The Study of Folk Music

Today, the term “folk” has been replaced by “vernacular” and “roots”, but the essential  intent of the music has changed little. With its emphasis on the music of the everyday, the concept of folk music is a constantly recurring theme in Western and World Music. Whether performed in the context of early sixties protest in the US and Canada, or in the suites of the French Baroque composers, it represents an Other that is simultaneously familiar and distant. It shares the same ground as Popular Music in its claim as the music of the Everyman. Unlike pop music, it is often overlaid with nostalgia for a social milieu that is located in a mythical past free of cynicism and irony. It also values alleged markers of authenticity and DIY (do it yourself), especially with its emphasis on acoustic production values. Folk Music can often be identified in music cultures around the world. Its appeal is usually found in its alleged simplicity, acting in contrast to the structural complexity of Art Music. However, its approachability belies a complex social and historical geography that can shed important light on music’s role as a constant and reliable companion.

This course will examine the different attitudes toward Folk Music in various academic contexts, followed by the most common experience of folk music as a component of the turbulent youth culture of the sixties. Then we will travel back in time to follow the threads of historical folk music scholarship, pausing to admire the giants of folk music collectors, Cecil Sharp and Alan Lomax. Canadian folk music and its important collectors will also occupy our time before we finally arrive at the contemporary scene’s diversified Folk Music Festivals. There will be frequent excursions into the Canadian musical landscape, with special attention given to Canadian songcatchers. An important component of the ongoing discussions of Canadian folk music will be the exploration of the usual discussion of the traditional music of Canada with the modern-day reality of multicultural diversity.


Cohen, Ronald D. Folk Music: The Basics

Lecture Schedule and Readings

Week 1 Intangible Cultural Heritage

Smith, Laurajane and Natsuko Akagawa, editors (2009) Intangible Heritage (Key Issues in Cultural Heritage

Thornbury, Barbara (1997) The Folk Performing Arts: Traditional Culture in Contemporary Japan

Siporin, Steve (1992) American Folk Masters: The National Heritage Fellows

Week 2 Folk Music and Art Music

Gelbart, Matthew (2007) The Invention of “Folk Music” and “Art Music”: Emerging Categories from Ossian to Wagner

Hughes, Meirion and Robert Stradling (1993) “Crusading for a national music,” in The English Musical Renaissance, 1840-1940; Constructing a National Music

Week 3 Folk Music and World Music 

Bohlman, Philip (1988) The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World

Babaricki, Carol (1991) “Tribal Music in the Study of Great and Little Traditions of Indian Music,” in Comparative Musicology and the Anthropology of Music, edited by Bruno Nettl and Philip Bohlman

Hart, Mickey (2003) Songcatchers: In Search of the World’s Music

Week 4 Folk Music and Politics

Epstein, Lawrence (2010) Political Folk Music in America from Its Origins to Bob Dylan

Reuss, Richard and Joanne (2000) American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957

Lankford, Ronald D. Jr. (2002) Folk Music U.S.A.: The Changing Voice of Protest

Week 5 Folk Music as Popular Music

Cantwell, Robert (1997) When We Were Good: The Folk Revival

Mitchell, Gillian (2007) The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945-1980

Brocken, Michael (2003) The British Folk Revival, 1944-2002

Cristal, Gary A History of Folk Music in Canada

Week 6 Revivalism

Handler, Richard and Jocelyn Linnekin (1984) “Tradition: Genuine or Spurious,” in The Journal of American Folklore, volume 97, Number 385 (Jul-Sep, 1984) pp. 273-90.

Atkinson, David (2004) “Revival: Genuine or Spurious?” in Folk Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-creation, edited by Ian Russell and David Atkinson

Rosenberg, Neil (`(1993) Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined

Peterson, Richard A., (1999) Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity

Week 7 Ballads and Broadsides

Atkinson, David (2002) The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method, and Practice

Palmer, Roy (1974) A Touch of the Times: Songs of Social Change 1770-1914

Week 8 Seasonal and Social Songs

Gammon, Vic (2008) Desire, Drink and Death in English Folk and Vernacular Song, 1600-1900

Loydd, Albert (1967) “The Songs of Ceremony and Occasion,” and “The Industrial Songs” in Folk Song in England

Thompson, Flora (1939) “At the ‘Wagon and Horses’,” in Lark Rise to Candleford,  pp. 64-75

Week 9 Instrumental Music

Cowdrey, James R. (1984) “A fresh look at the concept of Tune Family,” in Ethnomusicology, volume 28, number 3 (Sep. 1984), pp. 495-504

Campbell, Katherine (2008) “The Itinerant Fiddler in Imagination and Reality,” in the Fiddle in Scottish Culture: Aspects of the Tradition, pp. 1-14

Week 10 Cecil Sharp

Gold, John R. and George Revill (2006) “Gathering the voices of the people? Cecil Sharp, cultural hybridity, and the folk music of Appalachia,” in GeoJournal, Volume 65, Numbers 1-2 / February, 2006, pp. 55-66

Porter, James (1991) “Muddying the Crystal Springs: From Idealism and Realism to Marxism in the Study of English and American Folk Song,” in Comparative Musicology and Anthropology of Music,  pp. 113-30

Week 11 Alan Lomax

Cohen, Ronald, editor (2005) Alan Lomax: Selected Writings, 1934-1997

Szwed, John (2010) The Man Who Recorded the World: A Biography of Alan Lomax

Week 12 Canadian Songcatchers

Jessup, Lynda, Andrew Nurse and Gordon Smith (2008) Around and About with Marius Barbeau: Modelling Twentieth-Century Culture

McKay, Ian (1994) The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia

Week 13 Folk Music Festivals 

Cohen, Ronald D. (2008) A History of Folk Music Festivals in the United States: Feasts of Musical Celebration

Cantwell, Robert (1993) Ethnomimesis: Folklore and the Representation of Culture

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