Folk music means a lot of things to a lot of people and, hey, that’s cool. I’m not here to tell people they’re wrong about what the folk music genre is to them but, let’s face it, the definitions can get a bit confusing.
The majority believe that anything performed on an acoustic guitar is folk music. This includes acoustic guitar covers of pop songs, pop punk and so on. The acoustic guitar is definitely the people’s instrument thanks to its versatility so I can understand why people would think this but it sort of strays from what folk music is at its core.
Yes, Louis Armstrong did say that all music is folk music but I’ve always thought that quote makes folk music less identifiable. Like it steals the identity of folk music.
A Folk Music Definition and the Identity of Folk Music
So if folk music isn’t anything that is performed on instruments that are not digitally amplified and if it’s not every music genre in human history, what is it then? Folk music tells a story.
Many of you already know my stance on this because it is my entire focus as a songwriter and musician. Let me explain why the only criteria to something being folk music is the simple fact that it tells a story.
For centuries people have been telling stories. It’s how culture is built and passed on through generations. One way to easily pass these stories on was through the use of song. Melodies are more memorable than just plain words so it makes since that a culture would want to tell stories with music rather than relying on people memorizing entire passages.
You can see this in Native American folk songs, music from African tribes, songs from the Indian culture and even in America with songs about hard work and emigrating from home lands.
Music is used in each one of these cultures to pass stories on to the next generation. Otherwise, much of their history would be forgotten. Sometimes folk music doesn’t even need words to tell a story either. Music is used with dance to tell a story and sometimes musical pieces must be performed at a certain time of day and never outside of that time because there is a story behind why. Many Indian Ragas adhere to these time rules for example.
My point is that folk music does not have to be acoustic. All it has to do is tell a story. A real story. With a climax, theme, problems to be resolved and so on. It’s a pretty simple definition when you think about it, right?
Modern Folk Music
Now you may be thinking, “wait, so you’re still incorporating music from other genres into a folk music definition?” You’re absolutely right but it’s based on the fact that folk music must have a story. It certainly gives folk music more of an identity than simple saying that all music is folk music.
I enjoy the acoustic guitar and other acoustic instruments in the folk music I create because it’s in my roots. That’s how I was brought up and I feel like I can tell my stories best that way at this point in in my life.
But like I said, folk music doesn’t have to be acoustic. An example of a piece of modern folk music based on my definition of folk music is the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” theme song. Just listen to it. The song obviously tells a story, there was a problem that got resolved and it portrays experiences a man has between two completely different places in the US. It has connected with many people who still see the show as an iconic part of our culture and they are sure to encourage their children to stream it on Netflix in the future. Thereby passing the story onto the next generation.
And that’s exactly what folk music is all about.