In search of a folk music definition

Before we begin, it’s probably worth noting that finding a folk music definition isn’t a particularly useful use of anybody’s time. However, the more I find myself talking about folk music during performances, or on the pages of this blog, the more I find other people ask me: what does the term ‘folk music’ mean? 

That may seem like a rather pointless question, and I can’t claim to have any better definition than anybody else. In fact, everybody can give you a folk music definition: it’s Joni Mitchell, right? It’s Bob Dylan. It’s Eliza Carthy. It’s Laura Marling. Mumford & Sons – they’re the living embodiment of folk music, are they not? Bellowhead, Bert Jansch, Tinariwen, Billy Bragg, Stick in the Wheel… it’s all so much folk music!

Some people define it as the music of the people (and then trip over themselves when they realise that the music of the people is probably Rhianna, or whoever ‘the people’ have rocketed to the top of a chart somewhere, rather than an ancient ploughboy’s lament). Some say the definition of folk music is simply story songs. I’ve been told it’s definitely not introspective ‘singer-songwriter rubbish’ (even though some of the most beautiful ‘folk songs’ appear to be the personal narration of hard times and broken hearts).

Topic Records boss, David Suff, explained to me that our misunderstanding of the words ‘folk music’ has to do with a marketing conundrum – that ‘singer-songwriter’ was too long a word to keep having to write out – but he also admitted that he wasn’t really sure.

The only thing anyone is likely to agree on is that the absolute folk music definition is never likely to turn up, and that it doesn’t really matter either way as long as the music moves you in some manner.

All of that said, in the process of interviewing people on this blog I always find it interesting to see if they have a take on the subject. And so I thought it might be fun to take each folk music definition from each interview and collate them in one place. There’s no rhyme or reason to it other than to offer fellow folk music obsessives another way of passing the time.

If you bookmark this page you can check back from time to time. I’ll update it as often as I can. And if you’re a folk music performer who’d like to add your own definition to the list, come and find me on Twitter. Let’s talk!

The big question: can you give me a folk music definition?

As definitions of folk music go, Martin Simpson’s is one of my favourites. “Folk music is music that accompanies a raffle,” he told me. “There’s not better definition of it than that!” (Click to read the full Martin Simpson interview.) 

One of the earliest interviews in which I asked for a folk music definition was during a chat with Topic Records supremo, David Suff. If anyone knew that answer, I figured, then surely it would be him… Nope! (Click to read the full David Suff interview.) 

“Folk music is sex and death, with a few funny bits in between,” explained Rosie Hood, who also likened it to Eastenders and Game of Thrones. Intriguing… (Click to read the full Rosie Hood interview.) 

Emily Portman’s definition of folk music was more than I could fit into a quick meme… (Click to read the full Emily Portman interview.) 

“Well, I think that ‘folk’ is an overused term. It means many things to many people, so I will use it because it’s widely known to mean the kind of music I’m into. But I’d probably refer to the ‘traditional songs’ as being those that have been passed down through the generations. I would say that’s ‘traditional music’, whereas ‘folk music’ seems to be a little bit harder to pin down because it’s a kind of general genre. You could say that Joni Mitchell is folk music, but you could also say the music that people are making on the streets is folk music, and that might be rap as much as it’s anything else.”

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