History of Folk Music in America

Powerful Essays
History of Folk Music in America

"Hillbilly" music grew out of the rich tradition of British folk

ballads, songs and hymns brought to North America by British settlers and

then adapted to the peculiar circumstances, e.g., biographical names, place

names, frontier concerns, of the North American wilderness. It is

important to remember that all of the colonies were British, from Maine to

Georgia. The exact ethnic origins of the south are difficult to determine

and not well documented. The rural south did not attract large numbers of

European immigrants in the great period of immigration (1850-1920);

however, it is certain that by 1920 there had been considerable

intermingling of a few ethnic groups (English, Welsh, Scottish,

Scotch-Irish, German, Czechoslovakian, native Indian and African).

Likewise, the ethnic origin of the music of the southern region is complex.

There were Irish jigs, English and Scottish ballads and folk songs, hymns,

etc. However, as Malone (1985:4) suggests, the end result of the musical

melting pot was a product "more British than anything found in Great

Britain today."

The 1790 census report indicates that the population of the United

States was 60.1% English, 14% Scotch-Irish and 3% Irish. These three

groups made up 78% of the total population. The White Anglo-Saxon

Protestant core culture dominated all of pre-Revolutionary America.

However, for reasons we will examine later, the southern region produced a

white and a black musical tradition which were significantly different from

the rest of the nation.

The British folk ballad is at the heart of the southern musical

tradition. Three outstanding characteristics of the Briti...

... middle of paper ...

...from the

Middle Ages, used a four, five or six note scale which did not fall within

tradition major or minor scales. The tunes were almost chants which rose

and fell in pitch - usually peaking at the middle of the song and then

diminishing. Instrumentation was usually non-existent and, when present,

not very important to the song. In the U.S., harmony was much more

important. This probably results from the importance of gospel singing.


Malone, Bill C. Country Music USA: Fifty Year History. Austin:

University of Texas Press, 1985.

Carr, Patrick (ed). The Illustrated History of Country Music.

Garden City: Doubleday, 1979.

Roebuck, Julian B. and Mark Hickson. The Southern Redneck: A

Phenomenological Class Study. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982.
Get Access