The term “folk music” refers to music “of the people” that is created and played or sung by common folk of various countries around the world. Traditional folk music is usually differentiated from modern or contemporary folk music.
Traditional folk songs are usually of unknown origin, usually have evolved over time, and are often passed down from generation to generation. These songs usually have rural themes, are often related to work (e.g., sea shanties) or a cultural event (e.g., “Happy Birthday”), or the aspirations of a particular group (e.g., “We Shall Overcome”) and almost always feature basic, often handcrafted musical instruments.
Traditional folk music can also play a culture unifying role. This is reflected in songs that celebrate holidays, events, national heroes, or places that are significant to the culture (e.g., “Guantanamera”). Transplanted cultural groups also use culturally unique songs and dance as ways to maintain connections, both within their community, and to the past (e.g., “Hava Nagila”).
Contemporary folk music usually borrows themes, instrumentation and style from traditional folk music, but has a more contemporary feel and is often heard in urban settings.
A distinguishing characteristic of contemporary folk music is that the songs were written (and performed) by contemporary artists and usually featured acoustic rather than electrified instruments. This tradition of itinerant balladeers goes back (in America) to people like Woody Guthrie (“This Land is Your Land”), Robert Johnson (“Kind Hearted Woman Blues”), Lead Belly and many more who came out of the 1930s, and 40s and whose music was made available by new recording technology.
To some extent folk music of this era in North America was used to increase awareness and acceptance of cultural diversity and racial tolerance. To some degree “by the end of the 1930s these and others had turned American folk music into a social movement.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Folk_music]
This often meant that folk music lyrics and themes tended to be more “thoughtful” or “serious” than pop or rock music, and was considered music with a purpose – for example, protest songs such as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” or John Lennon’s “Imagine”. In this sense, it shares elements with some strains of rap and hip hop.
Contemporary folk music saw a revival in the late 1950s when it was given a boost by the recording technology of the day, and by a concert scene invigorated by a new generation of young people. It reached its peak of popularity in the early 1960s with groups like The Kingston Trio (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone”), Peter Paul and Mary (“Puff The Magic Dragon”), Pete Seeger (“Little Boxes”), and the early Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ In The Wind”) before it was eclipsed by folk rock, soul, and rock and roll.
Traditional folk music examples
Virtually every culture has a tradition of “folk music” featuring instruments and styles of singing that are unique to that culture. Often, as in the case of Africa, different regions had different traditions both of song and instrumentation.
For example, African music was transplanted from the west of Africa via the slave trade to North and South America as well as the Caribbean islands. The variations of African-inspired music are almost too many to enumerate. Instruments that were of African origin include the mbira, a kind of finger harp, various types of xylophone, stringed instruments called chordophones, horns and flutes, as well as many different types of drums and percussion instruments.
The banjo was developed in North America by African American slaves during the 1800s. It was based on instruments originally brought from Africa. But there was no single precursor of the banjo. Researchers have found more than 60 different plucked instruments from Western Africa.
Chinese folk music dates back at least 7000 years. Various ancient Chinese rituals used wind and percussion instruments, and the music was generally based on the pentatonic scale. Bowed and plucked string instruments were also widely used in ceremonial music of different areas of China.
Celtic folk music is based mostly on pipes and harps and has certain distinguishing characteristics. It is very melodic, is usually played in ensembles, is often composed in Mixolydian or Dorian modes, uses the pentatonic scale a great deal, as well as microtonal bends. These characteristics make it akin to jazz and blues music, and account for its influence on what became bluegrass and country music in the United States.
Celtic music is also important in Atlantic Canada. In fact the it plays an important part in defining the uniqueness of the culture of places like Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and is probably more popular in parts of Atlantic Canada than it is in Ireland or Scotland.