As the name implies, folk music tells the stories of the people. Early American folk music is a storied history of the people who came to create America and the way they lived their lives. Writers of folk songs retell heroic tales, enshrine the joys and tragedy of everyday life, create wonderful love songs, songs of humorous intent and songs that bring important social issues to the forefront of our consciousness. Folk music is primarily a format for telling / singing stories, often with rich harmonies of voices. These vocal qualities of folk music are generally the highlight of the style.
Although distinctly modal at times, American folk music generally follows the tuning and combinations of colors as provided by European equal temperament. It's predominant colors are the major and minor pentatonic colors and the major / relative minor scales, with the vast majority of songs being written in the major tonality. Most often played with a guitar accompaniment, folk songs are based on the three primary chords of the major tonality, the One Four and Five chords created as open chords on the guitar. These chords are strummed to create the rhythm and often embellished with a fingerpicking or flat pick sequence termed a roll. Here's the idea. Example 1, a folk "blueprint."
Traditional folk songs are for the most part diatonic, rarely modulate or borrow pitches from other keys. When other keys are required, a capo is often the solution. The common musical forms in the folk style are clearly structured and to a certain degree quite predictable, as it is the vocal delivery of the poetry / story of the song which is the featured aspect of the style. Rhythmically the folk song is mainly in 4 / 4 time, with the tempos in keeping with the nature of the story being told. A common addition instrumentally in the folk style is the harmonica, allowing a single performer to create improvised lines with a different melodic color while keeping the rhythm and harmony of the song going with guitar.
Bluegrass. Bluegrass is sort of the jazzy version of folk music, totally down home and with a groove that gets the toes a tappin in a hurry, might male ya holler a bit ya never know, either way the cool bluegrass sounds are the dancer's delight. Contemporary bluegrass instruments include guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and upright bass. The basic theoretical elements of folk and bluegrass are the same, the big differences are in tempo and ride time. Bluegrass tunes tend to hop right along tempo wise, the brighter tempos of this style demanding a much greater technique of the players. Often instrumental songs, the melodies, while remaining for the most part diatonic, are oftentimes a real challenge for the performing artist. Diligent and ongoing shedding are often required to keep these melodies crisply under the fingers. In performance, the improvisational aspect of bluegrass is pert near to be expected, and even though the solos are relatively short, everyone in the band is expected ( ? ) to improvise a bit on the melody in most every tune. So often one chorus of the tune is divided up among the players, so each soloist could get 8 bars or so. Groups with stronger soloists will do this a couple of times to give everyone a chance to stretch a bit. So although bluegrass is very much like folk music in regards to the musical elements used to create it, the tempos are brighter, more songs are played instrumentally and the inclusion of sections for improvisation are always welcome.
Country. American country music has undergone some rather startling changes over the last 25 years or so. So much like folk music in it's basic musical elements, if a folk band goes electric and adds a drummer, their country. Just kidding of course. But there is a solid thread of truth in the idea. Country stars of yesterday were cowboys strumming guitars backed by great, although perhaps somewhat conservative bands and song arrangements. Today the big stars are still cowboys and play guitar, but the bands behind them, the arrangements they play and the energy they create has gone to a whole new and very exciting level. Like folk music, most popular country tunes are in a major key, rarely modulate and feature a way happening vocal line interspersed with blistering solos. That the band is electric is I think what makes the difference, the added drummer and so often the pedal steel guitar, a hybrid electric string instrument that creates very cool country sounds and is a bear to play well, compliments acoustic and electric guitars, fiddles, banjos and horns. Horns in a country band? Oops, just kidding! Either way, today's country music is very cool, very dance orientated and makes for some easy listening music.
Folk rock. Is this like where the folk group adds a rock drummer? Why ain't it country then? Well it is and it isn't. Although no definitive line of demarcation exists between these styles, it would be the overall tone and statement of the group that would determine the genre of the music. Folk rock is mostly folk songs with a steady 4 / 4 drum beat, rarely if ever gets out of control and the topic of their songs follow in more of the folk tradition than country. Got that? Just kidding. Does it really matter all that much? You bet, to the players it means the world. So, basically the same musical elements as folk music? Yep.
So, not all that much variation in the musical elements used in creating these folk based styles eh? Are the same songs often done in the different genres? Absolutely, that is one part of making players into stars. So the distinction between these genres is more about acoustic / electric than musical elements? Pretty much, although adding a drummer who plays rock grooves tends to give it all away anyway right?
Here is a historical listing of prominent folk singers and the era in which they emerged, to help the emerging folk artist get started in learning about the rich tradition of their chosen style of music.
|Woody Gutherie||1930's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Bill Monroe||1940's / bluegrass||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Johnny Cash||1950's folk / country||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Willie Nelson||1950's folk / country||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Hank Williams||1950's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Pete Seeger||1950's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Bob Dylan||1960's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Joan Baez||1960's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Arlo Gutherie||1960's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|James Taylor||1970's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Joni Mitchell||1970's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|John Denver||1970's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Joan Armatrading||1980's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Annie De Franco||1990's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
|Jewel||1990's||guitar / vocalist / composer|
Here is a list of folk songs to help the beginning player find some roots.
|Amazing Grace||folk / spiritual|
|America The Beautiful||folk / classic melody|
|Blowin In The Wind||Bob Dylan|
|Foggy Mountain Breakdown||bluegrass|
|Mr. Tambourine Man||Bob Dylan|
|Mr. Bo Jangles||Jerry Jeff Walker|
|The Weight||The Band|
|Old Joe Clark||folk / traditional / bluegrass|
|Oh Susanna||folk / Stephan Foster|
|Folsom Prison Blues||Johnny Cash|
|Scarboro Fair||English traditional|
|Swing Low, Sweet Chariot||spiritual / traditional|
Curriculum. Would some ideas in developing a curriculum help you get started?
What songs are on your list to learn? Have you started a list of songs to learn? If not, perhaps pick one from the list above ...
Do you have a favorite song to learn? Can you sing the melody?
Is it in a major key? Minor key?
Do you have written music for the song? Can you read standard music notation?
Are you going to sing and play guitar? What folk instrument do you wish to play?
If the guitar is your instrument, do you know the letter names of the open strings? Can you figure out the letter names of the fretted pitches?
Do you have some of the open chords under your fingers?
Can you spell out the pitches of these chords?
Are you using a pick or fingers to strum the strings?
Have you developed any finger style picking patterns yet?
Are you ready to write songs of your own ideas?
Need some input on how to proceed with your studies?
Dost thou love life? Then do not squander Time, for that's the stuff life is made of. Benjamin Franklin
Additional titles for the emerging Folkster ...
Black is color of my try loves hair
I wonder as i wander
On top of ole smokey
Streets of Lorado
Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child
Blue Tail Fly
Oh Brother Where Art Thou ... movie Odyssius
Morning Has Broken / Cat Stevens
Mr. Bojangles / Jerry Jeff Walker
Alice's Restaurant / Woody Gutherie / a song where the story is spoken not sung.
I don't wait for moods. You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know that it has to get down to work. Pearl S. Buck