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Is This Even A Genre? The 7 Essential Characteristics Of Folk Music

Lomax Collection
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

When the Folk Alliance International moved its headquarters to Kansas City and held its annual conference in town last year, quite a few area musicians discovered that they qualified as folk musicians.

With the second Folk Alliance International conference kicking off in Kansas City this week, Central Standard host Gina Kaufmann asked three experts to define the genre. The whole discussion — along with exemplary videos by The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Beau Bledsoe, Josh White, the Dixie Hummingbirds, Camarón de la Isla, and Pharis and Jason Romero — is posted here.

Meanwhile, here are their seven essential characteristics of folk music.

Folk is:

1. "Anything that is outside of the conservatory, academic tradition, what we call classical music." —Beau Bledsoe, self-described classical chamber musician

2. "Anything that’s performed by a group of people in a communal setting, where it defines, expands or creates meaning in a way that verifies who they are, in order to make sense of the world in which they live." — Daniel Atkinson, ethnomusicologist and assistant director of the Kansas African Studies Center at the University of Kansas

3. "Acoustic music that tells a story that’s passed from generation to generation." — Chuck Haddix, host of KCUR’s Fish Fry and director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City

4. "It is uplifting. In the black tradition, when you can’t deal with the thing that is oppressing you institutionally, you’re liberated by recognizing it with people who you can share the experience with and shed it." — Atkinson

5. "It’s cathartic. You see a lot of healing that happens. In flamenco there’s an expression called quejío, the ability of the performer to really complain, and impart that feeling to the listener. And the audience and the performer are often considered one and the same." — Bledsoe

6. "It sounds different in different countries, it can be old or new, it’s anything made by people during any time period by anywhere around the globe." — Kaufmann

7. "It's about life." — Atkinson

A free press is among our country’s founding principles and most precious resources. As director of content-journalism at KCUR, I want everyone in our part of America to know we see them and we’re listening. I work to make sure the stories we tell and the conversations we convene reflect our complex realities, informing and inspiring all of us to meet the profound challenges of our time. Email me at cj@kcur.org.
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