Folk Music

By: Francis Edward Abernethy and Laurie E. Jasinski

Type: Overview Entry

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: August 3, 2020

Folk music is musical material that usually originated in the forgotten or dimly remembered past and has been passed from one generation to the next down to the present. It exists in the forms of tunes, songs, and ballads. Folk tunes are traditional melodies such as those played by fiddlers. Folk songs are melodies with accompanying verses. Ballads are folk songs that tell stories. Some folk music is utilitarian; that is, it accompanies an activity such as work, worship, or dance. Other folk music exists just for the stories it tells or the feelings it expresses. Texas folk music is "Texas" only because it passed through the state during the course of its transmission. Its traditional nature means that it was played or sung long before being brought to Texas.

There are as many varieties of folk music in Texas as there are cultures that came to Texas. Anglo-Texan folk music, the dominant strain, has taken the forms of tunes, songs, and ballads. Much of the history of Texas is accompanied by folk music. "Shoot the Buffalo" and "Texas Boys" describe early attitudes toward settling Texas. "The Greer County Bachelor" and "Little Old Sod Shanty" tell of life on the Texas frontier. "Buffalo Skinners" is the story of the rigors of a buffalo hunt in the 1870s, and "The Old Chisholm Trail" describes the life of the Texas trail-driving cowboy of the same period. According to tradition, Texans marched into battle at San Jacinto to the tune of "Will You Come to the Bower?" They fought the Mexicans again in 1846, to the sweet strains of "Green Grow the Lilacs." Fifteen years later Hood's Texas Brigade marched off to the Civil War to the "Yellow Rose of Texas." "Texas Rangers" was a song about one of that heroic group's early adventurers, and "Sam Bass" was a ballad about the other side of the law. Later such events as the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, and the Kennedy assassination were memorialized in folk songs. Now, however, topical folk songs have generally lost out to news media and copyrighted popular music.

In Texas, as elsewhere, children's songs fall into two categories, songs sung to children and songs sung by children. The first song a child usually hears is a lullaby like "Babes in the Woods," sung to the child to put it to sleep. Then children are patty-caked, bounced, and counted to in chants and songs whose purpose is to entertain. These simple songs and later more complicated traditional songs, such as "Froggie Went a-Courtin'" and "Fox is on the Town," are sung to children. The songs sung by children are simple and basic. They begin with simple game songs like "London Bridge," grow to elaborate jump-rope chants and songs, and conclude with such crudities as "The Monkey Wrapped His Tail around the Flagpole." Perhaps the last realization of children's songs is the fraternity-party song.

Love has spawned a world of songs and ballads that have made their ways into the Texas repertoire. The most venerable of these were Child's ballads, so called after Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98). Two of the best-known of these in Texas were "Barbara Allen" and "Fair Eleanor." Both of these ballads told stories of love affairs that ended in death. Many other English ballads not blessed with the stamp of Child's approval came to Texas. These included "My Horses Ain't Hungry," "Roving Gambler,"and "Little Sparrow." Most Anglo-Saxon love songs, including "Wildwood Flower," "Fond Affection," and "Columbus Stockade Blues," relate in some way to the Old World. "Careless Love" is an Anglo response to the black blues tradition. Such love ballads as "Rosewood Casket" and "Bury Me Beneath the Willow" filtered down into the folk idiom from Tin Pan Alley. Though these late-nineteenth-century weepers were not authentic folk music, they became a much-loved part of the singing traditions of Texas.

One of the most popular forms of folk music on the Texas frontier was square-dance music with a lead fiddle. The tunes played were old jigs and reels and hornpipes that were ancient in the British Isles when the settlers first came to the New World. Many of the tunes, like "Irish Washerwoman," "The Campbells are Coming," and "Sailor's Hornpipe," stayed close to their originals. Most underwent subtle and gradual changes as they were passed along from one fiddler and generation and area to another, and now only a hint of their Old World ancestry remains. Most of the early dancing was group dancing, for which a leader called the steps and patterns while the music was being played. Sometimes fiddle tunes became songs when lyrics were thrown in between calls. In the evolution of some fiddle-dance songs—"Sally Goodin," "Cindy," "Cotton-Eyed Joe," and "Old Joe Clark," for instance—the calls were dropped and the words became almost as important as the tunes. Fiddlers took their tunes and songs from everywhere, but their richest source during the nineteenth century was black minstrelsy, where they found the classic "Arkansas Traveler," "Turkey in the Straw," "Buffalo Gals," and "Old Dan Tucker." The purest of old-time fiddle music can best be found nowadays at fiddle contests held all over Texas, for instance, at the annual Crockett World Champion Fiddler Contests held each June. Some of the favorite tunes played there and at other Texas contests are "Billy in the Low Ground," "Sally Johnson," "Durang's Hornpipe," "Devil's Dream," and "Tom and Jerry." Such fiddling dance music as that played by Bob Wills and Milton Brown in the 1930s became modern country music.

Another folk song-and-dance tradition is the play party. Many early Texas settlers were fundamentalists who believed that dancing and fiddle music were sinful. They satisfied the universal urge to move to music with the play party, which was song-accompanied dance that allowed no instruments. They called their rhythmical group movements "marches" or "games," they danced in rings or in longways formations but never in squares, and they swung each other by hand, never by the waist. They used many popular dance tunes—"Old Clark," "Old Dan Tucker," "The Gal I Left Behind Me," "Willis in the Ballroom"—but because of the lack of instrumental music, the words became all-important. Play-party songs have preserved many stanzas that were lost in the fiddle-dance tradition. A play party usually began with a choosing game such as "Needle's Eye" or "Hog Drovers," then progressed to ring-game songs like "Saro Jane" or "Coffee Grows on White Oak Trees," and in full swing went into longways dances like "Weevily Wheat," "Little Brass Wagon," and "Baltimore." Play parties were not only popular among fundamentalists; they were necessary when no musician was around. In spite of the reservations laid on the players by their elders, play-party songs and formations were just as joyful and exuberant as their sinful fiddling square-dance counterparts.

One of the richest veins in Texas folk music is its religious strain, and the particular kind to which the state owes the most is Sacred Harp music, named after B. F. White's 1844 songbook, Sacred Harp. The tunes and words in this book, still much used in Texas, go back to the Great Revival on the southern frontier at the turn of the nineteenth century, then beyond to the British Isles. Southern preachers found themselves with vast congregations and no songs, so they took familiar popular tunes and put religious words to them. A ballad about Captain Kidd the pirate became "Wondrous Love," and "Auld Lang Syne" became "Hark! From the Tomb." Music in this tradition also employed easily remembered single lines and repeated refrains, in which substitutions of words prolonged the song and increased its intensity. "We Have Fathers Over Yonder," with its simple refrain "Over yonder ocean," could continue as long as substitutions could be made for "fathers." The same was true with the song that began, "You [or "Father," "Mother," "Jesus," etc.] got to walk that lonesome valley." A final influence on Sacred Harp singing was the eighteenth-century singing schools that taught shaped notation. Because it is written in the shaped notes called, since medieval times, fa, sol, la, etc., Sacred Harp music is also called fasola music. The fasola tradition and the "fuguing tunes," whose counterpoint and joyful play of rounds was popular with early singing masters, lost their popularity in the East but became a vehicle for religious enthusiasm in the South and an integral part of Sacred Harp singing, which often lasted all day and was accompanied with "dinner on the grounds."

A modern outgrowth of early Sacred Harp is gospel music. It is livelier than Sacred Harp, more concerned with the play of tune and tempo, and more optimistic in tone. It started to develop at the beginning of the twentieth century and culminated in the mid-1920s with the founding in Dallas of the Stamps–Baxter Music Company. Stamps–Baxter music used the idioms of jazz and popular music and incorporated most modern instrumentation. All-day gospel singing can be found in just about any county in Texas on any weekend. It is a religious folk-music form that is still growing.

Though cowboy songs were sung all across the cow-country frontier of the United States, these folk songs and ballads are still most closely associated with Texas. The Texas cowboy originated in the 1860s and 1870s, when cattlemen began trailing herds to the newly established railheads in Kansas. His skills were derived from the vaquero, his Spanish and Mexican forbear, who had been working large herds for 300 years. The cowboys' mores were Southern. Many men left their Southern homes after the surrender at Appomattox to start again in Texas, and they brought with them the hymns, minstrel songs, and sentimental ballads that were their tradition. Some of the old songs were rewritten to fit the new way of life. "Little Old Log Cabin" furnished the tune for "Little Joe the Wrangler." An old song about a dying English soldier became "The Streets of Laredo." The sad tale of a sailor buried at sea became "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," and "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean" furnished the tune for "The Cowboy's Dream." Some cowboy songs exist in differing versions, one traditional and one written. D. J. O'Malley claimed "When the Work's All Done This Fall," and Jack Thorp wrote "Little Joe the Wrangler." Both men put their lyrics to tunes already traditionally circulating.

In the 1930s, cowboy songs and the cowboy mystique formed the basis for western swing, which was the primary antecedent of modern country music. Country music, the modern heir to traditional Texas folk music, incorporates both the earthy themes of traditional music and the elemental three-chord sounds. Country bands also regularly include such folk classics as "Cotton-Eyed Joe," "Wildwood Flower," and "Careless Love" in their repertoires. Commercial country music, which developed in the 1920s, combined Anglo folk music, old-time religion, and elements of nineteenth-century show business.

Many ethnic groups that settled in Texas during the nineteenth century brought their own folk music and dance traditions. Germans, Czechs, and Poles incorporated the folk songs of their home countries at social gatherings and festivals. The accordion became a major instrument for such dances as polkas and waltzes. Likewise, the Texas-Mexican music tradition began incorporating the accordion for what would evolve into the musical genres of conjunto and Tejano in the twentieth century. In Southeast Texas, black Creoles out of rural southwestern Louisiana brought their folk music known as zydeco, using the accordion as the primary instrument, by the mid-twentieth century.

The development of blues in the twentieth century drew its influences from both Western and African cultures. African-American folk songs made use of spirituals, ballads, and work songs, as well as music that evolved from field hollers and shouts.

Folklorist Jack Thorp (born Nathan Howard Thorp) did some of the earliest field work in collecting songs and poems from Texas cowboy camps during the late 1800s. His efforts resulted in Songs of the Cowboys, a book Thorp published himself in 1908.

Folklorist John Lomax along with his son Alan made the most significant efforts for the preservation of folk songs in Texas and across the United States. John Lomax, who grew up in Bosque County and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, heard cowboy ballads in his youth in the 1870s and 1880s. In the early 1900s he had begun in earnest to collect the folk songs of the old cattle trails—a project that resulted in the publication of Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910. By the early 1930s Lomax was assisted by his son Alan in making field recordings of folk music. Their work preserved numerous cowboy songs, African-American spirituals, and early blues tunes. Their pioneering efforts captured songs by Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly), Muddy Waters, and Woody Guthrie, for example, and they published important collections including American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934) and Negro Songs as Sung by Lead Belly (1936).

Folklorist William Owens also collected folk songs in the 1930s. The native of Lamar County, Texas, sought to preserve the English and Scottish ballads he had heard at play parties in East Texas. He recorded many of those ballads in East Texas and other parts of the state.

In the early 1960s American folk music experienced a revival in popularity. Carolyn Hester, born in Waco, was the preeminent performer in Austin's folk scene before bursting into prominence nationally as "Texas' greatest female folk artist," according to Larry Willoughby in Texas Rhythm Texas Rhyme. Shawn Phillips, born in Fort Worth, also established himself as an important folk songster and cowrote songs with such artists as Donovan. As a solo artist, Phillips garnered respect in the international music community as his music evolved from the realm of folk into folk-rock and other genres. In 1966 a folk trio called the Pozo Seco Singers from Corpus Christi gained national prominence with their hit song "Time" and subsequently released albums on Columbia Records. The lineup included singer Don Williams who went on to achieve country music fame. Another member, Susan Taylor (also known as Taylor Pie), remained active on the folk scene into the twenty-first century.

During the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, folk music has seen the increased emphasis on the singer-songwriter with a focus on more personal themes, although some use of the ballad and social themes in song continued. Some self-described folk artists have blurred the lines of distinction between musical genres—often incorporating country, pop, and blues and the use of electric instruments. This blurring has contributed to the establishment of hybrid genres such as country-folk, folk-rock, and Americana.

Folk music has been preserved by ethnic groups and presented at numerous festivals across the state. Each year the Texas Folklife Festival showcases a variety of ethnic music. The Kerrville Folk Festival, which began in 1972, has become one of the most respected and recognizable venues for folk music worldwide. Through the years the event has featured a wide array of songwriters including Carolyn Hester, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, Nanci Griffith, and Jimmy LaFave. Longtime western folk ballad singer Bobby Bridger composed the festival's theme song, "Heal in the Wisdom."

In the 2010s organizations such as Texas Folklife, headquartered in Austin, worked to preserve the folkways of Texas, including the state's musical traditions. The Texas Folk Music Foundation (renamed the Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation in 2013), a non-profit organization, sponsored live folk music performances as well as music workshops, educational conferences, and other events to support and promote folk music throughout the state.


Francis Edward Abernethy, Singin' Texas (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1994). Gary Hartman, The History of Texas Music (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008). John A. and Alan Lomax, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (New York: Sturgis and Walton, 1910; rev. ed., New York: Macmillan, 1945). Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968). William A. Owens, Swing and Turn: Texas Play-Party Games (Dallas: Tardy, 1936). William A. Owens, Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). William A. Owens, Texas Folk Songs, Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 23 (Austin: Texas Folklore Society, 1950; 2d ed., Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1976). Texas Folklife (, accessed October 13, 2015. Kerrville Folk Festival Foundation (, October 13, 2015. Larry Willoughby, Texas Rhythm, Texas Rhyme (Austin: Eakin Press, 1991).

  • Music
  • Genres (Folk)

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Francis Edward Abernethy and Laurie E. Jasinski, “Folk Music,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022,

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October 1, 1995
August 3, 2020

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