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The Place of Folk Music in Contemporary Society Report

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Updated: Jun 7th, 2019


According to Bohlman (1988), folklore and culture are closely related. To this end, folklore is part and parcel of the culture practiced in a given society. The various aspects of culture can be traced in the folklore associated with that particular society.

So, what exactly is folklore? According to Morrison (2003), it is that entity made up of legends, proverbs, stories, and such other expressive features associated with the ways of life of a given group of people. The word itself is traced back to W. Thoms, one of the most famous historians in England.

The persistence of folklore over time, as well as its distinct nature from one group of people to the other, has captured the attention of scholars in this field. Folklore, as an academic field, is divided into four major categories. The first is artefact, which entails the study of the physical aspects of folklore. The physical aspects in this case include, among others, musical instruments and costumes. The second category entails the study of what MacNeil (1987) describes as ‘describable and transmissible’ aspect of the field.

The category entails the study of oral tradition, which is characterised by songs, dances, folktales, among others. The third category entails the study of culture. To this end, the folklorist is interested in the entire way of life of a given group of persons. The last category entails the study of behaviours. In this case, the scholar focuses on the rituals and other practices associated with a given society.

Folk music is one of the various genres of folklore (Bohlman, 1988). The study of this genre can be described as one of the sub-branches of the describable and transmissible (Middleton, 2002) aspects of folklore. Folk music describes two major categories of ‘music’. The first is traditional music, which is passed (mostly orally) from one generation to the other. The second is the type of music that sprouted from traditional music in the 20th century. According to Morrison (2003), this period is described as the folk revival period.

The current paper revolves around folk music in contemporary society. The author appreciates the fact that this genre of folklore has persisted to the 21st century. However, the survival or ‘existence’ of this genre is endangered by commercial and classical music, whose popularity has increased in modern day society. In spite of all this, folk music persists. In addition to this persistence, the author will focus on attributes of folk music, contemporary folk music, and revival of this genre in modern society.

Folk Music in Modern Day Society

So, what exactly is traditional folk music? According to Bohlman (1988), a consistent conceptualisation of this genre is hard to structure. But one thing remains constant; the genre is different from modern day commercial music, which is produced and marketed using modern day technology.

If one is to go with Thoms’ conceptualisation of folk lore, then it appears that folk music is one of the aspects characterising uncivilised cultures (MacNeil, 1987). The music is associated with the ways of life of ‘superstitious and uncultured’ social groups. Perhaps, the definition of folk music may be made clear by an analysis of the characteristics of this genre. An analysis of these characteristics will help in highlighting the status of folk music in modern day society.

Characteristics of Folk Music

Transmission of folk music

Mode of transmission is one of the factors that create a distinction between traditional and contemporary folk music sub-genres. According to Bohlman (1988), the former was passed down from one generation to the other through oral tradition. Before the twentieth century, the music was largely associated with members of the working class, including farm and factory workers. In most cases, these groups were illiterate.

As such, the only way they could learn or acquire folk songs is through memorisation (Middleton, 2002). Transmission of folk music in contemporary society has changed significantly. In modern society, the transmission is enhanced by books and electronic records. To this end, artists enhance their repertoire by the help of such additions as compact discs and books. However, it is important to note that the enhancements and the original songs are largely similar.

Folk music and culture

As already indicated in this paper, there is close relationship between folklore and culture. The same link extends to folk music and culture given that the former is a genre of folk lore. According to Middleton (2002), folk music is culturally distinct. For example, Celtic traditional folk music differs from the one associated with East African communities. The same applies to contemporary folk music in the two regions. To this end, it is argued that the music is particular to a given national culture. The music is especially important to a group of immigrants. In such a group, the genre is used to enhance social cohesion and distinguish the group from others in the area. For example, Somali Americans come together to enjoy their traditional music in the United States of America. The music sets them apart from other groups in the country.

Folk music and its relationship with historical and personal events

Another characteristic of folk music (both traditional and contemporary folk music) is the fact that it is closely related to historical and personal events. It is a fact beyond doubt that music, just like any other form of art, reflects the values and aspirations of the society at that particular time. The same applies to folk music. In addition to this, the music is usually used to commemorate particular days of the year. For example, the songs are used to observe such events as initiation, weddings, funerals and such others.

When looking at folk music and its relationship with events, one cannot help but notice the link between this genre and the ordinary working folk. According to Morrison (2003), folk music is hardly the favourite for the noble class. It has its origin (and wholly owned) by the working class. Before the 20th century, individuals in the working class were largely illiterate. The illiteracy explains why the music depends on oral tradition for its transmission from one generation to the other.

Both traditional and contemporary folk music is a narrative of the individuals who own it. In other words, it provides history from the perspective of the working class. Frank Harte, an iconic figure in folk music, once described this music as the pen used by the working class to write history. According to him, the individuals who are in power (the bourgeoisie) write the formal history as we know it. On their part, the proletariat writes the songs (read folk music).

It is possible to tell the prevailing currents in the society by listening to the folk music composed at that particular time in history. As already indicated, the folk music will describe the events from the perspective of the proletariat. A case in point is the Great Depression that affected the American economy in the 1930s.

Folk songs composed during this period told of the hardships people faced during that time. Take, for example, the folk song ‘We Shall Overcome’. The song is, in most cases, associated with civil activism of the 1960s in America. The words in the song tell a lot about the war the activists were waging against the establishment. Below is the first stanza of this folk song:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome,
We shall overcome someday;
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday (Lacey, 2007, par. 1).

From the song, one can tell that the ‘folks’ were sure that they will overcome their hardships. They will overcome the oppression from the whites, the oppressions from the capitalists, and such other hardships. To this end, one can argue that folk music, even today, tells a lot about the current situation of the people’s lives.

Folk Music in Modern Society, Nationalism, and Cultural Identity

One cannot talk about the place of folk music in contemporary society without mentioning nationalism and cultural identity. Nationalism can be conceptualised from the perspective of national identity. The latter is described by Morrison (2003) as those traits that bring together individuals in a given country. Similarly, the traits set the individuals apart from those in other countries. The distinct nature of national identity gives rise to nationalism.

Folk music is one of the expressive aspects of culture. It is used by groups of people to establish and sustain their national identity (or nationalism). Morrison (2003) gives the example of folk music in Hungary. According to Morrison, B. Bartok and Dance House Movement have used folk music to create and sustain nationalism in the country. The movement has its roots in the early 1970s. It was created with the sole intention of reviving folk music in the country and using the same to enhance nationalism.

Teffara (2006) supports Morrison’s idea that folk music is used to create and sustain national identity. Teffara uses the example of folk music among East African communities. The music, according to Teffara, is used to foster and reinforce communal ties. Apart from the songs, Teffara says that the music instruments used in the process play the same role.

Folk music and musical instruments associated with it were used by leaders to assert their authority. The instruments connoted status and authority. For example, according to Teffara (2006), Ethiopian emperors amassed large numbers of negarit. They were drums shaped like a kettle and which played a significant role during royal occasions.

However, one may say that the above statement (which links folk music to members of the royal family), goes against the statement made earlier in this paper to the effect that folk music is largely associated with the downtrodden members of the society. The author of this paper argues that the love of folk music by the elite members of the society is unique to Africa and other developing nations. As already mentioned in this paper, F. Harte associated this music with the uncivilised and uncultured members of the society.

That description appears particular for folk music in the western world. However, it can be extended to African and other developing nations. Individuals in these countries (from the nobles to their subjects) fall under the category defined by F. Harte. The status of these individuals is especially evident when viewed from the perspective of western cultures. That is why folk music was (and continues to be) important to African communities.

Transformation and Variation of Folk Music in Contemporary Society

As already indicated in this paper, transmission of folk music relies heavily on oral culture. To this end, the music is passed on from one generation to the other or from one group to the other (within the community) through the word of mouth (Bohlman, 1988). Oral transmission is inaccurate and fails to capture the material transmitted, as Middleton (2002) puts it, word-for-word.

As a result, one folk song may vary from one time to the other. In fact, majority of traditional artists are naturally creative. The artists, deliberately, alter the songs they learn. The altered version is transmitted to the group that comes into contact with the artist.

An example of this transformation is the song ‘We Shall Overcome’, which was analysed above. A similar version of the song was compiled by A. Tindley in the early 1900s.

The version by Tindley significantly differs with the version used by American civil rights activists in the 1960s. The variation between the two versions can be traced beginning with their respective titles. The earlier version by Tindley was titled ‘I’ll Overcome Someday’ (Bohlman, 1988). The version used by Martin Luther King and his ilk was titled ‘We Shall Overcome’. A lot can be said about the transformation of the folk song’s title. For starters, the version by Tindley creates a picture of struggle on a personal level.

The use of ‘I will overcome’ indicates that the individual is waging a personal battle against the vagaries of the world. But the case is different for the version used by civil rights activists. The title ‘We Will Overcome’ sounds like a rallying call to a group of people. It creates a picture of a struggle on a group’s level. In this case, the black Americans (a group) are waging war against the ‘racist’ whites (the opposing group).

Apart from the titles, the words in the two versions vary to express the desires and aspirations of the target group. Just like in its title, the words of the folk song by Tindley remain personal. The version by the civil rights activists talks of ‘we shall overcome’, a clear indication that this is war by a group of people.


The study of folk songs in contemporary society is an interesting field. It is interesting to note that folk music has persisted over time. One reason why the music has persisted is its close link with culture. In this paper, the author noted that folk music is used to establish and sustain the cultural identity (and national identity) of a given group of persons.

The music is largely associated with the uncultured and uncivilised groups in the society. However, as members of the working class become educated and civilised, the folk music transforms to reflect this change. To this end, it can be argued that folk music is still relevant in contemporary society.


Bohlman, P. V. (1988). The study of folk music in the modern world. Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Lacey, K. (2007). We shall overcome lyrics: Various artists. Web.

MacNeil, J. N. (1987). Tales until dawn. London: McGill-Queen’s Press.

Middleton, R. (2002). Studying popular music. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Morrison, C. (2003). Not about nationalism: The role of folk song in identity process. Student Conference Journal, 2(3), 13-20.

Teffara, T. (2006). The role of traditional music among East African societies: The case of selected aerophones. Tautosakos Darbai, 23, 36-49.

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