Folk Music in The United States


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Defining Folk Music                                                                   3

the gaps in our knowledge of folk song origins. If our information increased, the number of folk songs would have to decline. Although it has not changed in the process, a song whose origin is suddenly discovered would have to be reclassified.

Another basis for defining folk music is the manner in which it is transmitted. People learn some things through reading and other things by being told or shown. Political news which is read in a newspaper and a skill which is learned from a textbook are elements of culture which are transmitted in written tradition. Information which is passed from one person to another through speech is transmitted in oral tradition; songs, tales, methods of sewing, decorating, boat-building, behefs, proverbs, riddles may be transmitted in this way, and if so, they are classed as folklore. Some cultures, like those of the American Indians, the African Negroes, and the Polynesians, make use of oral tradition exclusively; they are the so-called primitive cultures. But even the members of urban cultures, living in the centers of educated, literate society, learn some things by oral tradition, directly from other people, perhaps from their parents and childhood friends. Music of this sort can, with certain qualifications, be accepted as folklore. This is the most commonly accepted criterion today, and it will be ours in the following chapters.

School songs and religious music are often passed on by oral tradition, but they are rarely classified as folklore, for they are associated with institutions, like school and church, and they are composed, written, taught, and developed by professional musicians. Hymns and songs taught in school are usually passed on by printed media, and oral tradition enters only when a large mass of people learn them; of course this music is related to folklore, but we cannot accept it without qualification. On the other hand, some hymns do live entirely or largely in oral tradition, and these we distinguish by the term "folk-hymns."

A song may be a folk song at one time or in one place and an art song at a different time or place. Many songs begin in written form, created by a trained composer, and remain in the art song tradition. If, at the same time, they pass into the oral tradition for a sufficient time, they can also be considered folk songs.

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