Folk Music: Festivals, Artists, Instruments, Organizations

In the broadest sense, folk music is music of the people.  The word "folk" is derived from the German word "volk" which means people. 

Although there are exceptions, one can say that any music that's not art music (i.e. classical music) is folk music. 

hat means genres like rock, hip hop, and heavy metal are "folk music" or music of the people.

Of course, classifying those genres of popular music as "folk music" is seldom done and has few benefits.  What is more widely viewed as "folk music" is local/indigenous music that has endured the test of time, been orally transmitted, and whose composers are unknown.

Under this definition, we have music associated with specific geographical regions and their corresponding culture such as bluegrass, hambo, hula, klezmer, musette, skiffle, and zydeco.

Also falling within this genre are traditional songs used for specific purposes, such as Christmas Carols, drinking songs, war songs, and sea shanties. 

In the mid-20th century in North America, folk music experienced a major revival.  This revival was spearheaded by legends like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger.

Historians called this new type of folk music "contemporary folk music" or "folk revival music."  The other type, the type referenced above, is now referred to as "traditional folk music."  

For the rest of this article, the term "folk music" refers to "contemporary folk music."

Folk music is dominated by the acoustic guitar and usually highlights one singer, or multiple singers harmonizing. 

Folk songs are relatively simple.  They are frequently anchored by simple melodies and tell a relatable story about shared cultural experiences.

There's a lot of country music in folk music and it's typical for artists to play both genres. 

Nowadays, there are several subgenres within folk music including indie folk, Americana, folk punk, and folktronica.  There are several fusion genres including folk rock, folk blues, jazz folk, and folk metal.


Joni Mitchell at age 73 - Tony Varela Photography

Here is a list of selected popular folk artists:

Ani DiFranco
Arlo Guthrie
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Buffy Sainte-Marie
The Head & The Heart
Gordon Lightfoot
James Taylor
Joanna Newsom
Joni Mitchell
Judy Collins
Kingston Trio
Lucinda Williams
The Lumineers
Missy Raines Trio
Peter Yarrow
Ramblin Jack Elliott
Ricky Skaggs
Sloan Wainwright
Woody Pines


Due to its popularity and low technological demands, folk music is perfect for the festival format.  Below are some of the biggest, and most popular, folk music festivals in the world.

Calgary Folk Music Festival
Held at Prince's Island Park in Calgary, Alberta, the Calgary Folk Music Festival entertains fans every year in late July.

Cambridge Folk Festival
To attend the Cambridge Folk Festival, make your way to Cherry Hinton Hall in Cambridge, United Kingdom in early August.

Kerrville Folk Festival
The Kerrville Folk Festivals spans nearly three weeks.  It's held in the spring in Kerrville, Texas.

Lowell Folk Festival
One of the largest free events of its kind, the Lowell Folk Festival is held in Lowell, Massachusetts on the last full weekend in July.

National Folk Festival
Founded in 1934, the National Folk Festival does not have a set location.  It will, however, be in Salisbury, Maryland through 2020.

This world-renowned festival is held in late July in Newport, Rhode Island.

Northwest Folklife
Northwest Folklife is held in Seattle, Washington on Memorial Day weekend.  The event began in 1971 and welcomes about 250,000 visitors every year.

Philadelphia Folk Festival
You'll find the annual Philadelphia Folk Festival at the Old Poor Farm in Upper Salford, Pennsylvania.  It's usually held in mid-August.

Summerfolk Music Festival
Every year, the city of Owen Sound, Ontario welcomes visitors to the Summerfolk Music Festival.  The event takes place during the third weekend of August.

Vancouver Folk Music Festival
Visit Vancouver, B.C. on the third weekend in July to attend this amazing event.  The Vancouver Folk Music Festival was founded in 1978.

Viljandi Folk Music Festival
The Viljandi Folk Music Festival is dedicated to European folk music.  It's held in Viljandi, Estonia in late July.


Peter Yarrow


Recorded Folk Music

Itunes, Pandora, SoundCloud, Slacker Radio, and Amazon Music are just a few of the place you can visit to stream or download folk music.

If you're looking to add to your physical folk music collection, and you don't know where to start, we have some suggestions for you. 

Below, are ten of the best folk albums of all-time. 

Woody Guthrie – Dust Bowl Ballads (1940)
Odetta – Odetta Sings Folk Songs (1963)
Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin' (1964)
Leonard Cohen – Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
Fairport Convention – Liege and Leif (1969)
Joni Mitchell - Court and Spark (1974)
Richard and Linda Thompson – I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
Bonnie "Prince" Billy – I See A Darkness (1999)
Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

Locations in Southern and Central Appalachia visited by the British folklorist
Cecil Sharp in 1916 (blue), 1917 (green), and 1918 (red). Sharp sought "old world"
English and Scottish ballads passed down to the region's inhabitants from their
British ancestors. He collected hundreds of such ballads, the most productive
areas being the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Cumberland
Mountains of Kentucky. By Brian Stansberry using a U.S. National Atlas
template via Wikimedia Commons


Folk Organizations

Folk music is so important to our cultural heritage that like-minded individuals have banded together to promote and preserve it.  Below, are ten of the most prominent folk music organizations. 
Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music
Since 1972, BFOTM has been preserving traditional American music through the performance of bluegrass and other old-time music genres.

Folk Alliance International
Folk Alliance International promotes professional and amateur folk musicians.

FolkWorks provides an alternative voice to folk music for fans in Southern California.

International Council for Traditional Music

The ICTM is a scholarly organization that consults UNESCO.

Old Town School of Folk Music
Founded in the late 1950s, Old Town School of Folk Music keeps the genre alive through hundreds of accredited classes.

Philadelphia Folksong Society
Dating back to 1957, the Philadelphia Folksong Society works to secure the past, present, and future of folk music.

The Portland FolkMusic Society
The PFS sponsors a wide variety of events that promote folk music in Portland, Oregon.

The Sounding Board
The Sounding Board works tirelessly to keep folk music alive and well in the Greater Hartford area.

Susquehanna Folk Music Society
The aim of the SFMS is to advance traditional, contemporary, and international folk music and folk culture.

The Woody Guthrie Center
The Woody Guthrie Center is located in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Its mission is preserving the legacy of its namesake.


Folk Instruments

Obviously, the acoustic guitar and the singer are the backbone of folk music.  The genre, however, utilizes the timbres of many different types of instruments.

Here are ten instruments that are frequently used by folk musicians.

Accordion – The accordion can be heard in folk music as well as Cajun and klezmer.

Banjo – The banjo is very popular in bluegrass music.

Dobro – This is an acoustic guitar with a metal resonator.  The metal resonator makes the dobro louder than a typical acoustic guitar.

Folk music instruments

Dulcimer – Although it has features you'd expect in an acoustic guitar, dulcimers are actually members of the zither family.

Fiddle –  Fiddles and violins are technically the same instrument.  Yet, folk musicians use a different technique than their classical counterparts.

Harmonica – The most portable of all folk instruments is the harmonica.  This instrument is also known as a mouth harp.

Jug – Jugs used in folk music are generally the stoneware kind and are played like a brass instrument.

Mandolin – Members of the lute family, mandolins look like tiny acoustic guitars.

Ukulele – There are four sizes of ukuleles: baritone, concert, soprano, and tenor.

Washboard – A folk musician plays the washboard by tapping the metal surface in an up-and-down motion.


Books on Folk Music

As you might imagine, there's an endless supply of fascinating stories about a musical genre that's based on fascinating stories.  The following books are all available on Amazon.

Bound for Glory: The Hard-Driving, Truth-Telling, Autobiography of America's Great Poet-Folk Singer
Woody Guthrie

Exploring American Folk Music: Ethnic, Grassroots, and Regional Traditions in the United States
Kip Lornell

Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival
Stephen Petrus and Ron Cohen

Folk Music: A Regional Exploration
Norman Cohen

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties Paperback
Suze Rotolo

The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir
Dave Van Ronk 

100 Books Every Folk Music Fan Should Own
Dick Weissman

Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics
Jean R. Freedman

Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music
Benjamin Filene

Singing Out: An Oral History of America's Folk Music Revivals
David King Dunaway


Folk Podcasts and Online Streaming

Another way to connect with the folk music community is through podcasts.  Here are ten programs that focus all, or most, of their energies on folk music.

All the Traditions
Bucktown Folk Music Podcast
The Folk Music Hour
The Folk Show
Invisible Folk Club Podcasts
Jim Moran's Folk Music Podcast
The Mike Harding Folk Show

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