I'm a trained percussionist who for years has appreciated traditional American folk music. I've also been frustrated for years by the complete lack of any drums in this music. I've searched the web and found no good answers.
I recognize any answer would be necessarily complex and have to take into account the evolution of music in Western culture. But that's no excuse for there being no answer...
There are many responses to my question that I consider unsatisfactory. These answers include things like...
• The melody and harmony itself is rhythmic! There's no need for drums! (Sorry, weak answer--there is plenty of rhythmic melody and harmony in music from cultures where drums also play a big role. The presence or absence of rhythm in melody and harmony is irrelevant to the presence or absence of drums.)
• There are "drums" in American folk music---just look at the spoons, the washboard, clogging and flatfoot dancing, etc. (Sorry, another weak answer, because while they're all forms of percussion, none of these are drums.)
• Nobody could build or play drums in the hollows of Appalachia, so they didn't have them! (Sorry, another weak answer--if people could make and learn to play a fiddle, they could easily make and learn to play a drum!)
• Drums just aren't needed in American folk music--it sounds good without them! (Again, another weak, subjective answer--fiddles and gutbuckets are no more or less "needed" than drums in this music.)
As I mentioned above, there are plenty of cultures around the world whose music has everything American folk music has (melody, modality, simplicity, etc.) yet in many of these cultures drums also play a key role. So why not in American folk music?
Did early Americans (or the Scots/Irish/English/Dutch/Germans who emigrated to America) have something against drums? Were they considered "primitive" or "evil?"
The same question can be asked of folk music of the British Isles, which is also devoid of any drumming. The one notable exception to all of this, of course, is the bodhran in Irish music. And the popularity of the bodhran suggests that there is no inherent bias against drums in this music. The bodhran fits in beautifully and plays an integral role in Irish music. So how or why did the "drumming influence" of the bodhran not spread to other forms of folk music?
Were early Anglo-Saxons so daft that it never occurred to a single one of them to beat on something with their hands or sticks to create rhythm? (Conversely, how exactly did drums evolve to be such a central instrument in African, Indian, Chinese and Japanese music? Were these people smarter than early Anglo-Saxons and just figured out how to make and play drums where the Anglos didn't?)
Discussion and speculation (and facts too, of course) are appreciated! :-) (And please try to avoid posts like "American folk music doesn't have drums because it doesn't have drums. It's different." This much is clear--but I'd like to dig a bit deeper!)