What was the Folk Revival?

Most people who talk about “Folk music” today are really thinking of a mid-century movement in which people who did not grow up with Folk songs per se went out of their way to learn something about Folk songs and their heritage. And they also began singing the songs and writing their own in the same style. Technically, this era was more of a “Folk Revival” than anything else. But it changed the musical landscape of the country (and even other countries), so it’s important to understand.

Now that the term “Folk” is beginning to lose its stigma, I don’t feel bad about calling myself a “Folk singer” when I’m proposing myself to a venue that is open to acoustic-based traditional music. Technically, I’m a product of the “Folk Revival,” as were the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, but if I call myself a “Folk Revival” singer nobody will know what I’m talking about.

Recently, though, I’ve met people who want to consider themselves “Folk musicians” but who lack many basic skills that most “serious” children of the Folk Revival era had picked up in high school. I have actually made enemies by saying things like “G to B7, then Circle of Fifths,” or “It’s a 3-chorder in G,” or “Can somebody sing the upper harmony part?”

Ooops. I realize I was making assumptions. But by and large they’re assumptions you used to be safe making in a room full of Folkies. Yes, I grew up on this stuff, but so did a whole generation. It’s not magic, any more than knowing how to change the oil in my car, or perform long division, or any of those other skills I learned growing up. It’s stuff you learn. If you wanted to be a Folk musician, it’s stuff you wanted to learn. It’s also something you can still learn today if you want to.

In fact, anyone who learned guitar and a significant amount of Folk or Folk Revival songs in the 1960s eventually accumulated certain basic skills that, I’m afraid, are lost to many in subsequent generations – even some who have taken music classes or guitar lessons.

Back in the day, you wouldn’t take your instrument out of the case or even raise your voice in a room full of other Folkies, unless you:

  • Could tune by ear while the song was playing.

  • Could figure out the chords to any three-chord song in C, G, D, A, or E while playing it for the FIRST time, even if you’d never heard it before.

  • Could sing the first, second, or third Carter-style harmony part to any song, by the end of the first chorus.

  • Could automatically transpose any 3-chord song among any of the keys listed above without even having to think about it,

  • Had a range of guitar (or banjo) playing styles, so you could adapt your guitar (or banjo) playing to the style of just about any song, and

  • Much more.

In other words, you learned how to jump into almost any song, sound good doing it, and add something that sounds like it “belongs” in the song, even if you just made it up.

This was actually not that hard for most songs. Even if you got beyond three chords, the fourth and fifth most common chords tended to follow set patterns as well. But acquiring those skills takes learning, practice, and work.

By the way, in case you wonder if ANYONE ever had all of those skills, I’ll point out that the same list of skills pretty much defines the entry level for professional guitar- or mandolin- or banjo-playing musicians in Country, Bluegrass, Folk-Rock, Country-Rock, and most mainstream Rock and Roll as well.

So I have thought about writing a series of introductory lessons on the most critical parts of that topic list above. Then I realized that many people don’t know as much about Folk music in general as they think they do.

So then I figured that I’d start with an introduction to what we often call “Folk music” – Folk Revival music, as practiced by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Judy Collins, the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Joan Baez, and even (initially) Bob Dylan, as well as a host of others. Where did it come from, where did it go, and what kind of traces did it leave?

Click the link below to go to that article. Also, if you have any questions, corrections, suggestions, faint praise, etc., please use the Contact button on the article page. If you want to reply to this post, simply use the reply box below.



About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.


  1. When I wrote my article on the Folk Revival, I sent links to several survivors of the movement. I just heard from Randy Sparks, the founder and chief songwriter for the New Christy Minstrels, The Back Porch Majority, and The New Society. Among other nice things, he said, “I’m amazed by your article, by how accurate and inclusive it is.” Randy had other nice things to say and a lot of information that I’m still digesting, but it’s great to hear from him, and better yet, to know that he’s still going after all these years. The article I’m commenting on is here: https://creekdontrise.com/folk_songs/folk_rev/what_is_folk_rev.htm

  2. Great article, Paul. I went down the list and checked off all but the singing bit. Do you have any material about the Carter-Style three-part harmony system I could learn from?

    I just discovered the longer piece you wrote (the link in your comment above: https://creekdontrise.com/fol…/folk_rev/what_is_folk_rev.htm returned this 404 not found error message…

    “Not Found

    The requested URL /fol…/folk_rev/what_is_folk_rev.htm was not found on this server.

    Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.”)

    …however the link at the bottom of the article above did send me to the correct page.

    • Phil, thanks for checking it out. I have fixed the broken link now. My fault. I copied part of one of those messages from a forum that truncates long URLs.

      I actually started writing an article on Carter Style/Folk/Bluegrass harmony but haven’t finished it because putting all those little music staffs in, etc., takes a LONG time.

      I would say the main things that distinguish traditional “mountain” and “Folk” harmonies from schoolbook harmony is that there are almost always two vocal parts above the melody, and they go parallel with the melody, even if it means singing parallel fifths, which would cause my old music theory teacher to turn over in his grave. In a way, it’s less about filling out the other notes in the chord than it is about singing a “melody” that just starts on another note of the chord, if that makes sense.

      In some cases, the parallelism is so complete that other notes that don’t technically belong in the chord are introduced. For example, let’s say the song is in G and the melody is on a B note in a G chord that changes to C. If the melody goes up to C, the first harmony part goes from D to E, and – technically – the third harmony part should already be on G and just stay there. But in some cases, the high G will go up to an A. Nobody would be upset if you were singing the top part and just held onto the G, mind you, but the ninth can happen, and is a testament to how important singing a sort of “parallel” melody is to the folks who are harmonizing. If you’re talking vocal ranges in a mixed ensemble, the alto would likely take the melody, the soprano would take the first harmony, and the tenor would take the third harmony (yes, I know he’s technically singing below the melody, but that’s acceptable in a mixed ensemble). In an all male group like CSN, a baritone takes the melody, a baritone/tenor takes the first harmony, and a tenor with a ridiculous range takes the second harmony (“high part”). In either group, the only person singing below the melody EVER would be if you had a bass singer singing the root note of the chords, Southern Gospel style. Some of the songs on Emmy Lou Harris’ “Light of the Stable” Christmas album are good examples. Lots of CS&N and CSN&Y songs follow the same pattern. Hope this makes sense. 🙂

      • Thanks, that’s a huge help to me!! How can I get notified as soon as you publish that article? I’m all about musical staffs (I still write lead sheets by hand as I have for the past 40 years or so), I’m sure it will be worth the wait.

  3. More UK Connections to US Roots Music:

    The North American Folk Revival movement was reflected in England both by an increase of interest in Folk music, and by a new movement with an old name – Skiffle. Skiffle bands added influences from American Blues-influenced musicians like Leadbelly, which some folks insist gave British youth a “taste” for Blues in general and helped contribute to the rise of UK rockers that led to the “British Invasion” by bands like the Beatles and Stones. The Beatles are known to have started as a Skiffle band (with a different name, of course). In my article I connect those dots. But several other dots connected themselves without my interference this past week.

    A young college professor friend, sitting in a coffeehouse, saw an acoustic band setting up late last week. He asked the barista what kind of music they played and he said “Bluegrass.” Great, knowing some Nickel Creek recordings, my friend requested “Fox.” The band sang, not “Fox Went Out on a Chilly Night” – a Nickel Creek favorite, but “Like a Fox on the Run.”

    When it turned out that the band didn’t even know “Fox Went Out,” my friend questioned whether the band was even a Bluegrass band. Wasn’t “Fox Went Out” a Bluegrass standard? I told my friend nicely that “Fox Went Out” was a Folk standard, originally brought to public notice by Folk Revival singers like Pete Seeger and the Smothers Brothers. And that “Like a Fox” really is a Bluegrass standard.

    A couple days later, I told the story to a Bluegrass fan who actually knows both songs, and he was appropriately amused. Then he went on to say that “Like a Fox” has been a Bluegrass standard “forever.” It must be a hundred years old. I said, “No, based on the melodic structure, it was written since 1940.” He wasn’t convinced.

    Then I tracked the origin of the song down – Manfred Mann wrote and recorded it in 1960. That’s right, Manfred Mann of “Quinn the Eskimo” and “Blinded By the Light” fame. Then US banjo player Bill Emerson started playing it as a Bluegrass song, and it’s been a favorite among the “Pickin’ and Grinnin'” set ever since. Turns out Manfred Mann’s earliest work included dabbling in Skiffle, which, in turn, was influenced by American roots and Folk music. So it’s not THAT surprising that he turned out a song that found its way to this continent and one of our most roots-based music forms.

    As I said in the original article, Folk Music really is the gift that keeps on giving!

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