What Is Folk Music? Well I don't know about you but I'm not in the least bit confused.

What is folk music?
There are two types of what nowadays we call 'folk music'. Neither is a true, identifiable music genre, like blues or jazz or classical music.

The first type is what I call "Folk Heritage Music" and what Neil Colquhun (Kiwi author of "Song of a Young Country") calls simply "Heritage Music".
My feeling is that "folk-heritage' music better differentiates it as music of the common people as opposed to more highbrow forms of heritage music.
Neil attended a concert I did at Wellington Folk Club in New Zealand in 2011, after which he handed me a copy of his book of New Zealand Heritage Music.
On the inside cover he had written "Phil Drane, a fantastic deliverer of heritage songs in the NEW style. Thanks for a wonderful evening, Neil Colquhun".
This was the first time I felt that I had met someone who knew why I do what I do.

"Folk-Heritage Music" is an easy concept to grasp, because it is centred around the cultural and social-history of a particular ethnic (cultural) group.
It covers both traditional and contemporary music because an ethnic group's "heritage" covers their past, present, and future evolution.
English Folk-Heritage music is the only type of 'folk music' I perform because I like to celebrate and promote my own English ethnicity (my cultural identity) on stage.
For me to peform anything else would be like Dougie MacLean performing something that wasn't Scottish. We both do what we do for the same reasons which are different to common or garden 'folksingers'. One reason 'folk-heritage musicians' are different therefore is that they have a cultural or ethnic motivation to perform what they perform.

Why isn't folk music a true genre? Because many Blues, Country, and Jazz songs would qualify as "American Folk-Heritage Music". I myself sing English Folk-Heritage songs with a jazz/ blues accompaniments.
What clearly identifies and differentiates 'Folk-Feritage Songs" are the lyrics and Norma Waterson has been quoted as saying "In folk-heritage music the words are the most important thing, the music is far more forgiving". Exactly that.

My pet frustration with many performers of English Folk-Heritage music is that they are often not English, so they have no cultural connection to it and have little idea of the historical or social context of the lyrics. You can easily tell they're simply making a living performing it.
The saddest thing about English Folk-Heritage music is that for the past 50 years it (what little music is 'free' and is not in private collections like Cecil Sharpe House) has remained almost permanently entrenched in 'folkiedom', and the vast majority of urban ethnic English people have been disconnected from it by decades of what the Scots, Welsh and Irish would instantly recognise as "British Cultural Oppression".

And the 'other' folk music'?
This is harder to define and is the type of 'folk music' that causes the confusion. People call it 'folk' music in desperation, because it defies classification, and it is often acoustic.
I think of it as "lightweight pseudo-pop". It's often confusingly acoustic but tends to be very self-obsessed and has little relevance to cultural heritage.
It is, I suppose, largely "music with no purpose". That's not to say it doesn't have appeal - much of it does - and it sometimes it has a temporal relevance, such as anti-Vietnam war protest songs. The tell-tale sign is that it just has little ethnic relevance.
An example of a Folk-Heritage Musician versus a 'folksinger'?
A contemporary comparison would be Wood Guthrie versus Bob Dylan. Every bit of Guthrie's music was folk-heritage music - written by an ordinary American about the lives and social-history of his own people, ordinary Americans. Dylan on the other hand is a 'folksinger' who wrote some folk-heritage songs, but nicked more than he wrote from our English tradition.
I guess a major difference is that Guthrie didn't compose for money, whereas more often than not Dylan did.

My experience as a performer has been that folk club organizers in the UK and NZ have been concerned about the emergence of "lightweight pseudo-pop" such as Beatles music in folk clubs. This is natural when their audiences have been listening to the same traditional folk-heritage music for decades. It's something new - not necessarily 'pukka' folk music but it's refreshing.  It also happens when there is a paucity of "Contemporary Folk-Heritage music" and a glut of "angsty pseudo-pop songwriting". Something has to fill the void. 
But here's the rub - at this moment I am listed in the Alexander Turnbull (New Zealand) Library under the category "Ethnic English Musician" along with four of my English Folk-Heritage CDs that are listed under "Ethnic English Music". The Beatles and their music (as fabulous as it may sound played acoustically) are not listed, and that to me speaks volumes about the difference.

In recent years it has become accepted that in a folk concert setting, unless the poster reads "Folk-Heritage Concert", almost all types of music are acceptable.
The lesson to be learned is that understanding the difference is tremendously important for cultural and ethnic continuity reasons, but respecting the difference is why folk clubs and folk audiences have always been so receptive and welcoming.

Phil Drane
Oct 2013