The first thing we must do before we start this week’s musical investigation is decide what we’re going to call the music we’re investigating. The term “folk music” is kind of vague; basically it could refer to any music folks from a particular place make, concerning pretty much any topic, created by the “folks” who live there. In America, early “folks” who settled (the already-settled) “New World” came from many places, including European countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany, and, not as willingly, Africa. Life in America was far from easy for any of the colonists, let along for their African slaves. These folks sang about their struggles as a way to share them. They sang about their struggles as a way to survive. As we’ll learn, “country” music developed as Appalachian and Southeastern folk moved West, following the railroads to the wide American plains. At some point “folk” remained “folk” while “country” split off to become “country.” That exact moment of separation is hard to pin down, though in a sense we’ll try. In any case, American “folk” and “country” are still close cousins, and may always be.
Lately the term “American roots music” has become increasingly popular as a way to refer to a broad variety of musical traditions that have developed for centuries in different parts of the country. Between the turn of the 20th century and the 1960s, the term “folk” was used to cover most forms of long-term American music, from Appalachian mountain music to Delta blues to Louisiana cajun music to Texan conjunto. In the ’60s, thanks to popular folk artists like Bob Dylan, “folk” developed an identity as a separate form. This left the other American genres, as well as newly included but even more established genres like Native American music, out in the lurch. When referring to them, musicologists began to use the umbrella term “roots.”
In this exploration, since we’re going to focus on the most “folky” of folk music–Appalachian mountain music and its relationship with American country–we’ll nod to the concept of “roots” music, but we’ll use the term “folk.” When we talk about “folk music,” we’ll remember to look beyond Dylan and consider the term in it broadest sense. “Folk” is music made by “folks.” So, let’s learn about folks.
And there were a lot of “folks,” in America, most of whom hailed from somewhere else. And, as we mentioned above, life was hard, and hard-living folks sang about their hard lives. Still, immigrants also brought joyful elements of their old cultures to the new world. British and Irish immigrants sang ballads from their ancient islands, epic tales about seafaring and saucy stories about the Queen, French immigrants brought their Republican anthems and their quadrille dances. Germans and other Central European immigrants brought their accordions and their rousing polkas, while Italians carried their mandolins and played passionate tunes. Even African slaves, who had the most right to sing songs of struggle, found a way, through their music, to hope.
By the late 1700s this jumble of immigrants had found a way to form a nation, and in this nation they mixed with each other even more. Though this new America was as segregated as they come, the different racial and cultural groups were curious about each other. We’ll start our story of the history and development of American folk music in the early 1800s with an embarrassingly racist tradition that had the unintended effect of breaking down walls of misunderstanding that had developed between the races.
In the early part of the 19th century white Americans demonstrated their curiosity about African-American music in a less than flattering way by developing “minstrel shows.” In these shows white and black performers alike painted their faces black–a comic motif that originated in the Colonies before the American Revolution–and imitated African slaves, recreating slave culture in an exaggerated, mocking way. By the 1840s these shows had become popular enough that several minstrel groups, such as Dan Emmet’s Virginia Minstrels, were able to tour the States, inadvertently introducing the nation to incredible
African-American music like “Negro spirituals” and to African-inspired instruments like the banjo. [Learn more about the history of minstrel shows.]