What’s up with Folk?

By: Gabrielle Brim and Rochelle Alexander


Although folk music has no dated source of origin, its earliest recognition was during the 1800s. It can be implied that folk music was the music that embodied the culture of Africans before and during slavery. Since music was often integrated into the lives of Africans during celebrations, daily activities, group work, and festivities, it is not surprising that African culture was a key factor in developing folk music. After enslaved Africans were brought to the New World, they learned to combine the musical traditions that they brought from Africa, with the European music and culture displayed.


Slave owners, who had musically inclined slaves, specifically fiddler players, would advertise their slaves in newspapers for other slave owners to hire. In addition, some slave owners would bring music teachers for their talented servants to enhance them. Although these individuals were hired, they did not receive their earnings. It can be implied that the slave owners took possession of their earnings. Despite the injustice done, the talented servants received a good reputation for their excellence.


Folk music was played on traditional instruments, such as the harmonica and the banjo, bringing a distinct sound to the music.  Its style is one of significance, representing the times, from the southern plantations to the civil rights era. Folk music portrays the lifestyle and activities of the singers, which provides cultural background to the song. For instance, in “Hammer, Ring”, the leading vocalists is singing about his activity in building and working on a railroad. This particular song provides cultural insight into prison work, where prisoners would sing as they were laying railroad tracks or doing other prison work.

Most of the lyrics within folk music contain repeated phrases that are used as a call and response to what the lead singer is singing. Additionally, the response part of the lyrics is very catchy and repetitive throughout the song. The beats within folk music are simple and contain polyrhythms that are either played or sung. Simple beats can be played using hand clapping gestures or through instruments, such as the banjo.

Folk songs can vary to familiar children game songs, like “Little Sally Walker” and “Mary Mack”  and protest songs, such as “We Shall Overcome.”

Important Performers

Some notable performers include Simeon Gilliat and Elizabeth Cotten. Gilliat was an eighteenth century Black fiddler from Richmond. He was known for performing at balls and the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, and became a well-known fiddler. In addition, Elizabeth Cotten was a folk singer and songwriter during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Since Cotten was left-handed,  she played her guitar and banjo upside down so that it would be easier for her to play with her left hand. Cotton is known mostly for her song, “Freight Train,” which was written when she was 11 years old.

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Folk music has helped to influence the blues through its forceful delivery, melodic tones and rhythmic freedom. Since most early blues singers in the twentieth century were exposed to farm work, it was not surprising that elements of folk became part of their style. In fact, the main structural and harmonic form of blues originated from folk ballads.


Although its original forms are rarely present in today’s society, elements of folk music, such as children game songs and work songs still exist. For instance, kids are still playing games like “Mary Mack” and “Little Sally Walker.” In addition, a version of work songs can be seen in education, where students make up songs to help them remember content for particular classes. The songs can be made by simple beats, such as handclapping, pounding on desks and tapping pencils.

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