Folk Music in The United States


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4                  An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

The broad field of folk music is usually thought of in terms of two main subdivisions: folk music proper and primitive music. Folk music exists in certain segments of those cultures which have reading and writing, whereas primitive music belongs to the so-called pre-literate peoples. However, as a whole, primitive music is not really more primitive or more simple than folk music; indeed, it is often much more complex and highly developed. The difference between folk and primitive music is largely a reflection of the differences between folk and non-literate cultures; but we can also distinguish these two kinds of music by their styles, by the way they sound. Existing in literate societies, folk music is always in close contact with art music and popular music. There is always an interchange of musical materials and influence, and the folk music of a given country is bound to have many of the characteristics of the cultivated music of that country. Primitive music is less closely related to urban culture; it tends to sound strange to persons accustomed to hearing only cultivated music.

How and why does folk music come into being? This has been answered vaguely in many ways by many scholars, and only a few of the various kinds of theories can be touched upon here. An early one, propounded among others by the famous Grimm brothers, is that of the communal origin of folklore.^ It maintains that all folklore, including folk music, is the expression of an entire people and that the whole ethnic group is the creator of each item of folklore. While this theory is credible in a rather indefinite and idealistic sense, it does not give due credit to the individual creators of folklore; indeed, it does not recognize them at all, and it is hardly accepted today.

Another theory, maintained by the Germans, Hans Naumann and John Meier, and slightly related to but also distinct from that of communal creation, states that an item of folklore, such as a song, originates in a sophisticated, urban society as art music, and is later taken up by lower social strata. It becomes gesunkenes Kulturgut (debased or lowered cultural elements).^ For example, some songs by Franz Schubert, a member of a sophisticated musical culture, have passed into oral tradition and become folk songs in Austria and southern Germany. On the other

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