Folk Music in America

Date: Nov 23, 2018
Category: Art Category

Folk Music in America and 19th Century Popular Music in America

The American music history may be divided roughly in three groups. The first group is the colonial period which was dominated by the British influence. The second group is the period in the years 1800 to 1930. During this time, the U.S. heavily depended on the music culture that it had to import music and musicians who were professionals from Europe. The third period the American music can be categorized is when the music was able to attain an importance in the international level, which was equal to that of the European music. This essay explores the folk music and some other music genres in America before, during, and after the Civil War. This includes work songs, sea chanteys, folk ballads, hymns, spirituals, Stephen foster, and stage entertainment.

Music was believed to be an important part in the Puritan lives, who were settlers in New England. The Puritans used psalms which were metrical to worship. This practice emphasized a text which was more than music. However, it is believed that they also brought some folk songs with them, which remained unwritten, and therefore, they are not known today. The first settled generation in the world was less skilled regarding the music. A leader sang or recited each line being ahead of the following congregation the psalms which they perpetuated through lining them out. Later, in the 18th century, the signing masters, who were itinerants, created a market and taught people the rudiments which music had. The markets were created for the psalm tunes collections. These collections reprinted some English pieces, but they also contained the American composer’s music. American composers had mirrored the vogue styles that England had. The religious music vocals touched every life walk in the colonies of America. However, a taste for more sophisticated and concert music developed in the cities (Lomax 54).

The traditional singers are the ones who learned how to perform their art in an informal way. They did this within the tribe, context of the family, and any close-knit group from their community. A lot of traditional songs have been sung in the same folk group or community for a couple of generations. In most cases, this music can be traced back to the places of their originality which include Europe, Africa, and Great Britain. There were times where the song was composed by individualities, but this case was common if the author was not known. Most of the known folk songs have changed frequently over time to either a greater or lesser extent as they get passed from one generation to another or other variants get to spring up. The traditional folk songs in America in some context are used as an important part of the day to day life. There are songs which are sung to accompany some activities such as social occasions, religious celebrations, and work. These kinds of songs are set to be sung during these occasions, to set the mood of the occasion, and to add morale to the workers if they are work songs. There are other songs that give moral lessons and often offer cautionary tales. These include the Anglo-American ballads. They can warn women to stay off from the temptations that are likely to be given to them by suitors who tend to be honey-tongued and also warn the men about the unfaithful women and their wiles. There are some songs which are sung to ease the burden which is brought about by the routine tasks and give the workers a rhythm to help them perform their tasks. There are lullabies which strengthen the bond that exists between the mother and the child. Each and every song that was performed in the family context helped in binding one generation to the next within the same family. In most times, the folk music just shows up when it is needed most by people.

The North America’s early British colonists came with the genres of music. These include folk dances, religious music, and nursery rhymes. However, the 19th century pop stars were opera singers from Italy. The Italians had a style “bel canto” which became a dominant style in singing of the American pop music. The opera was the most sold sheet music in the 19th century followed by the minstrel shows. A technological innovation completely changed the beneficiaries and the format of popular music. There was the first recorded sound made by a French inventor in 1860. He used his “phonautograph” to make the visual recording of the sound (Miller 104). The American popular music is tied up intimately with the musical theater. However, over some time, the American pop music has become longer and relatively slower. The researchers made the analysis of the beat per minute of every song. They made a discovery that the songs have decreased in the speed, from an average of 116 BPM in around 1960 to 100 BPM in the 2000s. They also explored that the songs sung in the 1960s run for three minutes while the ones sung in the 2000s last for 4 minutes and above on average.

The American Folk Songs

This is a musical term which covers a number of big music genres in America which are known as the traditional folk music, root music, and traditional music. The music is considered to be American since the United States is the native place it was developed. The traditional music from America was also called as roots; the musicians from America wrote music concerning their relationships, work, politics, war, and spiritual issues. Folk music was used as a good way for people to pass time. The American folks were used to pass the American culture and beliefs from one generation to the next one. One of the most enduring qualities of the folk songs is its timelessness. A good number of the folk songs from America has some melodies that are a little bit catchy and are able to stick to the listeners’ mind. There is another characteristic of a folk song which is being able to apply to the condition of a human being in a timeless way. The subject of a folk song may be in a position to last for a long time so as people are able to relate to it through the years. The American folk songs pass the cultures and beliefs the American people have from one generation to another. A good example is the “amazing grace” which was written about slavery by the English composers and poets. It became so popular that the Americans considered it to be an African folk song and hymn.

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Work Songs

Work songs can be described as pieces of music closely connected with a kind of work. This music can be either sung when people are conducting a job which is done to coordinate the timing or a song linked to a trade or task. This might be either the description, narrative, or protest song. There are different forms of work songs which include agricultural songs, pastoral and hunting songs, and the African-American songs. The work songs of the African Americans were developed originally during the captivity era. The work songs did not have a fixed form since they had been involved in the entire oral culture. This means that they began to get recorded only as the slavery era ended in 1865 (Epstein 69). These work songs belonging to the African Americans had a format which was known as call-and-response. This is where a leader would lead by singing a verse where the others would then respond by singing the chorus. This originated from the African traditions where they had work songs meant for agricultural work. There were other evident signs which accompanied these work songs. These include moans, shouts, and filed hollers. They were designed originally for some different individuals or bands that were used to locate others and some narrative songs which used the folk motifs and the folk tales.

Sea Shanties

Sea shanties are the songs, sung by the sailors, mainly during the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. The sea shanties were played while performing specific actions, including the raising of anchor, rigging, and other tasks which required men at work to have a rhythm. The sea shanties songs have a rhythm that is well punctuated. They also have a call and answer kind of format. The shanties got some antecedents which the American chants had. The chants were largely influenced by the songs that the African Americans had; a good example is that they sang when loading their vessels manually with cotton in the ports that were on the United States’ southern side. The shanty genre got typified by lyrical forms that were flexible. This practice helped in providing improvisation and gave them the ability to shorten or lengthen a song so as to match up with the circumstances. This was called the call-and-response which was performed by a soloist followed by all the other workers in a chorus. The shanties were sung without being accompanied by any instrument. These songs were mostly sung during working hours rather than during leisure for entertainment purposes.


Spirituals are the songs which are religious in nature that the enslaved African people created while they were in the United States of America. The spirituals primarily expressed the religious faith of the slaves. Some spirituals may have been used to serve as protests to the social politic as they were assimilated to the culture of the white Americans. Since the African slaves did not have the right to express their feelings in ways meaningful to them spiritually, they held secret, often religious services. Whenever they held these meetings, the worshipers were able to engage themselves in the religious rituals which were African. These religious practices include speaking in tongues, spiritual possession, and having ring shouts shuffling in a counterclockwise direction. The songs sung by the slaves represented the sorrows they had rather than representing their joy. Spirituals eased the boredom they had from their daily tasks and offered them comfort. The songs expressed the spiritual devotion that they had and a great yearning for their freedom. They were a big relief to the aching hearts, just like a tear does. In these songs, the lyrics that narrated about the exodus were actually a metaphor for their freedom from the slave life.

The Folk Ballads

The folk ballad was an anonymous type of song which was composed to be sung. It was passed from one singer to another through oral means used to pass the folk ballad from one region to the other and from generation to generation. During the passing on progression, the ballads would experience a lot of changes in both tunes and words. The medieval version as that happens to be in the print today is, perhaps, the only version of the variants that were there. This ballad is considered to be just a short and simple song which narrates a dramatic story by the action and dialogue. The ballad uses a simple language, epithets, dramatic contrasts, set phrases, word economy, and a stock refrain. The ballad has four lines in a stanza, with three or four stresses, making alternations with the second line and the fourth line making a rhyme. However, ballads cannot get confined at any one place or period. The indigenous ballads that were American deal with mainly folk heroes, cowboys, the mountain of the Tennessee and Kentucky, the famous outlaws which include James and Jesse, and the southern black.


A hymn can be specified as a religious kind of song which is written for the praising purpose, prayer adoration, and a song, addressed typically to a figure that was prominent, a deity, or a personification. A hymn can also be defined as a lyric poem which is devotionally and reverently conceived that was designed to express the attitudes of the worshiper to God by singing. The hymn should be metrical in form, simple, poetic, genuinely emotional, and spiritual in quality. The songs should have direct ideas which can be used for the unifying the congregation. The Christian hymns are written with certain themes; they may be of seasonal or special themes. Seasonal themes include days like Easter and Christmas .The hymens in ancient America were used with stringed instruments such as lute, lyre, and harp which were also used to sing the psalms. The Americans later introduced a vocal harmony which tends to be a four part as the norm. It adopted major keys and minor keys. The hymns songs were later to be used in churches all over the world since it was the only way that could unify the worshipers.

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Minstrel had the first show performed in the city of New York at around 1843. Roughly after a year, minstrel became the most sought after and the post popular form of entertainment which had live performances in America. The entertainers who performed in the minstrel show had to put a black-face on and then, imitate the slaves who lived in the south and the ex-slaves who lived in the north. At times, most of the commentary made by the whites about the minstrel is a faithful imitation of the speech which was African-American dancing and singing. The minstrel show was the one form of entertainment that could not be missed by the King and Duke. The show was accompanied by banjo, violin, tambourine, and bone castanets. It was divided into two parts during the show in the year 1840. The first part was concentrated mainly by the black dandy that was urban while the second part was comprised of the slaves from the southern plantation. The two features helped in stereotyping the caricatures rather than having some genuine depictions of the blacks, which was very demeaning. However, by 1850s, the black elements had been largely reduced and later, moved to the part three show, which was concluding.

Stephen Foster

People recognize Foster as the father of music in America. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame, the Songwriters in 1970 and Nashville in 2010.Foster composed the official song in Kentucky, called “My Old Kentucky Home.” This song was adopted by the General Assembly in 1928. Columbian Records recorded 35 songs by Foster .This was done under three sessions of recording, in July, in August, and in September. When the 35 songs were compiled in a CD, the recorder tried to make the singer of the songs, Nelson Eddy with an orchestral, colorful, simple, and choral background voice. This was done for him to sound just like Foster did during his time. Foster had eighteen collections recorded and later released as “The Beautiful Dreamer.” The album featured some artists, including Alison Krauss, Ron Sexsmith, and Suzy Bogguss. A good example of people who studied Foster’s songs was Jonathan G. Smith – a performer and an educator teaching in a college. He performed the songs in the parlor performance way of the 19th century rather than the formal concert manner (Hugill 25).


It is clear that music plays a very important role in the lives of human beings. Music in the early America was categorized in three stages: the pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial stages. The main genres of music that were sung by the Americans include work songs, sea shanties, folk ballads, spirituals, and hymns. The work songs and the sea shanties played the same role since they were both performed during the working hours so as to create rhythm among the workers and ease their burden. Spirituals were the songs which were sung by the slaves in America who always felt a sense of relief after singing them since they were like tears, always relieving with each drop. The hymns were religious songs which were sung to give praises and helped in unifying the worshipers. This shows that each and every type of music had an importance to the American people.

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