Folk Music

What is folk music? Well, there’s folk music and there’s folk music. And both of them are music by folks for folks.

Got it? Not really, I guess. I’ll try again, then!

There are two types of folk music. The first is normally very old and nobody really knows who the composer is. It is music that belongs to a people or a culture. It is the music of the ordinary people within that culture. And it is the music these people have played, or sung, to one another for a very long time. If you know any nursery rhymes, you will know some of this type of folk music.

The other type of folk music is music that is written to sound like the other sort. It is music by composers that sounds a bit like the old folk music. Or it could even be the old folk music itself written or played differently from before. This means that sometimes it isn’t very clear which type of folk music is which! But who cares? That’s what folk music is about. It is the music of the ordinary people played, or sung, by ordinary people. It is for anyone to play however they like!

I think folk music is one of the most fun and interesting types of music there is.

Why do I think this? Well, folk music is fun because it’s music that anyone can join in with! And it’s interesting because every single culture has their own folk music! There’s English folk music, Scottish folk music, Welsh folk music, Irish folk music, American folk music, South American folk music, Polish folk music, Hungarian folk music, Russian folk music, Chinese folk music, Australian Aboriginal folk music…and so on and so on. And each is so very different from the other.

But what is even more interesting is that folk music goes right to the heart of a culture. It says something about what is important to that culture. In fact, you could almost say that folk music is what different cultures sounds like! We can learn so much about a culture by listening to their folk music. And if we hear folk music from our own culture, it can stir up some very deep emotions.

I think the best way understand folk music is to watch these videos.

  • English folk music (with Morris dancing):
  • English folk music

  • Scottish folk music:
  • Scottish folk music

  • Welsh folk music:
  • Welsh folk music

  • Irish folk music:
  • Irish folk music

  • American folk music:
  • American folk music

  • South American folk music:
  • South American folk music

  • Polish folk music:
  • Polish folk music

  • Hungarian folk music:
  • Hungarian folk music

  • Russian folk music:
  • Russian folk music

  • Chinese folk music:
  • Chinese folk music

  • Australian Aboriginal folk music:
  • Australian Aboriginal folk music

  • And here’s some Māori folk music from my home country of New Zealand:
  • Māori folk music

Like I said, they’re all very different aren’t they?

However you may also have noticed that some things are very similar. For example:

  • The music is quite simple.
  • On the whole there aren’t many musicians.
  • There are some unusual instruments.
  • There is often dancing as well as music.
  • The music is often played outside for anyone to watch.
  • The musicians often look like quite ordinary people.

Can you think of anything else the videos have in common?

So now you know what folk music is! There’s just one more thing to say about folk music. Folk music often mixes with other types of music, such as classical music. The most well-known mix of folk music and classical music is jazz.

Here is a another mix of folk and classical music. It is a video of four British and Irish folk songs arranged by the composer Benjamin Britten.

Britten Folk Songs

It’s quite different from the folk music above, isn’t it? But then again, it’s also very different from normal classical music too! (For example, did you catch the joke at the end of the last song?).

Picture credits:
  1. Musicians at a folk music festival. This photograph was taken at the Viljandi Folk Music Festival in Viljandi, Estonia on 28th July 2007. The image in the public domain. Click here for the source of this image, along with the relevant copyright information.
Video credits:
  1. Morris dance for Jimmy Brooks. To the tune of ‘Lord of the Dance’ in the style of dances from Oddington in Oxfordshire. Danced by Thames Valley Morris Men on Boxing Day 2006. Many thanks to Terry Knott for the video. Copyright Terry Knott.
  2. The Corries – Loch Lomond. The Official Corries Website The Corries – Loch Lomond.
  3. Alawon Traddodiadol – Traditional Tunes : Glyn Tawe. Deg o Alawon Traddodiadol Cymreig gyda Delyth Jenkins, ar ran neuadd Les Ystradgynlaids a trac / Ten Welsh Traditional tunes played by Delyth Jenkins for Ystradgynlais Welfare Hall and trac: Glân meddwdod Mwyn Môn Hela’r Sgwarnog Cysga Di fy Mhlentyn Tlws Dafydd Ifan tomos Pwt ar y Bys Glan Camlad Glyntawe Y Washael Ffidl Ffadl.
  4. Dervish – Traditional Irish Music from Clip 4. Traditional Irish music from, this time with supergroup Dervish, playing an intimate session at Hargadon’s Bar in the centre of Sligo, Ireland. The entire session was broadcast live worldwide over the internet.
  5. Omagh Knotty Pine 4 Music Greengrass. Knotty pine 4th July celebrations in Ulster American Folk Park Omagh.
  6. The music from South America. 2006 10 15 San Diego Swap Meet.
  7. Zakopane Poland at the U Zieby restaurant 10-5-09. Zakopane Poland 10-5-09.
  8. Hungarian Folkmusic …dancing kids on the street. The person who posted this on YouTube writes: Last summer was a big Folklor Festival in my town. MY friends playing traditional hungarian folk music on the street for fun, the kids try to dance to it :&#41 adorable :&#41.
  9. Russian folk song Korobushka M.Smirnov & Barynya. Mikhail Smirnov is singing Russian folk song “Korobushka”. Video recorded in Lakeside, Ohio, July 2007. Balalaika-contrabass – Leonid Bruk, balalaika – Alex Siniavski, Mikhail Smirnov- garmoshka, vocal, Alexander Menshikov – buben, vocals.
  10. Chinese zither guzheng music-Liu Yang River 浏阳河. Liu Yang River浏阳河, originally a folk song in Hunan Province for memorizing Mao Zedong.
  11. Didgeridoo. This is didgeridoo player Larry ‘Winiwini’ Gurruwiwi, an extraordinary talent and son of famed didgeridoo craftsman Djalu Gurruwiwi. In north-east Arnhem Land where Larry and Djalu come from, the didgeridoo is known as the ‘yirdaki’. You might also sometimes see it spelt ‘yidaki’. There is more information about this one on the video’s YouTube page.
  12. PCC New Zealand Maori Song/Dance. The person who posted this on YouTube writes: My wonderful friends dancing to a Maori Song in the New Zealand Village at the PCC.
  13. Britten Folk Songs. Benjamin Britten’s arrangements of The trees they grow so high, The Ash Grove, Sweet Polly Oliver, and The last rose of summer.