What makes a song a folk song, anyway?
One familiar answer is that a folk song is a song without an author. Folk song scholars even have a name for the theory that some songs emerge without any one person composing them. They call it “communal creation.”
But by the mid-20th century, that same intellectual community was doing a lot of head scratching over how, exactly, a song could exist without someone in particular making it up. The documented histories of the songs we call folk songs bear out this uncertainty.
Take the cowboy song “Goodbye, Old Paint” for example. It seems like an easy fit with the folk song category. It has no precisely known author, after all. But is it really anonymous?
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