Overview: Let's Meet American Folk and Country

The U.S. and Canada: American Folk and a Square Dance

The term "folk music" is so very vague; basically it could refer to any music folks from a particular place make, concerning pretty much any topic, created by the "folks" who live there. In America, early "folks" who settled (the already-settled) "New World" came from many places, including European countries such as England, Ireland, Scotland and Germany, and, usually unwillingly, Africa. Life in America was far from easy for any of the colonists, let alone for their African slaves. These folks sang about their struggles as a way to share them. They sang about their struggles as a way to survive.  

In the U.S. the music we call "country" -- another open-ended term -- developed into a national genre in the early 20th century when the mountain/old-time Music of Appalachia and the Southeastern U.S. traveled westward, either in the person of itinerant musicians or due to the migration of music fans. At the time Americans still considered the Southwest (Texas, Oklahoma and states nearby) very much part of a wild frontier. Whether or not there were actually still roaming cowboys, the image of the lone man--and his lone horse--living, and singing about, a rough but honorable life, was a romantic one.  In America "folk music" and "country music" are still close cousins.   

In class we sing:

-- "Sourwood Mountain" is a deep down Appalachian folk tune. “Chickens a crowin' on Sourwood Mountain. Hi-ho doodle-um a-day.” (More.)

-- We sing "We Are Happy," a hello song from Uganda, to open every All Around This World class. This week we sing hello as good 'ol American "folk" might: "How do?"

-- "The Rocks of Bawn" is an Irish folk ballad, an example of the kind of songs that musicians brought with them from the UK to "The New World." (More.)

-- "Doggone Blues" is a song from the earliest days of blues – “Everybody's crazy 'bout the doggone blues but I'm happy....” (More.

-- "Jester" is a "Sacred Harp" song sung by American "shape note" singers, community-choirs that use simple visual notion to know how to sing harmonious hymns. (More.)


Let's learn a little more about some of the favorite of American folk. By the 1920s most music fans had become familiar with the instruments most often used in Appalachia, such as the fiddle (introduced by British/Irish immigrants), the guitar (introduced by Spanish immigrants), the mandolin (an Italian version of the ancient lute), the fretted dulcimer (introduced by Germans and other Northern Europeans), and the banjo, which became one of the instruments most identified with music of the American mountains, but has its origins in Africa. Let's learn more about each.

THE FIDDLE: English and Irish immigrants brought their fiddles with them when they came to "the Colonies," and as early as the mid 1700s you'd be hard pressed to find an American folk ensemble without one. “The fiddle” was always a bit less reputable than its classical cousin, "the violin"--in fact, the two instruments are exactly the same, the only difference is the approach of the musician. American fiddle players diverged from their European and even their Canadian fellows as they picked up African-American phrasing and syncopation.  Watch this 2003 performance of "Orange Blossom Special" by Vassar Clements and the Del McCoury Band for an example of great bluegrass fiddlin'.

THE GUITAR: Originally introduced to the world by Spanish settlers and popular in many regions of America, especially in the Southwest near Mexico, since the 19th century, the guitar only became primary element of the "folk" ensemble in the 1920s. The most influential early folk guitarist was Mayelle Carter of the Carter Family, who introduced a new picking style, now widely imitated, in which she played the melody line using the guitar's lower strings and filled in the rest by plucking or strumming the higher strings. Also in the 1920s, Jimmy Rodgers, who we'll also meet below, brought Hawaiian slide guitar into his early country music. In later decades guitarists like Burkett H. “Uncle Josh” Graves, who popularized the previously obscure slide bar style on a kind of resonating guitar known as the Dobro, introduced by Slovak immigrants to America, the Dopyera Brothers ("DOBRO" = DOprovera BROthers), and Doc Watson, who was a master of both "flatpicking" and "fingerpicking" techniques, solidified the acoustic guitar as an essential folk instrument through their energetic and highly accomplished playing.

THE MANDOLIN: Though the mandolin, Italy's regional variant of the ancient and widespread lute, started to appear in the United States as early as the 1850s, many Italian immigrants brought their mandolins with them when they immigrated to America in the 1880s. At the turn of the 20th century the mandolin was a familiar Vaudeville instrument, and also became popular among the middle class youth on college campuses and in towns throughout the South, though inthe '30s and '40s bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, who we'll introduce below, was the first mandolin virtuoso to take the instrument to the country music-loving masses. [Watch Bill Monroe play incredible Kentucky Mandolin]

THE FRETTED DULCIMER: Though it has fallen out of favor in recent years, the dulcimer, first introduced by German and other Northern European immigrants in the 19th century, the dulcimer was a standard "hillbilly" instrument for generations. It was most popular in rural communities on the eastern side of the Appalachian mountains and in the South. [Learn how to play the dulcimer]

THE BANJO:  One of the instruments most closely associated with music from the Appalachians, and therefore most closely associated with the music of rural whites, is the banjo. but the banjo is actually an instrument that originated in Africa. Early banjos first appeared in the colonies most active in the African slave trade in the late 1600s. Known at first by other names such as the banza and the strum-strum, the name "banjo" arrived in the late 1700s and took about fifty years, until the 1840s, to stick. In the early 1900s "minstrel shows," which we met above, featured banjos in their imitations of life on the plantation, introducing it to white musicians who quickly embraced it, adopting it as an instrument central to mountain music.  

Watch the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a band that formed after meeting at Black Banjo Festival, kick musical butt during their set on NPR's "Mountain Stage" | For a real treat, watch American banjo master Bela Fleck travel to Africa in search of the earliest banjos in the inspiring documentary "Throw Down Your Heart.”  



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