Folk Music in The United States


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2                   An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

music must necessarily agree in their definitions with the folk-lorists at large, and they, too, have used many definitions of "folk." For Bela Bartok folk music was simply peasant music, or rural music.^ For other scholars it has meant music especially characteristic of a given country or ethnic group, whether rural or urban. While most modern researchers agree with Bart6k to some extent, many also tend to believe that folk music has existed in the towns and cities, at least under some circumstances.

The notion that folk music is very old has played a part in the problem of defining it. The idea that songs have always been with a people is a common feature in the creation myths of many primitive tribes, and the emphasis placed on tradition, the close identification of an entire people with its songs, has influenced research to the extent of causing the rejection of otherwise acceptable material simply because it lacked sufficient age. We must, however, distinguish between individual creations and the style in which they are composed. While a style may be very old, the songs composed in that style may be comparatively recent. Thus many folk songs are only a few decades old; although most of them are somewhat older, some may even go back many centuries. But many of the new folk songs are not appreciably different in style from those composed in earlier times. The opposite may also be true, however. A song may be old, but it may have changed in style over the years so that it bears hardly any evidence of its age. All of this shows us that, in contrast to cultivated music (music that is part of a culture through a written tradition), a folk song often has a life quite independent of its characteristic qualities, which is what we call "style."

There is also a strong belief that the origin of a piece of music determines whether it is folklore or not. A song composed by a trained, professional composer is not acceptable as folk music, but one created by an untrained musician is acceptable. Then again, we find the opinion that a song is a folk song even if written by a trained composer, as long as its origin is not known to the performers and hearers. The trouble with these definitions, however valuable in special cases, is that they depend on

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