Introduction: What is a Folk Song?

Often in music classes, kids learn folk songs. It’s a basic part of elementary music, early childhood music and movement, and the Charlotte Mason homeschooling method. But, what is a folk song?

What is a Folk Song?

A folk song is a song that was transmitted orally, usually with an unknown composer, or a song that is influenced by that type of traditional song.

Music “transmitted orally” means that it was never written down. The people who composed the songs weren’t trained in music. Maybe it was a mom who made up a lullaby to get her baby to sleep, or a man who wrote a love song for the lady he loved, or a song in story-form written by parents to tell the history of their society to their children.

Folk songs were carried down through history and the original composers were forgotten. But eventually, the songs were written down and continue to be sung by people today.

In the early 20th century many composers and musicologists went into towns and countrysides to collect the “music of the people.” This photograph from the great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok recording folk songs from peasants in Slovakia is one of my favorites.

What is a folk song? Bela Bartok using a gramaphone to record folk songs sung by Slovak peasants.
Bela Bartok using a gramophone to record folk songs sung by Slovak peasants.

The folk music of the 1960s in America grew out of a revival of “everyday” music that spoke about “everyday” topics, such as love and peace.

Why Learn Folk Songs?

There are several reasons why we learn folk songs.

  1. Folk songs help us understand a people group and their history. (If it’s our own people group and history, that helps us learn more about ourselves!)
  2. Since many of the songs were written by amateur musicians and composers, they are often easy for children to sing, play, and memorize.
  3. Because the songs are so old and the composers unknown, they are often in the public domain, meaning that copyright royalties don’t need to be paid.

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