The term American folk music encompasses numerous music genres, variously known as traditional music, traditional folk music, contemporary folk music, or roots music.
Many traditional songs have been sung within the same family or folk group for generations, and sometimes trace back to such origins as Great Britain, Europe, or Africa.
Mike Seeger once famously commented that the definition of American folk music is „…all the music that fits between the cracks.
Roots music is a broad category of music including bluegrass, gospel, old time music, jug bands, Appalachian folk, blues, Cajun and Native American music. The music is considered American either because it is native to the United States or because it developed there, out of foreign origins, to such a degree that it struck musicologists as something distinctly new. It is considered „roots music“ because it served as the basis of music later developed in the United States, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and jazz.
Most songs of the Colonial Fletch and Revolutionary period originated in England, Scotland and Ireland and were brought over by early settlers. „Barbara Allen“ remains a popular traditional ballad originating in England and Scotland, which immigrants introduced to the United States.
The murder ballad „Pretty Polly“ is an American version of an earlier British song, „The Gosport Tragedy“.
Many roots musicians do not consider themselves folk musicians. The main difference between the American folk music revival and American „roots music“ is that roots music seems to cover a broader range, including blues and country.
Roots music developed its most expressive and varied forms in the first three decades of the 20th century. The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl were extremely important in disseminating these musical styles to the rest of the country, as Delta blues masters, itinerant honky tonk singers, and Latino and Cajun musicians spread to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The growth of the recording industry in the same period was also important; higher potential profits from music placed pressure on artists, songwriters, and label executives to replicate previous hit songs. This meant that musical fads, such as Hawaiian slack-key guitar, never died out completely, since a broad range of rhythms, instruments, and vocal stylings were incorporated into disparate popular genres.
By the 1950s, forms of roots music had led to pop-oriented forms. Folk musicians like the Kingston Trio, pop-Tejano and Cuban-American fusions like boogaloo, chachacha and mambo, blues-derived rock and roll and rockabilly, pop-gospel, doo wop and R&B (later secularized further as soul music) and the Nashville sound in country music all modernized and expanded the musical palette of the country.
The roots approach to music emphasizes the diversity of American musical traditions, the genealogy of creative lineages and communities, and the innovative contributions of musicians working in these traditions today. In recent years roots music has been the focus of popular media programs such as Garrison Keillor’s public radio program, A Prairie Home Companion and the feature film by the same name.