Folk song: A song of unidentified origin that has been orally transmitted through successive generations within a given community. Folk songs, which are usually accompanied by acoustic instruments, typically recount stories about everyday life and express the hopes and beliefs of ordinary people. Common types of folk songs include ballads, carols, lullabies, spirituals, work songs, hobo songs, drinking songs, songs of the sea, and songs of unrequited love.
In North America, the definition of folk song expanded in the twentieth century to include folksy lyrics written or popularized by musical artists such as Woody Guthrie; Pete Seeger; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez; Judy Collins; Joni Mitchell; Bob Dylan; and Arlo Guthrie.
EXAMPLES: Anonymous religious songs such as “Kumbaya, My Lord,” a slave song with African roots, and “Hava Nagila,” a popular Jewish folk song and dance. Folk songs that began as written compositions attributable to a specific person include works by Stephen Foster (1826—64) such as “Camptown Races” and “Oh! Susanna.” The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, a multi-artist recording project spearheaded by Harry Belafonte from 1961 to 1971 and released in 2001, documents three hundred years of black American folk music, from the early 1600s to the early twentieth century.
Other well-known twentieth-century folk songs include Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (1940); Belafonte’s version of the Jamaican “Banana Boat Song” from his album Calypso (1956); Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome” (1963), his version of a union labor song that was itself based on a gospel hymn; Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963); and Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” (1970), a song popularized by Arlo Guthrie in 1972 about ordinary people on a lightly loaded passenger train by that name. Contemporary folk singers include Catie Curtis, Ani DiFranco, Nanci Griffith, John Gorka, and Sarah Jarosz.