which would be in the urban blues category. Urban blues introduced the use of more instruments of which included the piano and drums along with many others. Waters was strongly influenced by the more traditional gospel tradition.
However, his own style was not so traditional in any sense. He gained his notoriety by his mastery of a guitar style that is called bottleneck. When Waters was discovered a scout was sent to find a man that worked in the same field that Waters worked in. When the man got there he found that the person he was looking for had passed away and instead he discovered Waters. Race records were common during this time and it is most likely that Waters was discovered during an expedition to record race records that would be able to turn some quick sales.
Because Waters was a man with such great talent the scout came back looking for him again and eventually Waters moved to Chicago and make music his life. Waters did not find it easy for him to make a name for himself in the music industry. It was not until after he had toured in England that he was able to return to the U. S. and was finally being seen for what he really was by the American people. Waters has been a major influence on many of today’s artists. Another blues artist who helped to pioneer the change from blues to rock and roll is B. B.
King. King experienced the loss of his mother at the age of four years old and has been said to have had the blues running through his veins ever since that day. Like many artists King was able to use the pain and hardships in his life as inspiration for his music. However, his music also covers issues of the Civil Rights Movement and even the complicated politics that surrounded the music industry. His greatest success would have to be the part he played in pushing the limits and finding huge success in changing over from blues to rock and roll.
It is often a difficult task to get people to change from their old ways and try something knew but King was able to win over fans and help give birth to one of the greatest musical eras to this day. After looking back at the history of where folk music originated and then taking a closer look at some of the artists of various eras of music it is easy to see how even the songs we hear on the radio today can be traced back to folk music roots. The one thing that music seems to keep in common in all eras is that there will often be songs that relate to the current events of the time.
Especially when there is an unusually hardship or major event that has shaped society. After the war on terror began there were many artists from all genres that began to sing songs about our soldiers and their families and the heartache and pain that people were experiencing from the loss of loved ones of loneness of being apart. I think that music will continue with this oral tradition of communicating events and problems for the rest of time. Works Cited Candelaria, Lorenzo, and Daniel Kingman. American Music: A Panorama. 4th ed. Schirmer:Cengage Learning, 2004, 2007, 2012.
Print Cray, Ed. Ramblin’ Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: Norton andcompany, 2004. Print. Danchin, Sebastian. Blues Boy: The Life and Music of B. B. King. Mississippi: University Pressof Mississippi, 1998. Print. Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People. Cambridge: Da CapoPress, 2003. Print. Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep From Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger. New York:Villard Books, 2008. Print.