Folk Music

Technically folk music encompasses an extremely wide range of music and traditions from around the world, including many of those mentioned in the World Music Guide as those are musical traditions of the people passed down through generations. However, the genre we are going to be focusing on today is probably what comes to mind when you hear the term folk music; contemporary folk music is the popular form that was revived in the 20th century with which you would associate the likes of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

Contemporary Folk

Contemporary folk music, or now more commonly just known as folk music, refers to the revival of folk music that occurred in the 20th century when new, more popular forms appeared that had links to traditional folk music. During the genre’s formative years of 1930s-1950s artists such as Woody Guthrie set a precedent for the genre by singing traditional and original songs, as well as displaying firm political views. Guthrie could often be identified by the phrase ‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ which was displayed on his guitar. Other artists such as Burl Ives commercialised and popularised folk music in this period. In 1958 the Kingston Trio achieved notable success with their song Tom Dooley, indicating the beginning of the era of popular folk music. Moving into the 60s, one of the main social issues was that of civil rights and the Vietnam War. Folk music was a platform to address these current issues and so became central to protests and activist movements. Various leading folk singers, including Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, became key figures, writing songs about peace and the war such as Dylan’s Masters of War and The Times They Are A-Changin’, and Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum. Contemporary folk music is typically characterised by its emphasis on meaningful lyrics over complex composition. The lyrics most often comment on social issues, hardships, and potential future change. The music often relies on acoustic instruments playing simple chord progressions in a simple time signature, although from the 60s onwards electric instruments such as the electric guitar began to be used. 

Notable artists:

Woody Guthrie

Burl Ives

Bob Dylan

Joni Mitchell

Leonard Cohen

Country Folk

Country folk is a term that arose in the mid-1970s when singers took influence from leading folk artists, namely Bob Dylan, and began to write gentler, lyric-based music that incorporated typical country instruments. Some of the earliest and most influential artists that successfully fused these elements include John Prine, Kate Wolf and John Denver. Prine was immediately effective in combining these influences with his eponymous debut album in 1971, containing songs such as Sam Stone which comments on the issue of drug addiction among war veterans. More specifically this has been viewed as a reference to the heroin addiction of soldiers returning from the Vietnam war. A few years later, John Denver released his album Back Home Again which displays some clear country characteristics, especially in the hit songs Thank God I’m a Country Boy and Annie’s Song. The subgenre continued to progress, combining other influences more aligned with country rock however some artists, such as Iris DeMent and Sarah Jarosz, maintain the gentler sound of country folk. The music differs from typical 20th century folk music as it includes instruments such as the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and steel guitar. Like folk music however, the songs are structurally and harmonically simpler, emphasising the lyrics which are often focused on romantic or social topics. 

Notable artists:

John Prine

John Denver

Iris DeMent

Sarah Jarosz

Kate Wolf

Psychedelic Folk

Psychedelic folk music is a branch of folk music that took the established base characteristics of folk and included psychedelic themes into the instrumentation and thematic ideas. The term first appeared in reference to The Holy Modal Rounders’ 1964 version of Hesitation Blues. Around the same time, folk guitarist John Fahey was experimenting with unusual recording techniques, instruments and guitar tunings which can be heard across his 1966 album The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party, Vol. 4. Another guitarist experimenting in similar ways was Sandy Bull who was combining basic folk concepts with elements from other genres, as well as Middle Eastern and Asian influences. By this point in the 60s, psychedelic music was exploding, especially onto the rock scene with bands such as the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Byrds. However, artists in these groups had ties to the folk scene, most notably the Byrds who pioneered the folk scene in rock music, as well as being one of the first groups to recognisably incorporate psychedelic elements into their music. The Scottish folk artist Donovan was also utilising unusual instruments in his American folk-based music. Psychedelic folk is recognisable through its base of folk music which revolves around acoustic instruments; this is combined with unusual instruments often from other cultural traditions and longer ambient, improvised passages.

Notable artists:


The Incredible String Band

John Fahey

Tim Buckley

Linda Perhacs


Folktronica is one of the more recent folk fusion genres, combining traditional folk elements with more modern electronic influences, such as drum machines and synthesisers. One of the earliest landmark works that proved a massive influence on the world of electronic folk music was Ultramarine’s 1991 album Every Man and Woman is a Star. This album set a precedent for a new sound combining traditional folk themes and instruments, with more edm-inspired mechanical dance beats. Following this release, more artists included synth and drum machine elements, leading to more progressive music styles. This influenced artists with highly eclectic styles such as Björk and Sufjan Stevens. Despite being a relatively nebulous genre, the 2000s generated various innovative folktronica records such as Four Tet’s Pause, Tunng’s Mother’s Daughter and Other Songs and Caribou’s The Milk of Human Kindness. Folktronica can be identified by the use of rhythms and drums beats from hip-hop and electronic dance styles, which are usually created through the use of drum machines and synthesisers. Fused with this will typically be traditional folk instruments such as the acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle, and piano.

Notable artists:


Four Tet



Sufjan Stevens


Juana Molina

Folk Rock

Folk rock came from the American folk music revival that started  in the 1940s and peaked in the 60s. By this time folk artists were introducing electronic instruments and incorporating rock sounds into their songs and performances. Most notable is The Byrds’ cover of Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, from their album of the same name (released June 1965), which earned them the label of ‘folk rock’ in the press for the first time. This inspired other (especially British) folk rock bands in the late-60s through its combination of folk roots with elements of psychedelic rock. Another highly influential moment was Bob Dylan’s use of an electric band at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. These two moments, just over a month apart, cemented the fusion of folk and rock music. From this point folk rock became increasingly mainstream, but it didn’t sell its soul, as bands maintained the social critique that typifies traditional folk music. Simon & GarfunkelBuffalo Springfield and the Mamas & the Papas often covered social injustice and their music points towards rebellion and protest. The music is characterised by a direct song writing style with clear harmonies, accompanied by guitar riffs or melodic keyboard accompaniment. Other traditional folk instruments are also commonly used. The rhythmic energy and drum writing is commonly more rock-based.

Notable artists:

Neil Young

Simon & Garfunkel

Paul Simon

Buffalo Springfield

Cat Stevens

The Byrds

The Mamas & the Papas

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

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