Folk music can be defined as music that is perpetuated orally rather than by the use of traditional notation, and whose subject matter reflects the social community within which it exists. The concept of marginalization also enters into the definition of this art form, indicating that some form of isolation from the mainstream–by class, sex, age, race, language, space, time, or religion–has historically influenced the creation of much so-called folk music. Within a climate of relative seclusion, people necessarily create a common musical currency. By this definition, the Great Plains has afforded much opportunity for distinct regional types of music, owing to its vast size and geographical diversity, and indeed the folk music tradition of this region is as varied as the people who populate its prairie landscape. A discussion of the art form is probably best attempted within the context of some of the various influential ethnic groups that originally settled the region: the British settlers throughout the Plains, the Scottish and French influence on the Métis culture in Central Canada, the Hispanic explorers in Texas to the south, and the Ukrainian and Russian tradition in the Prairie Provinces and Northern Plains states.
The British, the most prevalent ethnic group in the Great Plains as a whole, brought with them to North America a long legacy of narrative song. In 1882 the historian and musicologist Francis James Child published a collection called English and Scottish Popular Ballads that was revered throughout pioneer America as the primary source of traditional music. Eventually known simply as "Child's ballads," these songs were typically narrative in nature and concerned largely with love affairs and their oft-tragic ends. Other forms of vocal music, including part-songs known as broadside ballads, supplemented this collection. Circulated on large sheets of paper called broadsides, these songs chronicled historical events and described folk heroes such as Jesse James. Dance traditions from the British Isles were also revived, translating into "play-party" songs and square dances, normally accompanied by the guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin, and mouth organ–the main instruments of the American folk experience.
Scottish and Irish fur traders contributed to the Aboriginal musical community in early Canada, deepening its preexisting tradition of balladic storytelling and combining with the vocal and instrumental music of the French voyageurs to create a unique hybrid of music and song that chronicled the history of the Red River Valley of the North region. These traders introduced European fiddles and fiddle music to the Plains in the early 1800s and, when combined with the more organic song tradition of the Native peoples, produced a unique hybrid musical style incorporating elements of both cultures. The fiddle music of the Métis (who emerged from intermarriage between French, Irish, and Scottish traders and Native women) utilized Celtic or French melodies reinterpreted through a distinctive Native musical perspective–characterized by irregular phrase lengths and/or overlapping phrases, reiterated or embellished cadences, variable formal structures, and rhythmic freedom– resulting in the development of a new musical form, specific to the region.
The Hispanic folk music tradition in the Great Plains originated more than 400 years ago when Spanish conquistadors, moving northward from Mexico, explored the southwestern part of the region. The prevalent song forms in the Mexican region, the corrido and the decima, became popular in southern Texas during the nineteenth century. The corrido typically related a story or event of local or national interest–a natural disaster, the exploits of a hero or villain–and usually adhered to a conventional form, consisting of six sections. The formal opening of the corrido, in which the balladeer called upon the audience to hear his tale, was followed by a section that introduced the song's protagonist and established its setting. The arguments of the hero were then stated, followed by the main plot of the tale. The corrido concluded with the farewells of both the song's protagonist and the balladeer himself. A history of liturgical drama also exists in the Southwest and Southern Plains, dating back to the mystery and miracle plays of medieval Spain. Religious folk plays called autos, based upon both Old and New Testament texts and consisting of spoken dialogues alternated with sung portions, are still performed regularly in many communities.
Also prevalent in the Prairie Provinces and Northern Plains states is the heritage of the Russian Doukhobor and of the Ukrainian settlers. Doukhobor music (the word meaning "spirit wrestler" to denote the sects' struggles against the Russian Orthodox Church) is largely choral in nature, passed down without the aid of notation, and encompassing a variety of musical styles from monody to counterpoint. The Ukrainian community also values choral singing in two and three parts, as well as instrumental music played on the cembale, bandura, and kobza.
The influx of diverse cultures to the Great Plains of North America has been, and continues to be, the greatest influence upon its folk music. The ethnic groups discussed here may be easily supplemented by countless other nationalities, producing a truly varied and colorful musical mosaic.
Donna Lowe Brandon Folk Music and Arts Festival
Nettl, Bruno. Folk Music in the United States. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976.
Peacock, Kenneth. A Survey of Ethnic Folkmusic across Western Canada. Anthropology Papers, no. 5. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1963.
Tawa, Nicholas. A Sound of Strangers: Musical Culture, Acculturation, and the Post–Civil War Ethnic American. Metuchen NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1982.