FEATURE: Acoustic Gold – The History Of Folk

Here’s a piece I wrote for an issue of the fantastic print mag One More Robot. Follow the link at the end of this post to download the full article including some great photos by Eimear Forrestal.

Unlike many other musical trends and genres, folk music never disappears and new artists are consistently emerging. Chris Familton discusses the history of the genre and why it never goes out of fashion…

You may not find many hardcore hip hop fans listening to folk music, or vice versa, but the connections between the two genres are closer than most people would think. The reality is that folk has been as cutting edge a musical medium as hip hop and in its heyday, the blues.

The difference with folk is that it has always had the innate ability to evolve, adapt and work its way into any number of new musical scenes. Over its long history folk has had a crucial influence on everything from blues, rock n roll, prog rock and even informed the medieval fascinations of metal.

English folk singer Eliza Carthy was raised in the world of folk music and from an early age was aware of its chameleon-like nature. “Both my parents [Martin Carthy/Norma Waterson] are folk musicians, and moreover, they told me that folk music was a constantly changing thing. Traditional music becomes folk music, becomes pop music. Everything is connected.” she explains.

The divergent strands of folk music can be traced back through all of the world’s cultures with each generation applying their own unique experiences to the music. As a musical form it has been a tool for storytelling, protest and the chronicling of history for as long as music has been created.

Like most genres the title ‘folk music’ becomes more elastic the deeper you delve into its past. From the classic image of 50s/60s acoustic guitar strummers there stretches a long line of songs, all the way back to the traditional music of nearly every culture. In recent times most of the folk music created outside the western world has been given the title ‘world music’, an ethnocentric term as it merely describes the traditional folk music of those cultures.


Unsurprisingly the term ‘folk’ derives from ‘folk lore’ which describes stories and information passed through generations. It is also often used in the context of the oral and aural traditions of the lower classes, distinguishing itself from classical music and music performed for commercial gain.

In modern times (ie. the last few hundred years) folk developed in two strains separated by the Atlantic Ocean. The origins of both styles can be found in the music of the Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh migrants who arrived in the USA during the 18th Century with their songs and key instruments like the fiddle. When cultural cross-pollination occurred with African-American slaves in the 19th century it was the banjo that was appropriated from the subjugated workers and also became a key part of the American folk sound.

Emerging as a type of ‘white man’s blues’, folk in the USA chronicled the lives and struggles of the working class and geographically it was particularly influenced by, and linked to, the Appalachian region in the east of America. By the early 20th century folk music had become a genre with depth, history and a number of famous and popular songs such as Clementine and Grandfather’s Clock. Inevitably this popularity led to the commercialization of the style by institutions such as the Grand Ole Opry and documentation of the music by John Lomax and Harry Smith (Anthology Of American Folk Music) who tracked down and recorded the best and most original folk musicians.


There were a few pivotal figures in the popular folk revival of the 50s and 60s, none more important than Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Guthrie had grown up absorbing folk sounds from the likes of Leadbelly and upon arriving in New York in 1940 he fell in with Seeger who had a burgeoning career ahead with groups like The Almanac Singers, The Weavers, radio and TV shows and run-ins with the McCarthy witch hunts.

Two strands emerged from the New York scene; one was the easy listening pop-folk of groups such as The Kingston Trio, The Weavers and Peter, Paul and Mary and the other was a new generation of singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott who became educated in folk via the likes of Seeger and Guthrie and found a wealth of distinctive American songs that spoke to them musically and lyrically. Dylan as we all know went on to become the poster boy for the movement with songs like Blowin’ In The Wind before he set sail for wider and more eclectic (and electric) pastures.

The influence of the US folk scene very quickly fed into the UK revival. Initially it was the impetus for folk clubs and cafes to grow in number and popularity and from this emerged some leading lights. The Watersons were one traditional group that became extremely popular across the UK and featured the vocal and guitar talents of Martin Carthy. His role in the folk community was pivotal in that he was successful both as a solo performer, with The Watersons, and in future projects such as the electric folk group Steeleye Span.

As often happens with a genre that experiences a revival, the spirit of experimentation and evolution took hold in the 60s, particularly in the UK. The singer-songwriter strand developed with notable highlights being Nick Drake, John Martyn and Ralph McTell while a folk/rock/jazz hybrid also began to strongly emerge. Bands like Fairport Convention, Pentangle and The Incredible String Band reined in a variety of external sounds to create a quintessential British style that would play a large part in the development of psychedelic and progressive rock over the next decade.

Some musicians sidestepped the mainstream and chose to focus on their instruments, in particular the acoustic guitar. It had become a mainstay of the genre since the days of Guthrie and Dylan but in the 1960s a style developed that became known as folk baroque with its distinctive fingerpicking method and complex melodies. Davy Graham, Martin Carthy (see his version of Scarborough Fair), Bert Jansch (Angie) and John Renbourn (Winter Is Gone) became masters of the style, taking elements of jazz and blues and experimenting with tunings and structure to create yet another exciting strain of folk music. Their explorations are widely echoed in American guitarists like John Fahey, Robbie Basho and in recent times Jack Rose and Englishman James Blackshaw.


Where is this most ancient of genres heading in the 21st century? On the surface it may seem that folk music is not a vibrant scene. It doesn’t appear in the charts, shows like American Idol and X Factor don’t feature budding folk singers and you won’t hear Woody Guthrie ringtones jolting you from your daze on the morning train. Dig deeper and you’ll find a music community that is still honoring the past as well as moving forward and creating new folk legacies.

In the UK there continues to be a rich community of folk musicians plying their trade and keeping the tradition alive. The Cambridge, Oxford and Shetland Folk Festivals and a myriad network of others all allow established and budding musicians an audience to educate and entertain. The other side of the coin is that these types of events only enable preaching to the converted, an idea echoed by Eliza Carthy. “They are currently the best way to disseminate the music between people that might not otherwise get the chance to hear it, but they can be seen as a closed shop, for aficionados only. It is important to get out into the wider world if you are interested in playing to any other than the converted; if you wish to get trad music out to the people it supposedly belongs to.”

Contemporary acts like Carthy and The Unthanks are just two high profile UK acts creating music that is fresh yet true to its roots. They provide a template of how relevant folk music can still be today and taken out to the wider audience it deserves. Carthy enjoys taking elements of old songs and incorporating them into her own, much the same way that hip hop MC’s recycle lines from songs and DJ’s use sampling. “I enjoy cherry-picking favourite musical phrases from the tradition that I have studied, or sometimes whole melodies or snatches of lyric, and mixing them with my own composition and poetry. Woody Guthrie called it placing yourself in the tradition, giving people familiar melodies they may have heard when they were children, and giving them something new to chew over.

In the opinion of Carthy, the UK is still leading the way in providing venues and festivals to support the rich history of folk. “The US does have a pretty good small touring scene for small acoustic folk acts but the venues are generally either coffee houses or people’s houses. The US scene has yet to undergo the kind of revival that the UK has seen in recent years, with arts centres and theatres providing good bread and butter gigs for artists.” says Carthy.

Alongside the rise of americana in the last decade, folk music has also experienced a revival of sorts – but not always in its most pure format. Indie folk (often termed freak folk or new weird america) developed as a loose description of music that derived its sound from psychedelic and avant garde sources but was primarily folk in its acoustic delivery. Acts such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens and Fleet Foxes all use traditional instruments like guitar, banjo and harp and combined them with electric instruments and clever and original songwriting to push folk in a new direction.

Though venturing into new waters, these acts still retain strong links to the heritage of the genre. Bon Iver recorded his breakthrough album For Emma, Forever Ago in a remote Wisconsin cabin while Sufjan Stevens placed strong emphasis on people and places in his prolific writing. Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) is a good example of someone who has embraced folk by widening his americana stylings and collaborated with musicians like folk singer Dawn McCarthy and the bluegrass band Picket Line.

The ghosts of 60s folk are still haunting modern musicians and in 2009 The Monsters Of Folk released their debut album. Combining the talents of M Ward, Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Mike Mogis they are a reworked quartet of singer/musicians in the vein of Crosby Stills Nash and Young and like them they take the original folk ingredients and mix them up with country, rock and blues.

The future of folk is never in doubt as it is essentially the stories of people’s lives and experiences and they are the components of music that will never expire; with or without the influence of technology, wars, poverty and change. Those factors are in fact the fuel that ensures that folk music will continue to burn strongly as the voice of the people.

A Selection of Essential Folk

  • The Freewheelin’Bob Dylan – Bob Dylan. Dylan paying tribute to his mentor Woody Guthrie and his calling card as a new and crucial poet of the times.
  • Pink Moon – Nick Drake. Folk is taken to a sensitive and delicate place that is both soothing and sombre.
  • Dustbowl Ballads – Woody Guthrie. A stone cold classic from the 1940s that holds the key to Guthries playing and storytelling as a chronicler of the times.
  • Kensington Blues – Jack Rose. Sadly Rose passed away early this year but he left behind him a stunning collection of albums that showed him to be one of the greatest guitarists in recent times, exalting the past and stretching the possibilities for the instrument like Fahey had done before him.
  • Cripple Crow – Devendra Banhart. Never one to settle into any style or form, Banhart is a folk musician at heart. Cripple Crow is a masterclass in how the genre can be twisted and molded into new and exciting shapes.
  • Here’s The Tender Coming – The Unthanks. A great example of folk honoring its past and it is done exceptionally well in the hands of these sisters from the north of England.
  • Blues Run The Game – Jackson C. Frank. A beautiful collection of songs from a singer/songwriter who encountered much hardship in his life but contributed so much with his music. Great to see him finally being recognized.
  • Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes. Group singing is once again in fashion with this gorgeous blend of indie and folk that saw the hipsters embracing folk without even knowing they were.

Important Moments in Folk

  • 1912 – John Lomax elected president of the American Folklore Society. Lomax was a critical figure in documenting early slave, cowboy and folk songs.
  • 1949 – Pete Seeger’s The Weavers have a hit with Leadbelly’s ‘Goodnight, Irene’.
  • 1952 – Archivist Harry Smith releases his Anthology Of American Folk Music which goes on to influence nearly every budding folk singer.
  • 1961 – Bob Dylan arrives in New York and visits his idol Woody Guthrie in a psychiatric hospital.
  • 1969 – Fairport Convention release Liege & Lief, a landmark album in British electric folk.
  • 1970 – Folk supergroup Crosby, Stills and Nash release their debut album Deja Vu which would reach #1 on the US album charts.
  • 1980s – Protest folk songs became prominent in the commercial pop world with artists like Billy Bragg, Sinead O’Connor, Tracy Chapman and The Pogues all commenting on social and political issues.
  • 1996 – A new generation of contemporary English folk arrives with the release of Eliza Carthy’s debut album Heat, Light & Sound.
  • 2000 – The soundtrack to the film O’Brother Where Art Thou? takes folk and bluegrass music to a whole new generation of listeners, highlighting both the old (Ralph Stanley) and the new (Gillian Welch). By 2008 it had sold over 7 million copies in the USA.


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