“American Folk Music and the Humming Hybrids”

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“American Folk Music and the Humming Hybrids”
Elizabeth-Burton Jones

Can you define FOLK?:

“Folk” is a word with many definitions. You can be folk. You can sing folk. You can be a part of folk life. Folk can be described as a way of life for a traditional culture. A street performer’s music could be classified as folk music. Country music, jazz music, and bluegrass music can all be categorized as some extension of folk music. Needless to say, diversity is great.

The genre of folk, often finds itself oozing into other genres. This creates a lack of a concise definition. Without a clear definition, the folk culture can become lost and become even more detached from the “real meaning”.

This article will attempt to find the definition of folk, particularly with regards to American Folk Music. The article will do so by a survey and an interview. After all of the information is gathered and briefly processed, then the article will mold a conclusion via semiotics, cultural transmission, the cultural encyclopedia, the history of American Folk Music, and current Marketing strategies and further research. 

The Musical Experiment:

The Method:

In order to find out the recipe of American Folk Music and in order to see if there is a clear and concise definition of American Folk Music, I decided to interview a professional folklorist. The purpose of the interview is to find out what American Folk Music really is. Is it concise? In actuality nothing is purely concise, but by having a clear definition of American Folk Music, will create a better understanding of American folk Music’s place in the giant world of music. After the interview, I created a brief survey for a diverse group to complete. The purpose of this survey was to find out what people think about folk music. I wanted to demonstrate the idea of the cultural encyclopedia and find out if there is any consistency within the brand of American Folk Music and it’s relation to “folk”. After the results are compiled, I should have a better understanding with regards to what people assume American Folk Music is and the reality of American Folk Music.   

The Interview:

I interviewed Nancy Groce, Ph.D. who is the Senior Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center at the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Interview Questions were:

Can we define folk?
What’s the major difference between folk life and folk music? Is there a difference?
What’s the general history of folk music?
Are there hints of folk music in every genre?
Does the use of “low tech” or stereotypically less sophisticated instruments and technologies classify folk music as a “lower” art?
What are the Lomax recordings?
Because folk music is so diverse, does the diversity muddle the understanding of the definition?
Is there a concrete definition for “folk music”?
Does a “utopian” view of folk music hinder a greater understanding of “folk music”?
Additional comments?

The Video:

The video was truly monumental in the organization of this study. By talking to Dr. Groce, I was able to find out which areas were important with regards to my study and which areas should be for the future.

The Survey:

I asked a diverse group to share their opinions about folk music. I asked about the general concept of folk music to see if any one would classify a type of folk music. I sent a questionnaire to multiple people from diverse backgrounds and from varied chapters in the cultural encyclopedia.

The Survey Questions:

1. What do you think of when you envision “folk music”?
2. What do you think of when you hear this song?
3. How would you classify this song?
4. Does folk music have a stereotype?
5. When thinking about American Folk Music, do you think that the music is over produced?

Also, I asked if the participants could include their name and where they are from at the top of their response. 


I sent an e-mail questionnaire to multiple people using different formats (e-mail and Facebook). Six people responded to the survey. The people were from various states and various fields of study. Two people were from Ohio and one person was from Louisiana, South Carolina, Kentucky, and one person was from Great Britain. Each person had a different level of musical knowledge. One person that completed the survey was a professional musician. Another person that took the survey admitted that she had little musical exposure. The use of a diverse crowd yields itself to a diverse group of answers.

Here are the responses:

What do you think of when you envision “folk music”?

1. Kelsey S.

“I think of original music by a group of people that is specific to that group and usually representative of their culture.”

Emily H.
South Carolina

“When I think of folk music, I think of a couple things. I think about older folk music from artists like Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton from back in the 70s. I also associate folk music with more contemporary acts such as Iron and Wine. I often associate folk music with bluegrass and country.”

Ashley Brooke T. (B.)

“Music for the people, songs expressing emotions felt by the common ‘folk.’”

Chris C.

“When I think of folk music I think mountain people dancing around with moon shine.”

Margaret S.

“Folk music … I think of older music.”

Tanvi P.
Great Britain

“Folk music for me is something which is traditional and original to a particular tribe, community, county or district. It is composed of customs and traditions and it is not dictated by commercialisation. Folk music can either be only instrumental or it is composed of distinct verbal use. It is passed on through generations through oral transmission.” 

2. What do you think of when you hear this song?

Many participants said that the music sounded very traditional. Some of the participants mentioned that it sounded like a struggling group others mentioned that it sounded like a church hymn. But, the main reaction was that he music sounded like country music. Each response revolved around struggle and not around sophistication.
3. How would you classify this song?

Emily H. mentioned that: “When I hear that song, I think of very old, traditional style folk music…like how folk music originally started. To me, the style of the song is meant to tell a story and invoke a strong emotional connection to the story being told.”

Overall, this is how it broke down:

4. Does folk music have a stereotype?

Two participants mentioned that it has the stereotype of being “uneducated” and “poorly written”. One participant mentioned that it has “distinct qualities to it”.

Emily H. mentioned that: “I wouldn’t say that folk music has a stereotype because the genre can be conveyed in so many different ways. The variety of folk artists are so diverse and unique.”

Ashley Brooke T. (she is a very experienced singer) mentioned: “I think it had a sort of hayseed stereotype and maybe does still hold that feeling for some groups. Now though just about every singer-songwriter is considered folk..” 

5. When thinking about American Folk Music, do you think that the music is over produced?

Kelsey S. of Kentucky said, “I think it is. If America’s folk music is considered to be country, it’s definitely over produced. As much as I like Taylor Swift and other “country” artists, the genre had changed a lot from the early days.”

Emily H. of South Carolina said, “I would have to ask what is meant by “overproduced”. I could see that word to mean different things. Does that mean that it is made too frequently-like there is an over saturation of folk artists or does that mean that the music itself is of low quality or is not uniquely identifiable/creative?”

Ashley Brooke Toussant (Bigler) of Ohio said, “When thinking about American Folk Music, do you think that the music is over produced? Not at all. When I hear folk, I think the opposite. More simple, capturing the essence of the LIVE performance.”

Chris C. from Ohio said: “I do not think it is overproduced.”

Maragret S. from Louisiana said, “No American folk music definitely isn’t overproduced.”

Tanvi P. from Great Britain said, “no I personally don’t think the music is overproduced.”


After looking at the data from the interviews and surveys, it is quite evident that not everyone is on the same page. Only two people addressed the difference between folk music and American Folk Music. The two people that addressed the difference were the people with the most exposure to American Folk Music (Nancy Groce, Phd. and Ashley Brooke Toussant (Bigler)).To explore the meaning behind the data, it is important to look at semiotics, dialogism, cultural transmission, the cultural encyclopedia, and marketing.


To address semiotics, there is a central definition that will be used. According to Posner,
“The English word ‘semiotics’ (Greek sēmiōtiké epistémē) designates the science…of signs…Signs are objects that convey something – a message …; they presuppose someone who understands them – an interpreter. The processes in which signs and interpreters are involved are called ‘sign processes’ (“semioses”; see Morris 1938, Deely 1990: 32, and Koch 1998: 707-718)” (Posner 1).

The “science” of signs is usually scattered when it comes to American Folk Music. It takes a true folk expert to help everyone get through the “milieu” of folk music.

According to Mieke Bal semiotics is:
“The field, discipline and perspective of semiotics study the meaning and implications of that characteristic of the human species. The field of semiotics is characterized by interests in a set of questions like: what sign-systems do we have, what types of signs are operative, how do they function, what is their effect?” (Bal 4). 

With this working definition, we can properly assess the information that was gathered about Folk Music. To answer the question about the folk sign-system, this is complex because the small sample of people that I surveyed did not have a concise answer. No one came up with one clear sign that signifies folk music. However, the tension is released by the question of the signs that are “operative”. If we are to take the “signs are operative” to mean the signs that are being displayed within folk music (if we twist the definition of the words that Bal uses and make them about folk and confusion) then we can aggregate the signs.

For illustration, the participants in the survey mentioned that folk could have the stereotype of being “uneducated” and “moonshine” driven. Other participants mentioned that folk music can be scattered and another participant mentioned the “hayseed” genre. The Folklorist mentioned that folk music is very diverse. With these answers we can start to compartmentalize the genre of folk music to discover that each working stereotype can have a “function” that satiates each stereotypical group. For instance, it is not wrong to say that some folk music pleases people from the 1960’s political movements. It is also not wrong to say that folk music satisfies many people of different economic levels. However, with all of the definitions the “effect” could take a wrong turn when it comes to preserving a historical genre because the genre is not clear. But, maybe music doesn’t have to be defined maybe music is meant to be blurred.

However, when it comes to readily defining “folk” music, is it is extremely difficult to do so. It is not easy to define “folk” and specifically American Folk Music by the codes and meanings. For instance,“… when we think of signs that nobody has designed as signs. When we look out of the window in the morning and the sun is bright, we take that as a sign: ‘good weather.’ We do not yet experience the good weather; we do not yet feel the actual warmth, but we know we can expect it and dress accordingly or the day. The sun is not in itself a sign. It becomes one for the person looking out of the window, seeing it and drawing conclusions from it” (Bal 9). 

This is not true for American Folk Music. The seemingly ubiquitous nature of American Folk Music makes it very hard to look and listen to a track of music and directly classify it with “American” Folk Music instead of jazz music or traditional cultural folk music. It is easier to classify the music as country or jazz or gospel music. But, when it comes down to actually defining something as “American Folk” it appears that we must initially peel away all of the layers of the vocals, the instruments, and the lyrics. Once all of that is gone then folk can be found.

By peeling through the layers, we must find out the different codes for the different sections of folk music. “A code consists of a set of signifiers, a set of signifieds, and a set of rules which determine the relation of these to each other(see Nöth 1990: 206-220). A code is either innate, such as the genetic code, is learned in interaction with the social environment, as is the case with many behavioral codes, or may be created through an explicit decision by one or more individual(s)” (Posner 4). But the question remains, does folk music actually have a set form of codes? Marketing wise, the codes might be forced, by adding a form of style to the outfit. But, by listening to a song, there is a muddled version of folk. This is exemplified by the survey. Before the participants listened to the song, I asked that they solely listen to the song and that they do not make assumptions by the picture on the video. Even so, there was not a universal answer found by the codes of the voice, the stress of the notes, and the grit in the music. The song did not clearly signify American Folk Music from the South. Instead, the music sent codes of gospel and general folk (one person said American Folk. The difference is the specific genre of folk and not the general universe of folk, which could include folklore and folk life).

By testing the sensory modality, the participants made it clear that if we strip away the pictures and visual effects it is much harder to classify folk music. “Thus, a pop music concert simultaneously utilizes the sensory modality of the eye and the ear, the contact matter of air, the technical apparatus of spotlights and projection screens as well as musical instruments, …and tonal music. This special constellation of media predisposes it for an emotionally-laden, generally understandable message, which can provide every individual in a large audience with a feeling of belonging” (Posner 8). 

However, this “feeling of belonging” is often muddled when it comes to the realm of American Folk Music. It is muddled because the location is not certain. Does a person belong with the counter-culture, the people in the group singing by the fire, or with the new band at the Grammy’s?

Therefore, does the lack of belonging suggest that folk music does not have a culture? Posner gives an interesting definition of culture that can help discover if American Folk Music is a part of a culture.“A culture makes available to each member of the respective society the experiences of his or her contemporaries and predecessors, so that these can be repeated and improved on, if they were positive, or so that they can be avoided, if they were negative. Culture, then, does for the society what memory does for the individual (see). It is a collective mechanism for the storage of information. Collective information storage is dependent on individuals who generate information by having experiences. It would be impossible without communication, since the original experience can only be transmitted when the one who experienced it takes on the role of the sender. It would be impossible without codes, for if all communication utilized only uncoded messages, the original experience would be passed on only from the sender to his or her addressees and from them to their addressees in turn; for individuals not present as addressees in such a chain of communication, the relevant experience would be inaccessible” (Posner 28-29). With this information, we can assume that folk music does have a culture, but a limited culture. The culture is passed down from person to person and the culture is communicated. But, the access to the culture is limited by the amount of people that have access to the information.

Folk and all of its extensions have a society that preserves its image from the past. This is the Library of congress. But the question is how does the average listener of folk music assess that culture? Well, the Library of Congress started an initiative a long time ago to preserve the folk life and folk music cultures. This project is called the Global Jukebox.

This is a wonderful way to give access to the masses.

In sum, semiotics is a wonderful lens in which we can take the evidence from the interviews and surveys to find out what the answers really mean. We can dig deeper into the answers from the survey. Through semiotics, it is apparent that the definition of the culture of American Folk Music is very scattered and that it has a different meaning for everyone that listens to it. This allows for a particular freedom of interpretation. Through semiotics, the “freedom” is an area that should be addressed because it is muddling the definition of the music (with regards to having a set definition for the American Folk Music genre). Semiotics helps the listeners interpret the meaning and another way to examine the effectiveness of the culture’s message to the masses would be the way it communicates.

Cultural Transmission:
Communication is integral when it comes to finding the meaning of any area of study. It is imperative that we have a textbook definition and a free form definition so we can actually observe how the message is communicated. When we are talking about communicating we are mentioning the distribution to the masses. Debray mentions that “Commonly understood, ‘communicating’ is simply making familiar, making known” (Debray 1).  Now that the meaning of American Folk Music has been assessed as fundamentally blended, it is appropriate to discover why the music is blurred and why people have vast yet similar definitions. To demolish the confusion, lets take a closer look at communication (Debray 3).  

Through communication, we can find the answers, but through transmission we can find the evidence. “If communication transports essentially through space, transmission essentially transports through time” (Debray 3). Many things change over time. It is life. But the one thing that remains, are many hints of the culture that can lead to hints about the future.

To look at the history over a span of time for any given culture, it is important to address the transmission.  Debray says that: “The content of the message is guided by the requisites of its deliverance, as is the organ by its function. Through measurably temporal, transmission does have a geography. Its advancement occupies space, but it conducts its crossings and bids for influence in order to make inroads toward permanence, to make history (the pervasive desire to pervade time by turning any means it can to account)” (Debray 4). American Folk Music has indubitably left a mark and made various historical efforts. However, these efforts seem to be unrelated to the culture of the genre as whole.

Transmission can be thought of as the knowledge that is given. For instance, Debray mentions that,  “Journalists communicate; professors transmit. (The difference is that between news and knowledge.)” (Debray 6). The knowledge will hopefully stick with the message for a long period of time and help define the message. Knowledge has more “staying power”.

But it seems as though American Folk Music is missing the crucial transmission points. To spell out the transmission points, it is important that to break down the definition of transmission.  “The prefix trans-: comes down most decisively to this particle that encapsulates the marching past, burden, and adventure of so many mediations” (Debray 7). To encapsulate the past of folk music there are a few artists throughout history that have made waves in the ocean of music (1960’s artist). But it seems as though each artist that encapsulates a time period is different from the other. This is not rare.

For instance, if we look at the history of Presidents of the United States of America, we can notice that not all of the President’s believed in the same principles, not all of the President’s were of the same party, but in the end the President of the United States still had a guide, a set structure that they had to follow. Now, the President’s have (had) many guides, one could argue that the Constitution was a guide for the President’s but this guide shifts every now and then and can be amended. Yet, no matter the number of amendments, the heart of the document stands true. Another example could be the Declaration of Independence. Many things have changed throughout the years, but even so the unalienable rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” have remained the same.

The three unalienable rights and the shifting throughout history provides a nice example of how history can be a chain filled with people that have different ways of thinking and drastically different principles, but at the end of the day these chains are still linked. Also, with regards to the President’s no matter how different each President may be they are still under the title of President of the United States. This is a transmissible characteristic that we are missing in folk music. We are missing the connection.

Yes, throughout the years there are many artists that have characterized American Folk Music. But, if we compare these artists, do they follow a linear progression? Linear progressions are not always easy to maintain because of the space and time, but at the heart of their music, is there a node of “American Folk”? Is there a “pluckable” note?

That’s where the confusion lies. The transmission of the message of American Folk Music is varied and scattered. However, through transmission, there are ways to remedy the confusion.  “Transmitting means organizing” (Debray 15). Therefore, there have been ways to organize different genres by category (jazz, country, gospel). But while organizing American Folk Music, it seems to be difficult to actually separate the culmination of all genres.

Therefore, is American Folk Music milieu? To answer this question we can look at Debray’s quote about milieu and the black box. “Mediology is devoted to medium and median bodies, to everything that acts as milieu or middle ground in the black box of meaning’s production, between an input and an output” (Debray 7). No, American Folk Music is not the milieu, rather it is the initial information. By thinking of American Folk Music as the initial musical information, then we can propose that all of the current genres are the milieu and the future of music lies outside of the black box of music.             

Therefore, if we propose that Folk Music as a whole, is the initial form of music, and if we recognize that within the realm of American Music, that American Folk Music has been integral (with the evolution of various genres of music), then we could say that everything that is current and every musical approach spawns from Folk Music. However, this is contingent on the cultural memory of the person ranking Folk Music.

Cultural memory deals with the subjects that are properly curated and preserved. If certain memories are not passed on to the future, then the essence of the origin could be lost. Debray mentions that a message that is not properly preserved disappears. “…Communication is the message’s sine qua non, while the community of messengers is that by which the choice of an inheritance is possible. The message that does not find an institutional housing will go up in smoke or be drained off as so much background noise by the ambient environment of cultural life. Perpetuating meaning assigns an institution the dual mission of archival and pedagogical conservation” (Debray 10-11). The conservation part of American Folk Music, is greatly taking part in the Library of Congress (Global Jukebox) and other places that devote themselves or a section of their master skills to the world of American Folk Music.

Therefore, the Library of Congress serves as the main source of transmission for the American Folk Music world. “At the material level, to transmit is to inform the inorganic by manufacturing consultable store of externalized memory through available technologies for inscribing, conserving, inventorying, and distributing the recorded traces of cultural expression” (Debray 11-12). Through the library and other resources, we can gather more and more information about American Folk Music.

Even with all of the information, the biggest confusion lies within the past and the present. “Our objects hold fast to their historical context while our works can escape from them” (Debray 53).  Therefore, this is to say  (within the American Folk Music world) that we can organize all of the past actions, but the past actions are being transformed into present actions and then they will lend themselves to future actions. The present actions “our works” are leaving the past and trying to re-define the meaning of American Folk Music. By searching and reconstructing the meaning, we are losing our original meaning and creating a meaning from the past that does not live on to the present.

But regardless of the shuffle between past and present, there is something to always remember, everything is connected. To find the state of American Folk Music in the chain of history, it is necessary to address dialogism. Dialogue/Dialogic/Dialogism: Every level of expression from live conversational dialog to complex cultural expression in other genres and art works is an ongoing chain or network of statements and responses, repetitions and quotations, in which new statements presuppose earlier statements and anticipate future responses” (Irvine).

The “ongoing chain” explains the transmission cycle and how the different artists are displayed. For instance, before, it was put into question if American Folk Music was too diluted by other forms of art. But, if we look at American Folk Music through the lens of dialogism, we can find out that the history is still connected with this chain, no matter how different the artist or the music genre. They are still connected.

This connection can link to the space that it is located in history. Bakhtin mentions that, “[a] ‘word’ is therefore always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in a chain of ongoing cultural and political moments.” (Irvine) Therefore, if the music is already drenched with historical content, then American Folk Music does not seem so detached from music.

Since a lot of the results from the surveys and the interview used the word, “traditional” to describe Folk Music (not everyone identified folk music with the American twist) it is easy to also link the tradition of the music to the past, which can be cyclical.

“No tradition has come about without being an invention or recirculation of expressive marks and gestures. No movement of ideas has occurred that did not imply the corresponding movement of human bodies, whether pilgrims, merchants, settlers, soldiers, or ambassadors” (Debray 2).

Therefore, American Folk Music is a part of the chain of music and also a response to music in general. That would create a new wrinkle in the assessment of Folk Music.

However, the accessibility to the observance of the placement of the chain depends on individual knowledge. Each person is from a different mind frame and has varied access to the information. 

Cultural Encyclopedia:

With all of this information, it is important to realize that all of the signs and meanings are different for each person. “The meaning of signs is different according to the social groups we belong to” (Bal 6). With the survey group, everyone was relatively from the same social group, the only difference is the depth of the cultural encyclopedia. For instance, one participant is a singer. She has many of her own CD’s and singles. On the other end of the spectrum, we had one participant that didn’t really know that much about music. Another participant interned for the Kennedy Center and had a lot of information about music and culture. All of the participants were all on different chapters of the cultural encyclopedia.

The diversity of the group helped to demonstrate that everyone addresses the information in a different way. “Why do some people ‘get’ meanings and others don’t? Some people will be more competent than others in using the codes and accessing the encyclopedia than others, but everyone in a culture will understand how to use the codes or draw on knowledge that they don’t know from the relevant cultural encyclopedia. Since all meaning and symbolic systems are intersubjective, collective, and public, there is no such thing as ‘hidden meaning.’ There can be only as-yet, unaccessed, relevant parts of a cultural encyclopedia with the learnable relevant codes and knowledge nodes that anyone can apply” (Irvine 14). This is exemplified through my survey. Some participants automatically assumed that country music was folk music. One participant classified the folk music as American Folk Music. The answers were very telling of everyone’s position in the cultural encyclopedia. Therefore, this proves the notion of the cultural encyclopedia. Some people have read volumes and are more entrenched in the knowledge while others are entrenched in other information.

But the important aspect is to understand each other. With American Folk Music, it seems as though people are all on different pages of the encyclopedia and have different ideas to what folk is (let alone what American Folk Music is). Therefore, the solution would be to create a neutral stance.“Neutral dictionary meanings of the words of a language ensure their common features and guarantee that all speakers of a given language will understand one another, but the use of words in live speech communication is always individual and contextual in nature (p.88)” (Bakhtin).The important aspect is to understand one another. Not everyone has to know the definition of complex examples of American Folk Music, but everyone should be able to understand each other and have a working understanding of the genre.

With regards to the cultural encyclopedia, it seems as though American Folk Music has become like an “inside joke”. Some people get it and other don’t some people know the structure and other don’t. The reason, as with all reason, is the access to the information. The access to this information is muddled through access to cultural memory. “All of our individual expressions necessarily assume and embed the expressions of others, either in an immediate context (like conversation) or in cultural genres that unfold in a larger environment, both contemporary (during our own time) and an inherited cultural memory (a cultural encyclopedia)” (Irvine 6). This access to the cultural encyclopedia echoes all other information about the muddled definitions of the American Folk Music genre.

However, if the information is already a hybrid, if the information is already “embedded” into each conversation and each note, then the information should be slightly understood. This should create an equal playing field for the cultural encyclopedia and it should make the encyclopedia more accessible or at least more inclusive and less about the “inside joke” aspect. “When we become socialized into our language community (and available subcultures), the dialogic base is always already there, in place before we begin a new expression, which will always be a response to conversations already going on in an accrued dialogic cultural encyclopedia” (Irvine 13). If this statement is to be true, then we should already have some connection to the link of American Folk Music. This connection does not have to be a distant connection it could be an immediate connection via today’s popular music.

 Some History:

In today’s popular music there seems to be a strand of “American Folk Music”. There are codes that are being used to distinguish these mechanisms. For instance, in the survey, one participant mentioned that folk music had a “moonshine” appeal. This appeal can lead to a plethora of images. Yet, each image is subject to interpretation. For instance, when some people think about a “moonshine” appeal, they can tend to think about people around a camp fire hanging out in the hill country having a wonderful time enjoying friendship and singing songs. The point is that there tends to be a new shift to the “moonshine” and group sing appeal of folk music. This is being marketed to the masses assuming that the masses are not culturally remembering the significance of American Folk Music in the 1960’s.

The current generation is being marketed certain images of American Folk Music because for the most part the younger people have no tangible recollection of the 1960s or they were not at prime protests etc. (they weren’t born yet). Therefore, the marketing groups are marketing to a population that does not, for the most part, have a personal cultural memory of the other events of American Folk Music.

Therefore, certain markets are overselling this idea of “group song” and campfires. This notion of telling stories and being with groups of people is not that far off of the general friendly aspect of folk music, but it is only exposing certain information and making certain parts of history accessible to the next generations with regards to their cultural memory.

The traditional aspect of folk is split up in many groups. Culture wise some cultures have very pure relations of their culture they include traditional garb they produce traditional values and have traditional ways. In some communities these folk and traditional cultural foundations are displayed at cultural festivals. The folk garments and dance moves allude to the “old country” and staying true to their roots. Without delving into to too much of what this means, we can at least use this as an examples of how cultural communities can provide these cultures with their own memories. With regards to American Folk Music, there isn’t a set way to be reminded of the ways of the past, because it is often assumed that American Folk Music is so blurred.

Therefore, this creates an easy marketing strategy. Some marketing companies are marketing certain signals, however, the signals are not connected to the original meaning. For instance, for the most part, mass-produced American Folk Music has lost its political dissidence.

In the 1960’s the meaning of folk music was synonymous with protesting and the counter-culture. “The notion of an alternative culture is a far cry from just popularizing a musical genre in an existent culture. Interest in folk music did not numerically affect an entire generation. Folkniks were by-and-large politically reformist, believing in the possibility of social change” (Lund and Denisoff 405). However, today’s bands that are signifying popular trends from the evolution of the folk counter-culture are doing so without the meaning original meaning from the cultural memory.

For instance, historically, folk music embodied the “people”. “…After World War II the ‘people’s artists’ trend was interdicted by the advent of the McCarthy era and the application of the media blacklist to folk-styled singers, such as Pete Seeger and the Weavers. As members of People’s Artists, Inc. were being summoned to testify before Congressional subcommittees, an artistic and literary fad which explored the traditional ‘road’ concepts of the American experience came into existence in the bohemian communities of several large metropolises. This movement was called the Beat Generation, or by journalists such as Herb Caen, ‘beatniks.’ The beats proclaimed disaffiliation from American society and its institutions” (Lund and Denisoff 395). Today’s popular counter-culture artists are not fully associated with the American Folk Music realm. The counter-culture artists of today can be seen as going back in time, but not the genre. Also, the counter artists are in various genres and not just in the realm of Folk Music anymore.

To demystify the notion that folk music is only to the moonshine culture and the overproduced, we have the New Lost City Ramblers. “The first performing group in the urban ‘folk’ scene to specialize in material of traditional rural origin was the New Lost City Ramblers.19 They were organized in 1958 by Mike Seeger, youngest son of the famous ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger; John Cohen, Yale-educated photographer; and Tom Paley, a New York mathematician and photographer” (Lund and Denisoff 400).

The fact that the people were replicating the music of the South is very interesting. The article by Lund and Denisoff provides more historical examples and provides more of an explanation for the said cultural shift. However for the purpose of this paper, it is important to note that some of the “urban folk” artists were educated. This is important because today’s generation is given the sign that the folk music community deals with “low technological instruments” and is more of a “moonshine” culture. However, this goes back to how far along we are in the cultural encyclopedia.

Another point about our detachment is the cutting and pasting of the culture. At first many recordings (like the Lomax Recordings) were thought of as being authentic. “… records of the twenties and thirties were genuine folk songs of a far greater authenticity than anything heard at the early urban ‘folk-festivals’” (Lund and Denisoff 399). In today’s time, these works are still authentic works. But, the chain of Folk Music does not end there. The chain continued to link with other genres of music, which can still be considered authentic in relation to the connection in the “chain”.

The New Lost City Ramblers played fiddles, mandolins, guitars, and banjos in careful imitation of the early Southern recording artists, always crediting the origins of each song” (Lund and Denisoff 399-400)

Too add more genres to the mix we have the bluegrass genre. The bluegrass genre of music started to blend with the folk music of the time. This blending created another genre of folk music. “Aside from ‘old timey’ music, another form of rural, traditionally derived music came to the attention … namely, bluegrass. Bluegrass music was a type of commercial country music which appeared during the 1940s. It was a reaction against electrification and the cowboy image which by then permeated the country music industry… Its sound was dominated by the five-string banjo, especially as played by Earl Scruggs. The first college bluegrass concert, the Osborne Brothers at Oberlin College, was a smashing success… Home-grown bluegrass groups were organized at colleges and bohemian enclaves in the North and West” (Lund and Denisoff 400).

There are many depictions of what the definition of Bluegrass is. Similarly to our place in the cultural encyclopedia, bluegrass can be thought as a collection of many different strands depending on the person. Nevertheless, folk music blended in with bluegrass and created another genre. Another genre of folk music could be seen as the college angst folk culture. “At many universities, notably Harvard and Yale, the folk subculture became completely enraptured with bluegrass. Yale’s Grey Sky Boys, Harvard’s Charles River Valley Boys, and Greenwich Village’s Greenbriar Boys …. The most successful southern-authentic bluegrass band, Flatt and Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, were double-billed with Joan Baez at Carnegie Hall in 1963” (Lund and Denisoff 400).

College folk groups are a hybrid of the hybrid in that they are a product of folk music and bluegrass. College folk groups are still very prominent. “The campus bluegrass revival is, of course, over on a large scale, but vestiges of it still survive” (Lund and Denisoff 401). However, today, these vestiges are more hybrids of hybrids in that they have moved from being counter-culture to becoming mainstream. It is like a forced counter-culture that is guided by signs and signals void of the original meaning.

“The popularity of Johnny Cash, and now Merle Haggard, among the “counter culture” can be traced back to some of the attitudes prominent in the folk music revival” (Lund and Denisoff 403).

Today, the college folk scene is a hybrid of a hybrid, and the genre placement is still hard to decipher.

With each performance on college campuses and each strumming of the guitar on mainstream radio stations there is a message.
Everything is a message…from natural to social stimuli or from signals to signs—but these messages do not necessarily constitute an inheritance. Legacies are never the effect of pure chance. Similarly, there are communication machines but not transmission machines…” (Debray 5).

This goes back to the distinction between communication and transmission. Even though these “revivals” are popular and they are hybrids of the authentic American Folk Music, they are still transmitted in a different way than they are communicated. Each branch and hybrid of American Folk Music communicates a message. This message can be related or not related. It is like a branch of a tree. However, the strength of the branch comes from transmission. For, all of the hybrids and clones of the musical style can be great, but they have no relevance if they do not pass on knowledge or time. For instance, the branches or genres could communicate specific ideals, but not have lasting power. They cannot grow. But the base of the branch always goes back to the strongest part, the tree and the roots of folk music.


With regards to marketing, the groups that are popular and classified as folk musicians “represent our ideas or cultural stereotypes about that past” (Jameson 118). In some cases these artists are over-produced meaning made to appear to fit one stereotype. This is carried out through signified styles: “signifier—a material object, the sound of a word, the script of a text—and a signified, the meaning of that material word or material text. The third component would be the so-called ‘referent,’ the ‘real’ object in the; real’ world to which the sign refers—he real cat as opposed to the concept of a cat or the sound ‘cat’” (Jameson 119).

The “signified” object could be the folk music and it could be displayed by having people dress in certain ways. If the marketing groups are trying to create a folk appeal, they could draw on the stereotype of being counter-culture, therefore they could dress the artist in clothes that are counter-culture. If they are going for the folk stereotype of “group sing alongs” they could construct a group of people to sing with the artist. This group would try to encapsulate the stereotype as well.

However, with all of the ideas of transmission and communication, the longevity is at risk, it is important that the groups preserve some form of information, even if it is a hybrid of a hybrid. “Culture, as a mechanism for organizing and preserving information in the consciousness of the community, raises the specific problem of longevity. It has two aspects: (1) the longevity of the texts of the collective memory and (2) the longevity of the code of the collective memory. In certain cases these two aspects may not be directly related to one another. Thus, for example, superstitions can be seen as elements of a text of an old culture whose code is lost; that is, as a case where the text outlives the code” (Lotman, Uspensky, and Mihaychuk 214-215).  

Only time can tell if the hybrid forms of the hybrids will live on and erase the authentic definition of American Folk Music.

In some cases this hyper constructed folk reality can be very interesting and controversial. But a positive aspect is that no matter how constructed or detached from meaning the subject is, it furthers the brand. It makes the culture live on even if it is not in the intended way. “We transmit meanings so that the things we live, believe, and think do not perish with us” (Debray 3). 

Therefore, the transmitted American Folk Music image, no matter how detached goes on to be changed and changed and changed throughout time, will continue to stay relevant because of the hybridization.

More Examples:



After all of the survey materials were collected and the interview with Dr. Groce was finally edited, it seems as though this study has made an initial action toward the meaning of American Folk Music. Through questions of semiotics, definitions of cultural transmission and communication, historical events, and current marketing endeavors the data leads to the conclusion that this is the initial step to finding more meaning to defining American Folk Music. This study exemplified ideas that everyone has their own place in the cultural encyclopedia and the study exemplified that the definition of American Folk Music is clear when the person has an in-depth perspective aided by the cultural encyclopedia. Regardless, of the place in the cultural encyclopedia, it doesn’t mean that one cannot fully enjoy the music that is presented. From this study, the takeaway should be that folk music is a tree with many branches that have many buds (genres). Each bud holds the promise for a new genre of music, each bud tries to withhold the winter and grow with the tree. Therefore, American Folk Music, is in a way an extension of various genre connections.


Further questions:

If: “Human beings communicate; more rarely do they transmit lasting meanings.” how can that be applied to the Folk Music genre (Debray 4)?

Foundation wise. If folk music is essentially the foundation of folk music, how then can folk music be labeled as a lower art? Is it intentional? With the information about the educated artists, does the stereotype reign true?

Global Jukebox, is it still functioning?

Recent popularity of folk music at the Grammy’s will that cause a shift in folk music?

Is Indie Music American Folk Music?

Are mashups and acoustic songs and versions considered folk?

Works Cited:

Bal, Mieke. On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge, 1994. Print.


Danesi, Marcel. “Semiotics of Media and Culture,” excerpt from Paul Cobley, ed. The Routledge Companion to Semiotics. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009, 135-149.

Debray, Régis. “From Chaps. 1-2; from Chap. 7, “Ways of Doing.”” Transmitting Culture. Trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia UP, 2000. N. pag. Print.

Debray, Régis. “What is Mediology?” Le Monde Diplomatique, Aug., 1999. Trans. Martin Irvine.

Debray, Régis. “Media Manifestos”, pp. 1-40; 69-79; 97-107; Tables, 171-174.

Grayson, Lee. “10 Best Female Folk Singers.” Made Man. Break Media, 2011. Web. <http://www.mademan.com/mm/10-best-female-folk-singers.html#vply=0>.

Irvine, Martin.  ” The Grammar of Meaning Making and Meaning Systems: The Human Symbolic Faculty, Semiosis, and Cybersemiotics.” <https://docs.google.com/a/georgetown.edu/document/d/1eCZ1oAurTQL2Cd4175Evw-5Ns7c3zCxoxDKLgVE8fyc/preview?pli=1>.

Irvine, Martin. “Mikhail Bakhtin: Main Theories Dialogism, Polyphony, Heteroglossia, Open Interpretation A Student’s Guide by Martin Irvine Georgetown University.” Bakhtin: Main Theories. Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License, 2013. Web. Mar. 2013. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Bakhtin-MainTheory.html>.

Jameson, Frederic. (1983). “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.” In Foster,

The anti-aesthetic: Essays in postmodern culture. Bay Press, pp.111-125.

Lotman, Yu. M., B. A. Uspensky, and George Mihaychuk. “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture.” New Literary History Soviet Semiotics and Criticism: An Anthology 9.2 (1978): 211-32. J Stor. Web. Mar. 2013. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Lotman-SemioticMechanism-1978.pdf>.

Lund, Jens, and R. Serge Denisoff. “The Folk Music Revival and the Counter Culture: Contributions and Contradictions.” Journal of American Folklore 84.334 (1971): 394-405. J Stor. Web. 4 May 2013. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/53539633>.

Posner, Roland. “Basic Tasks of Cultural Semiotics“. Excerpt from Gloria Withalm and Josef Wallmannsberger, eds., Signs of Power — Power of Signs. Essays in Honor of Jeff Bernard. Vienna: INST, 2004, p. 56-89.

Ruehl, Kim. “Celebrating African-Americans in Folk Music.” About.com:Folk Music. About.com, n.d. Web. <http://folkmusic.about.com/od/news/a/AfrAmFolkMusic.htm>.

Searle, John. “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics,” The New York Review of BooksJune 29, 1972.

“The Declaration of Independence.” The Declaration of Independence: The Want, Will, and Hopes of the People. Independence Hall Association, 4 July 1995. Web. <http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/>.

Torop, Peeter. “Semiosphere and/as the research object of semiotics of culture,” Sign Systems Studies, 33/1, 2005. [On Lotman’s theory of the semiosphere.]