Folk music?

I thought, before I started in on this topic, that it would be a good thing to have some sort of idea of what was and what wasn’t folk music, since – not unusually, I’m afraid – my notions on the subject were woolly, vague and lacking in definition. So, firstly, I turned to that fount of wisdom and clarity, the Oxford English Dictionary, only to find that whoever compiled the entry on ‘folk’ clearly wasn’t very interested in ‘folk-music’…

 folk-music n. music of popular origin

… it said.

Laconic? Yes. Helpful? No.

After ploughing through several dictionaries (I’ll spare you the details), I eventually decided that it was the Encyclopædia Britannica that had the most thoroughgoing description of what folk-music was…

Folk music, type of traditional and generally rural music that originally was passed down through families and other small social groups. Typically, folk music, like folk literature, lives in oral tradition; it is learned through hearing rather than reading. It is functional in the sense that it is associated with other activities, and it is primarily rural in origin. The usefulness of the concept varies from culture to culture, but it is most convenient as a designation of a type of music of Europe and the Americas.

Now that that’s settled (in my mind, at least – I confidently expect howls of protest from people with their own folk-music axes to grind), here are two examples of the sort of thing we’ll be considering. The first is the original (or, at least, one of its variants), while the second is five of its variants, artfully assembled by Ralph Vaughan Williams:

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