Famous musician, Louis Armstrong, once said, “All music is folk music. I ain’t ever heard a horse sing a song.” And though this is an amusing tongue-in-cheek quote, Armstrong is also hinting at how powerful music is when it comes to human connectivity.
Ask someone who loves folk music to explain what it is, and you’ll probably hear something along the lines of: ‘you just know it when you hear it’. That’s partly because defining any genre of music is quite a difficult task, but also because folk music is much more than just a category of music; it’s a living tradition.
For many people around the world, listening to and playing tunes with others is a way of life that brings people together – at sessions, gigs, festivals, or even on online message boards.
What is folk music?
The genre of folk music is very broad, yet somewhat hard to pin down. Generally, when people talk about ‘folk’ music, they mean traditional music passed from person to person and generation to generation, by ear – rather than being written down.
The folk music of the UK and Ireland varies in styles and instrumentation, but there are a few commonalities. Flute, tin whistle, fiddle, guitar, and squeezeboxes such as accordions, melodeons, and concertinas are all common in much of the traditional music of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
Most folk tunes are short and easy to learn – which makes it even more satisfying when you find a really good one you like. As the name suggests, folk music is for everyone – so here’s three reasons why it could be for you.
If you’d like to get a feel for what great folk music can sound like, check out this performance video from the popular folk supergroup, Bellowhead.
3 reasons why folk music could be your new favourite hobby
1. The folk scene is a big, welcoming community
Any hobby can be a great way to meet new people and make new friends with common interests – but the folk scene has a particular emphasis on community.
You’ll find all sorts of people at traditional music gigs, but the average folkie tends to be over 50. Concert-goers often see each other regularly at gigs – though the real social glue that keeps the folk and traditional music community together is the sessions.
A folk session is a gathering, usually (but not always) hosted in a pub, where anyone is welcome to come along and play music. While solo performances are allowed (and often strongly encouraged by appreciative regulars), a traditional music session largely involves everyone playing tunes together, off the cuff.
Venues will often hire one or more professional musicians to ‘lead’ the session – but that just means they’re there to facilitate and encourage everyone, and to make sure there’s at least someone confident enough to keep the tunes coming in case people are feeling a bit too shy to start their own.
Sessions aren’t just for playing musicians, though – anyone is welcome to come along and listen to the music, whether they want to listen for a while before deciding whether to play, or just enjoy the tunes.
Traditional music sessions are usually open to anyone, but it’s normal to feel a bit nervous about the prospect of attending your first one – especially if you want to join in with the music.
However, you might find it reassuring to hear that newbies frequently post on folk forums and groups, asking for advice on ‘session etiquette’ – and time and again the response given is the same. They’re told: don’t worry too much, and just treat it like any other social event.
If you do want to join in with the music, then, as with any social gathering, it’s always worth just politely asking if you can join in. But, keep in mind that everyone joining in with a session is there to share and listen to beautiful music – and the regulars will always want to help you feel welcome and included.
So if you’re thinking of attending a session, but are feeling a bit anxious, it’s worth pushing past your fears and stepping outside of your comfort zone. Chances are, you won’t regret it!
You might want to have a watch of this YouTube video to see what a traditional folk session can look and sound like.
2. Folk music is accessible
An inclusive and welcoming attitude is not only a common trait in the folk community, but in the tradition of the music itself – because folk music is inherently accessible by design.
Folk tunes are written to be easy enough to pick up by ear, to remember off the top of your head, and (in many cases) to allow the audience to join in.
A lot of the most popular folk tunes are dances – like reels, jigs, and hornpipes – or ballads, which need to be simple enough that people can dance or sing along with whether they’ve heard the tune before or not.
Folk tunes are usually fairly short, made up of two or three even sections, and in one of a few common keys. This means it’s quick and easy to put together sets that sound great together, or to join in with an improvised harmony.
While folk instruments in general are rarely cheap (especially true of squeezeboxes, which are a folk favourite!), instruments like the tin whistle, and the popularity of vocal songs and ballads, mean you can get started without having to spend much at all.
Plus, there are loads of resources out there for new learners; including workshops for common folk instruments like the fiddle, flute/whistle, guitar, accordions, and voice. So it can be really simple to get started. The Session – a website compiling thousands of traditional and modern tunes, as well as hosting a forum for events and discussion – is a favourite of many folkies.
It’s often said that the best thing you can do to learn as a musician is to listen to other musicians – so it’s fortunate that folk gigs tend to be on the more affordable side of concert prices, too.
3. You’ll be part of a living oral tradition
As well as just being great fun to get involved with, folk music is a mix of various cultural and historical traditions, and exploring them can be both interesting and eye-opening.
Traditional music is a more prominent feature of some cultures than others. Traditional Irish music, for instance, is almost synonymous with Irish culture for many people, and its influences can even be found in mainstream top 40 hits like Ed Sheeran’s Galway Girl.
But unlike most popular modern music, the folk music of the UK and Ireland is a living oral tradition. This means that, while a lot of both traditional and modern works are kept on record thanks to the internet, many great tunes only survive by being passed on from person to person – never being written down.
Being a part of that oral tradition can feel really special, and it’s always fun finding a great new tune you could only have learned from the person who taught it to you.
How to get involved with folk music
If you want to get involved in the folk scene, some of the best things you can do include learning an instrument and/or some vocal songs, and finding out what opportunities there are near you.
You might want to have a look at websites such as Are You Dancing, which lists a number of folk song and dance classes and events around the UK. Though, it’s always a good idea to do a classic Google search too, to see what might be available in your local area.
Another great and very accessible option is online learning. Here are a few recommendations for where to find classes and courses:
EFDSS – the English Folk Dance and Song Society, based at Cecil Sharp House in London’s Camden Town, hosts regular in-person workshops. But anyone can find a wealth of useful information and beginners’ guides on their website.
Online Academy of Irish Music – the Online Academy of Irish Music offers paid courses in a wide variety of instruments and styles via their website. There are also lots of free videos available to get you started on their YouTube channel.
Scottish Music Academy – the Scottish Music Academy hosts a variety of paid courses in accordion, fiddle, flute and whistle, guitar, mandolin, and even harp and cello.
Trac Cymru – the learning resources section of the Trac Cymru website offers many tunes, songs, and articles on the Welsh folk music tradition.
Whistletutor – the Whistletutor YouTube channel, hosted by flautist Sean Cunningham, is home to many beginner and intermediate-friendly videos teaching tunes and technique for both Irish flute and tin whistle.
Mel Biggs Music – Mel Biggs’ YouTube channel features a number of slow playthroughs of tunes for melodeon, which can be particularly helpful for players of any level.
Other websites such as UKSessions also let you search for sessions and events by your location – and it’s always worth having a look on Facebook for any folk groups or clubs in your local area.
It’s no wonder that folk music finds such a special place in the hearts of many people around the UK and the wider world.
All music is fun, but it can be especially great to belong to such a welcoming community, join in with the music-making, and to get in touch with the roots of your own culture, and of others. So, if you’re looking for a new hobby, why not have a go?
Or, for more music ideas and inspiration, you might want to check out our articles; 12 benefits of introducing more music into your life and 7 of the easiest musical instruments to learn.
Are you feeling inspired to explore the world of folk music? Or, has traditional music made an impact on your life? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.