American folk music has no nameable origin. It’s more tradition than entertainment. There are folk songs that date so far back, they can be considered oral histories. Certainly, in America, songs by traditional American folksingers like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie tell stories that often don’t even appear in history books.
From its origins, folk music has been the music of the working class. It is community-focused and has rarely enjoyed commercial success. By definition, it is something anyone can understand and in which everyone is welcome to participate. Folk songs range in subject matter from war, work, civil rights, and economic hardship to nonsense, satire and, of course, love songs.
From the onset of American history, folk music has shown up at times when the people needed it most. The earliest folk songs rose from slave fields as spirituals: “Down by the Riverside, ” “We Shall Overcome, ” etc. These are songs about struggle and hardship, but are also full of hope. They sprang from the need of the worker to go to a place in her brain where she knew there was more to the world than the hardships she was facing at the time.
The 20th Century brought folk music back into the American psyche as workers struggled and struck for child labor laws and the eight-hour work day. Workers and folksingers gathered in churches, living rooms and union halls, and learned songs that helped them cope with their rough work environment. Joe Hill was an early folk songwriter and union agitator. His songs adapted the tunes of Baptist hymns by replacing the words with verses about the ongoing labor struggles. These tunes have been sung during worker strikes and in union halls ever since.
In the 1930s, folk music enjoyed a resurgence as the stock market crashed and workers everywhere were displaced, scrambling for jobs. A series of droughts and dust storms encouraged farmers out of the Dust Bowl region and toward promises in California and New York State. These communities were found in boxcars and jungle camps, as workers tried to make their way from job to job.
Woody Guthrie was one of those workers who headed to California in search of gainful employment. Woody wrote hundreds of songs between the 1930s and his death in 1967 of Huntington’s Chorea.
Daniel Hawkins Does Ambient Sound at Poetry Gig
Daniel Hawkins is a composer, musician, whose work focuses largely on incorporating folk musics from different traditions into contemporary pieces and on using found sound and ambient noise as a primary agent in composition.
A recent graduate of Princeton University , Daniel was awarded the Martin A. Dale Fellowship, which he will use to spend the next year living
out of a van, traveling across the country, and composing new music.
More about this project can be found on his blog at
Daniel Hawkins and Katy Hawkins will be featured performers at the Almost Uptown Poetry Cartelâs Poetry Thursdays August 9, at the Crimson Frog CafÃ© in New Cumberland