History of American Folk Songs

American folk songs tell the history of struggle and triumph in the United States of America. These songs describe the challenges faced, the conditions endured and the ways people have dealt with obstacles and social concerns over time. Most American folk songs address social and political issues, although some are simply sentimental or nostalgic. Some American folk songs employ humor as a tool; others lean heavily on spiritual convictions or American values such as the desire for justice, liberty and equality.

Not Just for Hippies
Most people think of a long-haired hippie singing about world peace when they think of folk songs, but there is much more to American folk songs than this small cross section of the genre. American folk music has existed in one form or another for centuries. African-American spirituals exposed the plight of slaves and later the pursuit of equal rights. "John Henry" is a famous folk song that describes the experience of an African American man working to build the railroad system. Check out the first stanza of this classic folk song:

John Henry
When John Henry was a little baby
Sitting on his pappy's knee
He grabbed a hammer and a little piece of steel,
Said, "This hammer'll be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
This hammer'll be the death of me."

Not all American folk music is sad, but much of it describes the difficult times had by Americans of various walks of life. Early songs such as "Turkey in the Straw" depicted farm life and the love of simple living. Songs like "My Father's Gun" celebrated the devotion of Irish American soldiers who served in the Civil War. Anti-war songs and social change songs became very popular in the 1950's, '60s and '70s. The breadth of folk music is wide and the American experiences recorded in these songs are both fascinating and educational.

Many classic folk songs are written about the actual experiences of real people, exaggerated or romanticized to make a point, evoke emotion or to stir up listeners such that they might take social or political action. One famous American folk song that does exactly this is the song "Tom Dooley," recorded in the late 1950s by The Kingston Trio. This song is about a Civil War veteran from North Carolina who was convicted of murder and hanged. The song raises questions about the justice of this conviction and sentence.

Bob Dylan is one of the most famous American folk song writers. Dylan started out singing in coffeehouses, and his first album consisted of many covers of folk songs written by other artists. One of his best-known folk songs is the famous "Blowin' in the Wind." Some of the lyrics to this song are as follows:

Blowin' in the Wind
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

American folk music is still being written and performed today. Amy Speace's "The Weight of the World" is a song about a girl whose brother is killed in a desert war. The song expresses an anti-war sentiment.

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