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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Traditional and Ethnic

Traditional songs, often called "folk songs," are learned informally, within the context of family, tribe, community, or another close-knit group. Many traditional songs have been sung within the same family or ethnic and regional communities for generations, and as in the case of American traditional songs, can sometimes be traced back to such places of origin as Great Britain, Europe, or Africa and other homelands reflecting America's diverse cultural heritage. At some point the song would have been composed by a single individual, but that author may no longer be known. Most traditional and folk songs change over time, and as they are passed from person to person many variants of the same song or tune often spring up.

In some contexts, traditional songs are an integral part of daily life and are performed to accompany particular activities associated with work, religious celebration, or social occasions. Anglo-American ballads often offer cautionary tales and moral lessons, warning young women about the temptations of honey-tongued suitors and warning men about the wiles of unfaithful women. Sea shanties and railroad songs can function to lighten the burden of routine tasks and provide a rhythm that helps workers perform as a team. Lullabies bind together mother and child, and song and music of all sorts performed within the context of family helps to connect one generation to the next. Blues and its many subgenres are also considered traditional songs.

A group of Mexican girls perform songs for folklorists John A. and Alan Lomax. Photo by Alan Lomax, San Antonio Texas, May, 1934. The children's game song " Hijo, hijo, mira esta muher" was recorded during this Library of Congress field trip, perhaps sung by these girls.

The term "folk songs" is also used to describe songs composed in the style of traditional songs in the "folksong revival" most notably beginning in the 1960s featuring performers such as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Weavers, Tom Rush, Odetta, Bob Dylan and many others.

As with all the categories of song in our Song of America presentation, songs may cross over and fit many categories. Traditional songs can become or inspire popular songs, they may be religious and sacred songs and often they may be considered ethnic songs.

Ethnic Songs

There are many ethnic recordings in this presentation. Generally speaking, ethnic songs may be of many genres including popular, classical, traditional and religious, and they are usually not sung in English.

Ethnic songs are a significant component of the American song repertoire. In a nation of many cultures, ethnic songs and music includes songs from nearly every cultural and language group in the world. Immigration to the United States played an important role in American history, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1900, 13.5 percent of the population of the United States was foreign born and the figure was much higher in metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco and other large cities. In 1910 there were 700 foreign-language daily or weekly publications in the United States with a total circulation exceeding five million. The recent census reports that in 2010 the percentage of foreign- born people in the United States is 12.7%. Ethnic songs in America not only entertain in a language familiar to listeners, they often, as in the case of traditional ethnic songs, play an important role in expressing and conserving our nation's diverse cultural heritage.

Songs and music, as in all other forms of the arts, are a dynamic form of cultural expression. Performers borrow, interpret, and modify songs based on many factors including personal, cultural, and regional influences. And throughout the history of mankind song and music have been influenced by historic events, conquering nations, ancient trade routes and ever-changing communications systems -- commercial recordings, radio, TV and the Internet. Still to be considered is the growing movement of songs and music creations that fuse song and musical influences from two or more cultural groups. Sometimes referred to as World Music, there has been a growing innovative trend to blend elements of traditional music from many regions of the world to generate new and creative works. Whether we would classify as "ethnic" songs and music examples such as Celtic Hip Hop, Yiddish Blues, or Ethiopian Jazz, all blends of ethnic traditional sounds with modern western music, remains a question for readers to consider.

See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.