The category "Folk Music" best describes local musical traditions as distinct from more formal music that requires deliberate composition, professional musicians and training. Music arises spontaneously in human groups (folks). Folk music often involved the active participation of the local group with dancing singing, often with costumes and events to celebrate
Travelling storytellers have been the entertainers and news reporters that linked villages and towns for centuries. In medieval Europe minstrels and troubadours were travelling musicians that told stories in song and verse. Elite Troubadours were poets and musicians that entertained in the courts of Europe. Travelling groups of entertainers established the format for circuses, operas, Broadway musicals and ballet, performing music, dance, acrobatics, juggling and magic tricks. Authors in the Middle Ages wrote stories about courtly love and the codes of chivalry practiced by white knights in shining armour.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, folk music migrated form many countries with immigrants to the US and Canada, becoming the local music of many communities and sometimes emerging in the mainstreams of popular music. When you mention folk music in the USA, Black music stands as a dominant force developing blues and gospel music into R&B, Jazz, Big Band Swing, and Motown Pop.
Some individuals emerge as folk culture icons: Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs come to mind. All sang solo and became popular with a mix of old and new songs, often with emphasis on the suffering of oppressed people, human rights and protest against segregation, war, and environmental degradation. Folk singersin the 1960s developed the social conscience of their audiences and inspired some to take action against injustice.
Pete Seeger joined Alan Lomax at the Archive of American Folk Song of the Library of Congress in 1939. He studied traditional folk music in the US and performed on the radio show crated by Alan Lomax and Nicholas Rayalong with Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and Woody Guthrie. Seeger originally played the banjo and in 1948 wrotethe book How to Play the Five-String Banjo. Seeger later played a 12-string guitar, made popular by Leadbelly. Seeger's rendition of the blackspiritual "We Shall Overcome" becamethe theme of liberation movements and the anthem of the 1960s American Civil Rights Movement. Among his original songs other anthems emerged: Where Have All the Flowers Gone? If I Had a Hammer , and Turn, Turn, Turn, are sung internationally. A PBS documentary July 1st, 2009 celebrated Seeger's 90th Birthday: "With a career spanning more than half a century, renowned folk artist, political activist, and avid environmentalist, Pete Seeger, turned 90 in May of 2009. A multi-generational roster of artists, whose music has been shaped by Seeger’s vision, gathered to honor him."
Joan B. and Bob D. 1963
As a young folk singer, Joan Baez was inspired by Pete Seeger. His songs became her signature tunes. She joined the black anti segregation movement led by Martin Luther King; her songs were strong attractors to the cause of social justice. Later, she led anti-Viet Nam war protests with the same dedication and courage she manifest in her civil rights advocacy. For many of us who remember the 60's vividly, Joan Baez was among the heroic, exemplary few who opposed the fascist, militarist tendencies in her own country. Her career and songs are well represented in a PBS 2009 documentary: "The grit of the film is Baez’ power as a musician – from her tentative teenage years in the Cambridge, Mass coffee houses to her emergence onto the world stage and the 50-year career that followed – Joan Baez is a musical force of nature and this film captures her strength as a performer and the influence she has brought to bear on successive generations of artists."
Bob Dylan: Folk to Rock
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan became lovers and Joan shared her fame with Dylan, recording several of his songs and sharing the stage during her own concerts. You could argue that Bob began as a modern troubadour, telling the stories of his time with poetic lyrics. Although everyone knew the news from popular media, Bob's raw voice, plain melodies and penetrating statements awaked peoples awareness of what was really going on out there: " … the effect was electrifying." Bob was not a man to be held to any role by anyone and continued to change his stories, costumes and anti-political protests through several incarnations. His main transition was from folk troubadour to rock and roller. His 1965 R&R single Like a Rolling Stone, was a hit song.Rolling Stone Magazine eventuallylisted is as "#1 of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time." Martin Scorsese attempted (not successfully) a biographical review of Bob in his film No Direction Home. Scorsese did portray the drug induced chaos of Dylan on tour and the stark differences between his self-indulgent approach to life and Joan Baez's exemplary life of service to the good and true. With advancing age, both seem to have forgiven each other for having such divergent karmas.
Scorsese also celebrated the Band in the film The Last Waltz. The Band was formed by four Canadians: Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko.Levon Helm was the only American in the group. They joined Bob Dylan on his U.S. tour in 1965 and world tour in 1966 -- providing the R&R sound for Dylan's new persona. The Last Waltz. The Band retirement concert on November 25, 1976, San Francisco, California was filmed by Scorsese. The concert included friends of the Band --Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Ronnie Wood, Paul Butterfield, and Neil Diamond.
In Canada, there were many folk traditions and a host of troubadours appeared with stories in song. In 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and RCA Victor issued a 9-LP set of folk songs in celebration of the centennial of Canada's Confederation. Their booklet stated:" Canada has a vast treasure of more than thirty thousand folk songs and variants. Most of these songs are versions of traditional ballads and folk songs of France and the British Isles, from where Canada's first European settlers came. In addition to the traditional songs inherited from Europe, researchers have collected a rich harvest of "home-made" songs and ballads of native Canadian minstrels— known and unknown— who composed their songs during their leisure hours, or while they worked as farmers, soldiers, sailors, fishermen, lumberjacks, fur-trappers, railroad-builders, cowboys and miners."
Buffy St Marie was born in Saskatchewan Canada, a Cree Indian who grew up in Maine with adopting parents. She is a smart, talented woman who was courageous in her honestly evocative and sometimes provocative songs. Sainte-Marie witnessed wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam and wrote the now famous song "Universal Soldier" released on the album, It's My Way in 1964. Joni Mitchell is best known Canadian singer and song writer. He first album in 1968 introduced now famous songs -- Chelsea Morning, Both Sides Now and Woodstock. French Canada has a rich musical tradition that evolved independently of the fads and fashions in English Canada.
French Canadian singer-songwriters formed an informal alliance,Les Bozos, in 1959, including Lévesque, Jean-Pierre Ferland, Claude Léveillée, Clémence Desrochers, Talon Starsdawn, and Jacques Blanchet. Gilles Vigneault followed, and became a cultural icon. His song "Mon Pays" is now the unofficial anthem of Quebec.