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Meet the people and instruments that shaped the sound of folk music.

Explore Music History: Folk Music's Transatlantic Journey

From England's rolling hills to America's majestic mountains, no music spans space and time quite like folk. What started out as an oral tradition in both nations was transformed by the influence of acoustic guitars and other folk instruments, resulting in a varied style which keeps evolving to this day.

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Early Americana/British Isles
Early British folk music was the province of the shanty sailor song and industrial-era labor music. It wasn't until the end of World Wars I and II that a folk revival, spurred on by skiffle groups, added guitar into the mix and transformed formerly sung-only pastoral songs into modern statements heard through the music of The Watersons, Shirley Collins, and Ewan MacColl.

In America, folk shared the same agrarian roots as its British sibling. In mountain-mining communities, early Eastern-European immigrants and African-Americans introduced dulcimers, banjos, autoharps and accordions to sung stories of yore to create the earliest taste of Americana folk, as heard in the music of the New Lost City Ramblers and the collected field music of Alan Lomax.

Meanwhile, traveling cowboys on the prairies of the American Midwest and Rockies sat fireside, strumming acoustic guitar stories of lost love/cargo that were simple hybrids of existing folk traditions. This new type of country-western music was created by slowing down blues music and combining it with that Appalachian vocal sound, as heard in the music of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Marty Robbins.
Folk Goes Electric
This first era of folk revivalism was important. However, after a while, a younger generation more removed from folk's industrial birth began to feel it was their time to mold their own tradition.

The introduction of amplification and other sonic influences electrified this period. English artists like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span were re-imagining traditional folk songs into modern rock epics. Meanwhile, Celtic-minded artists like Donovan, Alan Stivell, and Horslips were using 12-string acoustic guitars, harps and alternate tunings (alongside electric instruments) to mutate another distant tradition into a new pastoral sound that painted fantastic aural vistas.

As British traditions changed, American groups that had once tried to rock out on folk music were now looking back fondly at their musical heritage. The rise of Americana, roots rock, and country rock -- as heard in the songs of The Byrds, The Band, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Townes Van Zandt -- was due to an ongoing musical re-examination of uniquely American sounds. Acoustic folk instruments were now combining effortlessly with tasteful clean electric guitar sounds to create a new style that wasn't quite traditional and spoke to more modern tastes.
Is It Folk?
As time progressed, so did the ambitions of these new folk artists. Not content with just reimagining tradition, they set about creating their own legacy. In doing so, they stretched ideas of what modern folk could be.

English artists like The Pentangle, Michael Oldfield, and John Martyn saw the rise of progressive rock and took it as a cue to experiment with longer arrangements. Fusing jazz, classical, and world music with complex melodies that sometimes saw acoustic instruments treated with guitar effects -- this was the start of progressive folk. Other artists like the Incredible String Band, Amazing Blondel, and Comus created a neo-folk sound by refusing effects and tapping into even more obscure musical traditions.

American artists were evolving in a different way. Bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and The Marshall Tucker Band were fusing Americana and country rock to fashion a new type of "Southern" rock. True to an "open-road" spirit, they were able to improvise and electrify audiences that were in danger of being forgotten by other genres.

Out on the coasts, new singer-songwriters and groups like America, Jackson Browne and Paul Simon were exploring inner feelings unlike the "music of the people" folkies of before. They were creating a more commercial folk style that could be intricately exciting, yet simple and personally relatable. Eventually, this style would help bring about other genres like Soft Rock, Adult-Contemporary, and Alt-Folk as heard in the music of Bon Iver, Mumford and Sons, and Ed Sheeran.
Modern Tradition
Computers, synths, and samplers are seldom considered folk instruments -- yet groups like Boards of Canada, Four Tet, and This Mortal Coil challenge notions of what folk should be. Folktronica groups use modern instruments to hint at the spirit of the past through loops and sonic effects. Meanwhile, groups like The Pogues, The Feelies and The Violent Femmes refuse to ignore the rabble-rousing songs of the past and enliven their present versions by adding punk spirit and sound.

As the meaning of "folk" becomes even more blurred, recall how earlier folkies like Leo Kottke and John Fahey were using a simple 12-string acoustic to create music that reached beyond any folk tradition and struck a uniquely homespun chord. It's this fundamental thought -- to try different things out with the barest of tools -- that still drives musicians like Michael Gira of Swans through Sharon Van Etten and Espers to create new traditions that will expand the curvature of the folk horizon.