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Progressive folk
Stylistic origins Traditional music
Folk music
World music
Cultural origins 1930s: USA
Typical instruments Acoustic instruments, Guitar
Mainstream popularity Mainly in the 1960s, but the genre has revived since the 1990s
Derivative forms Folk baroque - Country folk - Progressive country
Psych folk
Fusion genres
Progressive rock
Regional scenes
USA, UK, Balkans

Progressive folk or prog folk was originally a type of American folk music that pursued a progressive political agenda, but in the United Kingdom the term became attached to a sub-genre that rejects or de-emphasizes the conventions of traditional folk music and encourages stylistic or thematic innovation. It gave rise to the genre of psychedelic or psych folk and had a major impact on the development of progressive rock.




Origins of the term

The original meaning of progressive folk came from its links to the progressive politics of the American folk revival of the 1930s and particularly through the work of musicologist Charles Seeger.[1] Key figures in the development of progressive folk in America were Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and, after them from the early 1960s it was continued by figures such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who all mixed progressive politics with folk music.[2] In Britain, one of the major strands that emerged from the short-lived skiffle craze of 1956-9 were acoustic artists who performed American progressive material. Vital in the development of progressive folk was the emergence of the American counterculture and British underground scenes of the mid 1960s. The term progressive began to be used by radio stations to describe particularly the psychedelic music, including pop, rock and folk, that emerged from this scene.[3]

Psychedelic folk

The first musical use of the term psychedelic is thought to have been by the New York based folk group the The Holy Modal Rounders on their version of Ledbelly's 'Hesitation Blues' in 1964.[4] Psychedelic music spread rapidly in the beat folk scenes of both the east and west coast of the mid-1960s.[5] San Francisco produced bands such as Kaleidoscope, It's a Beautiful Day and Peanut Butter Conspiracy[6] From New York city's Greenwich Village came groups such as Jake and the Family Jewels and Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys.[7] Chicago's major contribution was H. P. Lovecraft. Many of these psychedelic folk groups followed the Byrds into folk rock from 1965, are now as a result more widely remembered, including Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service.[8]

From the mid-sixties, partly as a result of the British Invasion, this trend ran in parallel in both America and Britain and as part of the inter-related folk, folk rock and rock scenes. Folk artists who were particularly significant included the Scottish performers Donovan, who combined influences of American artists like Bob Dylan with references to flower power, and the Incredible String Band, who from 1967 incorporated a range of influences into their acoustic based music, including medieval and eastern instruments.[9] There was a brief flouring of British and Irish progressive folk in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with groups like the Third Ear Band and Quintessence following the eastern Indian musical and more abstract work by group such as Comus, Dando Shaft, The Trees, Spirogyra, Forest, and Jan Dukes De Grey.[10]

Folk baroque

The situation in Britain was made more complex by the second folk revival, which created a network of folk clubs across the country, mostly in urban centres, from the late 1950s.[11] In the early 1960s much of the music performed in these venues was American traditional and progressive folk, but this was increasingly discouraged from the mid-1960s as British traditional music began to dominate 'policy clubs'.[12] Most psychedelic folk artists, particularly in London relied more heavily on coffee houses and clubs like UFO and Middle Earth as their venues, but a number of artists occupied a musical territory between traditional and progressive music. This was particularly notable with artists like Davy Graham, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, who fused various styles of American music with English folk to create a distinctive form of fingerstyle guitar playing known as ‘folk baroque’.[13] Using medieval, jazz and blues elements in their playing, this was an overt attempt to push British folk music into new territory, and can be seen as a forerunner of progressive rock. Perhaps the finest individual work in the genre was from artists early 1970s artists like Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and John Martyn.[14]

Country folk

Country folk emerged as a hybrid sub-genre of progressive folk and country after Dylan's visit to Nashville to record "Blonde on Blonde" in 1966. Developing as a gentler form of country with more emphasis on song writing it continued the some of the political traditions of progressive folk, being taken up in the 1970s by artists such as John Denver and Emmylou Harris and more recently contributing to the development of the progressive country sub-genre.[15]


In the early 1970s psychedelia began to fall out of fashion and those folk groups that had not already moved into different areas had largely disbanded. Although artists like Dylan and Baez continued their careers with considerable success in the 1970s, as American folk music began to fragment, with groups focusing on areas such as blues, bluegrass and oldtime, progressive folk began to disappear as a term and its major themes shifted into 'contemporary folk', focusing on new singer-songwriters using the coffee-house circuit, including such artists as Chris Castle, Steve Goodman, and John Prine.[16]

In Britain folk groups also tended to electrify, as did acoustic duo Tyrannosaurus Rex which became the electric combo T-Rex.[17] This was a continuation of a process by which progressive folk had considerable impact on mainstream rock.[18] Others, probably influenced by the electric folk pioneered by Fairport Convention from 1969, moved towards more traditional material, a category including Dando Shaft, Amazing Blondel, and Jack the Lad, an offshoot of northern progressive folk group Lindisfarne.[19] Examples of bands that remained firmly on the border between progressive folk and progressive rock were the short lived and recently reunited Comus and, more successfully, Renaissance, who combined folk and rock with classical elements.[20]


  1. ^ G. W. Haslam, A. R. Haslam, and R. Chon, Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California (University of California Press, 1999), p. 70.
  2. ^ H. Zinn, A. Arnove, Voices of a People's History of the United States (Seven Stories Press, 2004), p. 353.
  3. ^ E. Macan, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 26.
  4. ^ M. Hicks, Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions (University of Illinois Press, 2000), pp. 59-60.
  5. ^ P. Auslander, Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2006), p. 76.
  6. ^ P. Auslander, Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2006), p. 76.
  7. ^ P. Auslander, Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2006), p. 76.
  8. ^ R. Unterberger, Turn! Turn! Turn!: The '60s Folk-rock Revolution (Backbeat, 1985, 2nd edn., 2005), pp. 183-230.
  9. ^ P. Scaruffi, A History of Rock Music 1951-2000 (iUniverse, 2003), p. 54 and J. DeRogatis, Turn on Your Mind: Four Decades of Great Psychedelic Rock (Hal Leonard, 2003), p. 120.
  10. ^ P. Scaruffi, A History of Rock Music 1951-2000(iUniverse, 2003), pp. 81-2.
  11. ^ M. Brocken, The British Folk Revival 1944-2002 (Ashgate, Aldershot, 2003), p. 114.
  12. ^ G. Boyes, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology, and the English Folk Revival (Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 237.
  13. ^ B. Swears, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005) p. 184-9.
  14. ^ P. Buckley, The Rough Guide to Rock: the definitive guide to more than 1200 artists and bands (Rough Guides, 2003), pp. 145, 211-12, 643-4.
  15. ^ Country Folk,
  16. ^ R. Rubin, J. P. Melnick, American Popular Music: New Approaches to the Twentieth Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), pp. 209-10.
  17. ^ B. Sweers, Electric Folk: The Changing Face of English Traditional Music (Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 40.
  18. ^ E. Macan, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 134-5.
  19. ^ P. Scaruffi, A history of rock music 1951-2000 (iUniverse, 2003), pp. 81-2.
  20. ^ P. Scaruffi, A history of rock music 1951-2000 (iUniverse, 2003), pp. 81-2.

See also


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