|Thomas Rawlinosn The Ballad Singer|
What "is" folk music ? Since the term didn't even exist until the 20th century it's wiser to understand how popular music evolved over the centuries. Quite possibly the Greeks sang ballads of some form, and certainly in medieval Europe they were extremely common. Norse and Icelandic sagas are an extended form of ballad. The rich had their troubadors, the poor had itinerant musicans who performed at fairs, market-days and gatherings. Ballads are possibly the oldest form of vernacular music, since they're portable and can be performed anywhere with or without instruments. Moreover, they're strophic, so they're to remember and to adapt to changing situations and individual variations. By their very nature, oral traditions evolve and change - they can never be rigidly confined to authoritarian categories. That's what keeps oral tradition alive !
In Western Europe, ballads and songs were collected from very early on. Chaucer included some in The Canterbury Tales and there are references in other literary works. By the 18th century ballads were big business, printed on broadsides and displayed for sale on the streets, and collected in published books. The genre made its way into more formal literary circles - Goethe and Schiller wrote ballads, too. Ballad form entered the classical music mainstream in the wake of Early Romantic fascination with an idealized, Arcadian past, and with the interest in wild places and "non-civilised" ways of life.
Ballads are an integral part of "folk" music. Music travelled between different regions adapting to new locations. Printed texts and oral tradition existed in symbiosis, each form adapting and influencing the other.At the end of the 19th century, a song might hve morphed over many generations. Gottfried Herder wrote a poem based on a gruesome Scottish ballad, which Carl Loewe set as Edward, Edward. Gradually the song morphed and changed, and connects to the Country and Western hit Knoxville Girl (Please read more here). The idea that folk song can be separate from human development is an artificial modern construct. Basically, there's no such thing as dogmatic gold standrad.
One ballad I'm particularly fond of is The Trees They Grow So High, which may or may not be a 16th/17th century Scottish ballad. Though it comes in different variations, it tells the tale of an arranged marriage between a child and an older woman. The protagonists aren't poor, (the kid goes to school) so it might have been a transaction for money and status. Trees grow high but the boy, who marries so early is killed aged 18. "Cruel death put an end to his growing". Ralph Vaughan Williams recorded this in the field. In his version, the woman begs her father not to marry her off, but her father seems to think the boy's some kind of trophy. Yet the woman seems OK with this and accepts widowhood and single-parent status. But it's a horrible tragedy. Perhaps, over the centuries before it was collected, the song was cleaned up so it wouldn't disturb conventional mores.
Since oral traditions vary all the time, depending on performer and circumstances, it's perfectly natural that they should evolve further when approached by artistic minds. Britten's version of the song, from the beginning of 1942, addresses the tragedy more directly. The piano part is lyrical, lilting lines suggesting vernal freshness, making the text all the more poignant. The loss of innocence, for both partners in the marriage, and for the orphaned infant : characteristic Britten. "Growing, growing (intoned wth tenderness) as I watch over his child,while he's growing". Though the song is understated, gentle and rhythmic, like the rocking of a cradle, the suppressed motions are quite horrific when you think about them.
Down By the Salley Gardens "An Old Song Re-Sung", quite specifically his own version of a song he heard was W B Yeats's attempt to capture the spirit of a ballad he heard an old woman sing to herself in County Sligo. in the ballad, a man recounts a long lost love who "bade me take life easy, just as the leaves fall from the tree, but I being young and foolish, with her did not agree ". It's a song of loss and nostagia with a mysterious, otherworldy quality. In Britten's version, the piano part begins tentatively, as if anything too forceful might breaknthe spell, later, it affirms the vocal line with richness and depth, as if the lovers are reunited in spirit. Ivor Gurney's version is even more "art song". The voice leads from the start, the line curling tenderly, "When I was young and foo-o-olish and now am full of tears". Nothing whatseover crude and "folksy" here. And in any case, we can't assume that Yeats’s old lady was either, though she seems to have been a poor peasant. Both Britten’s and Gurney's settings are ravishingly beautiful, so delicate that that they capture the gossamer fleeting feel of the monment. They're very different, too : but that's what art is about : creative vision adapting to individual responses.