Folk Not Fiction

Folk music, like other early genres of music, consisted of songs and rhymes passed down from generations by word of mouth, tradition, and other means of passing things down before music was written and recorded. It is a traditional form of rural music in America as well as Europe. Although much of its history has been white washed, its origins come from black music, dating back to years well before the seventeenth century. With African people stripped away from their homes and forced to assimilate into ways of American living, they brought facets of their cultures with them, specifically music. With new lives in an unfamiliar place, music was a great form of connectivity and with it they could all be on one accord despite their differences.


Folk music and its characteristics of call and response songs and poly-rhythms, resonated with African culture. To accompany its African influenced sound, there were instruments such as the banjo and the drum, which also have ties to the homeland of the people of its creation. Participants would pat their feet and clap their hands while singing and dancing along to the music (also known as pattin juba). From this sound, work songs were created in which everyone participated to get them through the labor of the day. With this purpose, secular lyrics are also used to characterize folk music.


Because of a fundamental misunderstanding and ignorance surrounding African culture, this style of music and the dancing that accompanied it was often seen as “sinful” to white masters and plantation owners. Black people would be condemned for its practice, which brings irony to the fact that today, folk music has been largely white washed. Artists such as Elizabeth Cotten, who was a “master” of the genre and built her legacy on top of it, and William “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, who established many of the american folk standards,  are often undermined for white validation and commodification of the genre. With a simple google search of the topic, we can visibly see the musical disenfranchisement of black people from the genre, with articles accrediting white artists for the popularity of the genre, despite its black origins.


Before its origins are completely lost, here are a few examples of Black Folk artists that not only defined American folk music, but set the precedent for future genres such as the blues, rock-n-roll, etc.





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