“Folk music” is a difficult term to define. For many of us, it conjures up very specific images: a man singing with the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. While many would say this is an ethnocentric oversimplification, it is important to remember that this is the dominating cultural perception of folk music, as evidenced by the fact that almost anyone asked to name their favorite artists in the genre of folk would pick from the likes of Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other acoustic guitar wielding artists from America, Canada, or the United Kingdom.
Others take the strict dictionary definition. As defined by Merriam-Webster, folk music is “the traditional music of the people in a country or region”. While this definition opens the door to non-western styles of music, it still leaves the question of what constitutes “tradition” open to the interpretation of the people who promote the term folk music. How old and deeply ingrained in a culture does a musical style have to be before it is a “tradition”? Despite the increasing role technology plays all over the globe (even in some of the poorest areas), most are still reluctant to consider music that employs modern technology to be true “folk”. Rap music, which people all over the world use to tell stories about their own cultures and experiences, is rarely considered folk music, simply because of its electronic elements. Even the use of electric guitar, an invention that has existed for almost a century, disqualifies music from the folk category in the eyes of many.
We can expand our definition of folk music even further by breaking down the barrier between “good” and “bad” forms of musical expression. The label of folk music often comes with a positive connotation, denoting that a piece or style of music is a reflection of the beauty and creativity that is ever present in a particular community or culture. Even if the lyrical content deals with a society’s issues and underlying ugliness, the artistry that produced the piece is seen as being a manifestation of that same beauty and creativity that lies within all communities or cultures, even in difficult times. However, getting an accurate picture of the musical landscape requires us to study the “bad” music as well. This includes not just the charmingly amateurish “outsider artists”, but also the music that reflects poorly on a society. Transparent bastardizations of the music and art of other cultures (e.g. a person with no gang affiliations or experience with violence, drugs, and prostitution rapping about these types of activities in an attempt to emulate the popular rap music that they consume) are just as much a reflection of a culture and musical scene as their original and/or “traditional” styles. By the same token, when we exclude the less interesting but ultimately inoffensive examples of a culture’s musical offerings, we subconsciously skew our view of the music by choosing only to consider those that appeal to us through our particular cultural lenses, whatever they may be.
After breaking up the definition of folk music this far, it may be difficult for a musician to actively identify as a folk musician (or, to actively identify as not being a folk musician, for that matter). It seems that folk music is not a genre in the sense that rock or jazz are. It does not have consistently identifiable timbral, rhythmic, or structural elements, and seems to be more or less defined by its relationship to other pieces of music. You might ask, “Well, what doesn’t count as folk music?” To address this, here are two possible definitions of folk music:
1. Folk music is the music that results from musical interactions within a culture. The natural process of musicians taking inspiration from one another and evolving their styles are what constitute folk music. This definition excludes “outsider artists” who make music outside of any established musical tradition or scene, either due to lack of skill, mental illness, or pure ingenuity. It spreads its influence and/or gains popularity through word of mouth and interaction between individuals, rather than being projected onto a society or culture through mass media. A studio or group that produces popular music may be playing the folk music of their small group of associates or perhaps of their local scene, but it is not the folk music of the world simply because it gains worldwide popularity due to massive radio play, heavy advertising, or appearances in other forms of media. However, if a community or culture begins to take inspiration from music popularized by mass media and create their own music, this can once again be considered the folk music of that specific community or culture. It is in no sense “impure” because of its mass media influences, as mass media is just as much a part of an environment as the landscape, the customs, beliefs, and attitudes of the people living in an area.
2. Folk music is the music that takes as little influence from mass media as possible. In this view, culture itself is defined as a form of mass media. Many of the aforementioned outsider artists still do not fit this definition, and for the exact opposite reason that they did not fit the first one. The only true folk musician is the maverick who communicates through their music by operating outside of their culture’s preconceived ideas of music. They can be seen as a control variable in our quest to discover what defines humans and human music. This definition of folk music seems counterintuitive, since it is near the opposite of the first definition. However, it is worth considering, as it is the logical extreme of a strange idea that many people already hold about folk music. Many do not consider non-western music that takes strong influences from western music to be real folk music, preferring to track down the music that came before the introduction of western music into a region and to regard this as the culture’s true folk music. This arbitrary decision is made often; if a piece of music takes too much obvious influence from modern western music such as rock or rap, then it is not folk music, but if it takes too little influence from the western tradition to the point where the arbiters of what constitutes folk music can not identify it as having any musical value, then it is also not folk music, because it is not “the best” that their culture has to offer. Defining folk music as taking as little influence from its environment, not the most, attempts to rectify this issue.
It is a shame to cause unnecessary misunderstanding, confusion, and disagreement simply because two people disagree on the definition of a highly ambiguous term like folk music. Because of this, I would propose to refer to anything that falls under the first definition as “interfolk music”, and anything that falls under the second definition as “intrafolk music”. Inevitably, there is some ambiguity between these terms, and as such it is helpful to define a piece of music as lying somewhere on the spectrum between intrafolk and interfolk. On one end of the spectrum, we have music which comes totally from outside of an individual, a collection of influences that they have subconsciously assembled without any creative input of their own. If taken to its logical extreme, every piece of interfolk music within a given culture or community would be not just extremely similar, but exactly the same. On the other end of this spectrum, we find the music that a person would make if locked inside of a sensory deprivation chamber for their entire life. Since neither of these extremes ever occur (or at least occur often), interpreting these two terms as a spectrum is a necessity.
While these terms do not give us clear-cut categorizations for the works of Bob Dylan, Ludwig van Beethoven, Ravi Shankar, or Arnold Schoenberg, they do help to enrich our understanding of music, and are not nearly as ambiguous as the term “folk music” itself. They help us to identify how much influence a piece of music takes from a variety of sources individually. A piece may be interfolk (developed under the influence of source X) in relation to one genre or style, but intrafolk (not influenced by source X) to another. As such, a piece’s position on the interfolk to intrafolk spectrum denotes the novelty of a certain piece in the context of the culture in which it arises. This culture also has to be defined on an individual basis, as a piece always belongs to a number of overlapping cultural backgrounds at once (a piece can have a rock background, a heavy metal background, a New York background, and an American background at the same time). Taking a step back, this spectrum may be helpful not only in classifying music, but visual art, literature, and even non-artistic forms of expression like ideas, philosophies, and behaviors. When applied to behaviors and traits, the terms “intrafolk and interfolk” begin to resemble the phrase “nature and nurture”, but further distinctions can be made by pointing out that a person’s genetic makeup is not a product of their own personal choice, revealing that there is no true “nature” of any organism or object, except that which is derived contextually through a statement about its relationship to other things. This principle is no less important to consider in musicology, and keeping it in mind at all times helps us to avoid framing inherently subjective views of music as objective statements.