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Distinguishing High, Folk, and Pop Culture

This entry is part of 6 in the series

"Vaughan Williams on Culture"

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A common error exists frequently in contemporary discussions of the use of folk idioms as a compositional element in art music. Many authors today equate folk music with popular forms such as jazz, rock, and blues. In fact, the terms “folk” and “popular” have unfortunately come to be synonymous in conventional speech. For instance, George Gershwin (1898B1937) referred to his opera Porgy and Bess as an “American folk opera,” although it includes distinctly pop forms such as blues and jazz.

However, an honest examination of the historical development of music will note that folk music and “popular” music in the more specific sense are, in fact, different in many significant ways. Certainly folk music is popular, but it is not the same as “pop” music in the way the term is used today to describe the commercial music of radio, film, and television. For sake of clarity in this series, I will use the term “pop” to denote such music, while “popular” will be used to express the broader dictionary definition of something that is “widely liked or appreciated.”1

Perhaps one of the most helpful and instructive methods one could employ to discover the significant differences between folk music and pop forms is to query the writings of composers who have used folk idioms in their music. In the English-speaking world, no one is better known for such practices than British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). Indeed, as Alain Frogley notes, “Mention the name Ralph Vaughan Williams and into most people’s minds come immediately three words: English, pastoral, and folksong.”2

The goal of this series will be to examine the writings of Vaughan Williams and his predecessor, Cecil Sharp (1859-1924), and illustrate their understanding of the distinctions between art, folk, and pop music. I will show that this distinction is evidenced in how they define each of the terms and in their motivations for cataloguing and utilizing folk tunes in their art music.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. The American Heritage College Dictionary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 1064. []
  2. Alain Frogley, “Constructing Englishness in Music: National Character and the Reception of Ralph Vaughan Williams,” inVaughan Williams Studies, Alain Frogley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 1. []