Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
In the original and narrowest sense, the term referred to a genre that arose in the United States and Canada around 1960s. The sound was epitomized by tight vocal harmonies and a relatively "clean" (effects- and distortion-free) approach to electric instruments epitomized by the jangly sound of the Byrds' guitarist Roger McGuinn. The repertoire was drawn in part from folk sources, but even more from folk-influenced singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan,
This original folk-rock directly led to the British folk-rock (a.k.a. electric folk) pioneered in the late 1960s by Fairport Convention. Starting from a North-American style folk-rock, Fairport and other related bands deliberately incorporated elements of traditional British folk music. Very shortly afterwards, Steeleye Span, originally a rather traditional British folk music group, began incorporating rock elements into their music, with similar results.
This, in turn, spawned several other variants: the self-consciously English folk rock of the Albion Band and some of Ronnie Lane's solo work, and the more prolific current of Celtic rock, incorporating traditional music of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and Brittany. Through at least the first half of the 1970s, Celtic rock held close to folk roots, with its repertoire drawing heavily on traditional Celtic fiddle and harp tunes and even traditional vocal styles, but making use of rock-band levels of amplification and percussion.
In a broader sense, folk-rock includes later similarly-inspired musical genres and movements in the English-speaking world (and its Celtic fringes) and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Europe. As with any genre, the borders are difficult to define. Folk-rock may lean more toward folk or toward rock in its instrumentation, its playing and vocal style, or its choice of material; while the original genre draws on the music of North American English-speaking whites, there is no clear delineation of which folk cultures music might be included as influences. Still, the term is not usually applied to rock music rooted in the blues-based or other African American music (except as mediated through folk revivalists), nor to rock music with Cajun roots, nor to music (especially after about 1980) with non-European folk roots, which is more typically classified as world music.
The roots of folk-rock
Folk-rock arose mainly from the confluence of three elements: urban/collegiate folk vocal groups, singer-songwriters, and the revival of North American rock and roll after the British Invasion. Of these, the first two owed direct debts to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Popular Front culture of the 1930s.
The first of the urban folk vocal groups was the Almanac Singers, whose shifting membership during the late 1930s and early 1940s included Guthrie and Seeger and Lee Hayes . In 1947 Seeger and Hayes joined Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman to form the Weavers, who popularized the genre and had a major hit with a cleaned-up cover of Leadbelly's "Irene", but fell afoul of the U.S. Red Scare of the early 1950s. Their sound, and their broad repertoire of traditional folk material and topical songs inspired other groups such as the Kingston Trio (founded 1957), the Chad Mitchell Trio , and the (usually less political) "collegiate folk" groups such as The Brothers Four, The Four Freshmen, The Four Preps, and The Highwaymen. All featured tight vocal harmonies and a repertoire at least initially rooted in folk music and (in some cases) topical songs.
When the term singer-songwriter was coined in the mid-1960s, it was applied retroactively to Bob Dylan and other (mainly New York-based) folk-rooted songwriters. Scottish songster Donovan also fit this mold. Dylan's material would provide much of the original grist for the folk-rock mill, not only in the U.S. but in the UK as well.
None of this would likely ever have intersected with rock music, though, if it had not been for the impulse of the British Invasion. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and numerous other British bands reintroduced to America the broad potential of rock and roll as a creative medium. One of the first bands to craft a distinctly American sound in response was the Beach Boys; while not a folk-rock band themselves, they directly influenced the genre, and at the height of the folk-rock boom in 1966 had a hit with a cover of the 1920s West Indian folk song "Sloop John B", which had entered the North American mainstrem via the Weavers.
The original folk-rock impulse
In the United States the heyday of folk-rock is likely between the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, aligning itself approximately with the hippie movement. Arising originally from the folk-influenced music of Bob Dylan and earlier musicians, the folk revivalist vocal combo, and the rock music of the British Invasion, it later incorporated elements of country music, drawing on Hank Williams and others.
British and Celtic folk-rock
The British style of folk-rock (in its early years, often called electric folk) was established by the band Fairport Convention, who formed in North London in the late 1960s. Steeleye Span, also typical of this vein, started out as a reasonably conventional folk group they added electric instruments and began to experiment with song structures.
Across the English Channel, a similar fusion of folk and rock elements can be found in the Breton folk rock music of Malicorne (1970s) and in some of the work of veteran Breton Celtic harp soloist Alan Stivell.
Elsewhere in Europe and the Mediterranean
In Romania Transsylvania Phoenix (known in Romania simply as Phoenix), founded in 1962, introduced significant folk elements into their rock music around 1972 in an unsuccessful attempt to compromise with government repression of rock music. The attempt failed, and they ended up in exiled during much of the Ceauşescu era, but much of their music still retains a folk-rock sound. The present-day bands Spitalul de Urgenţă (Romanian) and Zdob şi Zdub (Moldova) also both merge folk and rock.
Other fusions of folk and rock include New Flamenco (Spain), the pop-oriented forms of North African raļ music, and in the music of The Pogues and the Dropkick Murphys, both of whom draw on traditional Irish music and punk rock.
Turkey, during the 1970s and 1980s, also sustained a vibrant folk-rock scene, drawing inspirations from diverse ethnic elements of Anatolia, the Balkans, Eurasia and the Black Sea region and thrived in a culture of intense political strife, with musicians in nationalist and Marxist camps. See Music of Turkey.
All of the performers listed here had or have both significant folk elements and significant rock elements in their music.
A number of singer-songwriters are associated strongly with folk-rock. Among those who started out strongly identified with folk music but later incorporated rock influences in their music are:
- Leonard Cohen
- Bob Dylan
- Joni Mitchell
- Phil Ochs (arguably a different phenomenon, since his rock music was relatively separate from his folk-influenced music)
In addition, others (usually of at least a slightly younger generation) seem to have mixed both elements from the outset of their careers:
Canadian singer-songwriter Nathan Bishop performs both folk and rock instrumentation and leans on both the lyrical and narritive traditions in his songs.
1960s North American folk-rock vocal groups
These bands were associated with original North American "folk-rock" sound, drawing to some extent on traditional folk music, but to a greater extent on the work of folk-influenced contemporary songwriters, such as Bob Dylan or the Scottish singer-songwriter Donovan.
- The Band
- Buffalo Springfield
- The Byrds
- Crosby, Stills & Nash
- The Mamas & the Papas
- Peter, Paul & Mary, transitional between urban folk vocal groups and folk-rock
- The Turtles, whose first hits were in this genre, but who headed off in other musical directions
Other U.S. bands of this era
There were also significant folk influences in the music of several other North American bands of this period who were not generally identified with the folk-rock label.
The British folk-rock (or "electric folk") sound started out as an offshoot of the North American. Fairport Convention, almost certainly the seminal band of this movement, began with a sound very close to that of North American folk-rock, but began deliberately incorporating elements from the folk music of the British Isles. Several bands in Brittany were also closely associated with this musical movement.
- Fairport Convention
- Five Hand Reel
- Hedgehog Pie
- Jethro Tull; not all of their music has folk elements, but Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch are clearly of this genre
- Malicorne (Breton)
- Steeleye Span
- The Strawbs
The Incredible String Band began in this mode before heading off in other musical directions. Lead singer Robin Williamson has often returned to this style of music.
All of the above were active in by the early 1970s. A clearly related sound can be found in Irish music of a slightly later period.
The Canadian band Spirit of the West are also more associated with this sound that with the earlier North American folk-rock.
The Canadian band Celtae are unique in Celtic Folk Rock because they fuse two folk traditions, that of Cape Breton and Newfoundland with a broad definition of rock that includes elements of hard rock, funk, and jazz while retaining the original flavour of the traditional music.
A similar impulse (but a very different sound) can be found in bands who mix traditional Irish music with punk rock. The prototype of this approach might be Thin Lizzy's heavy-metal-inspired 1973 version of "Whiskey in the Jar".
- Energy Orchard
- Gordon Giltrap
- The Grapes of Wrath
- Great Big Sea
- Gordon Lightfoot
- Gundula Krause
- Ruby Blue
- Andy White
- World Party
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