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Bob Dylan's folk-rock album, Blonde On Blonde Bob Dylan's folk-rock album, Blonde On Blonde

Folk-rock is a musical genre, combining elements of folk music and rock music.

In the original and narrowest sense, the term referred to a genre that arose in the United States and Canada around the mid-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 distinct, eclectic style of British folk-rock (a.k.a. electric folk) pioneered in the late 1960s by Pentangle and Fairport Convention. Starting from a North-American style folk-rock, Pentangle, Fairport and other related bands deliberately incorporated elements of traditional British folk music. At the same time, in Brittany, Alan Stivell began to mix his Breton roots with Irish and Scottish roots and with rock music. Very shortly afterwards, Fairport bassist Ashley Hutchings formed Steeleye Span in collaboration with traditionalist British folk musicians who wished to incorporate electrical amplification, and later overt rock elements, into their music.

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 they had learned from The Kingston Trio.

However, there are a few antecedents to folk-rock in pre-British Invasion American rock; one could cite some of the later recordings of Buddy Holly, which highly influenced artists like Dylan and the Byrds, and to some extent some recordings by country-influenced performers like The Everly Brothers. This was not a recognized trend at the time, and probably would have not been noticed if not for subsequent events.

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 prominent in this vein, was formed by folk musicians who wished to add electric instruments and experiment with song structures. Nick Drake's music has had a large impact on modern folk-rock.

Across the English Channel in Brittany or France, a similar fusion of folk and rock elements can be found in the Breton folk rock music of Alan Stivell (1970s and later) and the French Malicorne, founded by one of Alan Stivell's musicians.

British folk-rock combined with experimental aspects, found for example in The Incredible String Band, eventually developed into prog rock.

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 ra 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.

Another folk-rock band is Gte from Norway who combines Norwegian folk songs(stev) and rock.

Folk-rock artists

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
Bruce Springsteen
Phil Ochs (arguably a different phenomenon, since his rock music was relatively separate from his folk-influenced music)
Richard Thompson
Alan Stivell
James Taylor

In addition, others (usually of at least a slightly younger generation) seem to have mixed both elements from the outset of their careers:

Jonatha Brooke
Jim Croce
Indigo Girls
Neil Young
Gillian Welch
Joel Sprayberry

Singer-songwriter Paul Simon, as one half of Simon & Garfunkel, was a transitional figure between a Dylanesque singer-songwriter and the folk-rock vocal sound.

Canadian singer-songwriter Nathan Bishop performs both folk and rock instrumentation and leans on both the lyrical and narrative 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
Simon & Garfunkel
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 Grateful Dead
Jefferson Airplane
Moby Grape
Sonny and Cher
Dion DiMucci (mid and late 1960s recordings)
Gene Vincent (mid and late 1960s recordings)

British and Irish folk-rock

The British and Irish 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 following the work of Alan Stivell.

Unrelated to this movement would be a few British acts of the mid-1960s whose music was based on or paralleled US folk-rock of the time, such as Chad and Jeremy, Peter and Gordon, The Searchers or Marianne Faithfull.

Fairport Convention
Alan Stivell (Breton)
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 (French)
Magna Carta
Richard Thompson
Steeleye Span
The Strawbs
Tricks Upon Travellers

Van Morrison, although not associated with this sound in its heyday, has more recently done some music along these lines, especially in his collaborations with The Chieftains.

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 the early 1970s. A clearly related sound can be found in Irish music of a slightly later period.

The Corrs
The Waterboys

The Canadian bands Spirit of the West and Great Big Sea are also more associated with this sound that with the earlier North American folk-rock.

The Canadian band Celtae are fusing 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"

Dropkick Murphys
The Pogues
Fathom (band)
Flogging Molly

A recent book, "Electric Folk" by Britta Sweers (2005) concentrates on Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. Another recent book "Irish Folk, Trad and Blues: A Secret History" by Colin Harper (2005) covers Horslips, The Pogues, Planxty and others.

Present folk-rock includes bands such as Aaron Sprinkle, The Tossers, The River Bends, One Star Hotel, Tegan & Sara, and acoustic favorite Denison Witmer.


The Picts (Scottish)
The Duhks (Canada)
Energy Orchard
Garmarna (Sweden)
Gordon Giltrap
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Big Sea (Canada)
Gordon Lightfoot
Gundula Krause
Kazuki Tomokawa (Japan
The Levellers (Popular during the 1990's, English)
Roaring Jack (Australia)
Ruby Blue
Spirit of the West
Weddings Parties Anything (Australia)
Andy White
World Party

External links

Folk music
American folk music - Anti-folk - Celtic music - Folk metal - Folk punk
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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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