The Decline of Folk Traditions in Modern Societies
Folk music seems to reflect a universal impulse of humanity. No fieldwork expedition by cultural anthropologists has yet to discover a pre-industrial people that did not have its own folk music. It seems safe to infer that folk music was a property of all people starting from the dawn of the species.
However, the development of modern society--first literacy, then the conversion of culture into a saleable commodity--created a new form of transmission of music that first influenced, then in some societies ultimately decimated the folk tradition. The decline of folk music in a culture can be followed through three stages.
Stage I: Urban influence
One of the first folk traditions impacted by modern society was the folksong of rural England. Starting in Elizabethan times, urban poets wrote broadsheet ballads that (thanks to printing) could be sold widely. The ballads probably didn't need musical notation, since they would have been sung to tunes that everybody knew, the folk tradition being very much alive at the time. These ballads heavily influenced the folk tradition, but did not override it. In fact, the folk tradition showed great resilience. Through the process of folk transmission, the urban ballads were modified, keeping the more vivid content and ironing out the less "citified" material. The resulting body of folk lyrics is widely considered to be a very appealing blend. Thus, the printing press and widespread literacy did not suffice to destroy the English folk tradition, but in some ways enriched it.
The English folk song legacy was probably affected by urban melodies as well as words. The clue here is that folk music in remote rural areas of the English-speaking world, such as Highland Scotland or the Appalachian mountains, abounds in tunes that employ the pentatonic scale, a scale widely used for folk music around the world. However, pentatonic music was rare among the rural English villagers who first volunteered their tunes to researchers in the late 19th century. A plausible explanation is that life in rural England was far more closely affected by the proximity to the urban centres. Music in the standard major and minor scales evidently penetrated to the nearby rural areas, where it was converted to folk idiom, but nevertheless succeeded in displacing the old pentatonic music.
Stage II: Loss of folk traditions
The pattern of urban influence on folk music was intensified to outright destruction, as soon as the capitalist economic system had developed to the point that culture could be widely bought and sold. It was around Victorian times that the common people of the Western world were offered music as a commodity which they could purchase, for example, in the phenomenon of Music Hall. This was happening simultaneously with the latter part of the Industrial Revolution, at a time of great change in lifestyle for the great body of the people. The forces of commercialism made sure that the people were persuaded of the need to buy this commodity; and between these commercial pressures, and the migration of the old agrarian communities to become the new industrial ones, the process of folk creation became lost to the people.
Several succeeding generations became enticed with ever more accessible and desirable forms of the commodity of music. Gramophone records became LPs and then CDs; the Music Hall gave way to radio, followed by television. The marketplace kept expanding and it generated an industry dedicated to the creation of a musical product by a paid elite of performers. This is the diametric opposite of 'folk creation', because its motivating force is individual or corporate profit rather than communal need, and also because instead of reflecting the lives of the people, commercial music tends to shape those lives.
The loss of folk traditions in favor of commercial culture is lamented by advocates of folk music. However, this loss clearly was due at least in part to choices made freely by members of the community. Sad as it may be for advocates of folk music, it seems that replacement of folk music by commercially-produced music is a very powerful, perhaps even irresistible force.
Stage III: Loss of musical ability in the community
The terminal state of the loss of folk music can be seen in the United States and a few similar societies, where except in isolated areas and among hobbyists, traditional folk music no longer survives. In the absence of folk music, many individuals do not sing. It is possible that non-singers feel intimidated by widespread exposure in recordings and broadcasting to the singing of skilled experts. Another possibility is that they simply cannot sing, because they did not sing when they were small children, when learning of skills takes place most naturally. Certainly it is very common for contemporary Americans to claim that they cannot sing.
There is anecdotal evidence that the loss of singing ability is continuing rapidly at the present time. As recently as the 1960's, audiences at American sporting events collectively sang the American national anthem before a game; the anthem is now generally assigned to a recording or to a soloist.
Inability to sing is apparently unusual in a traditional society, where the habit of singing folk song since early childhood gives everyone the practice needed to able to sing at least reasonably well.
The loss of folk music is occurring at different rates in different regions of the world. Naturally, where industrialisation and commercialisation of culture are most advanced, so tends to be the loss of folk music. Yet in nations where folk music is a badge of cultural or national identity, the loss of folk music can be slowed. For instance, it is generally believed that Ireland retains a living folk tradition to this day.