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Folk Song

A folk song is a piece of music that was composed within the parameters of folk music. These songs are usually about a particular group of people, an event, or an experience. 

They were traditionally performed on folk instruments, never written down, and had unknown origins. This means that the source of many folk songs is unknown. This includes where exactly they came from as well as who wrote the lyrics and/or music. The term “folk music” came into the lexicon in the 19th century but the music of the genre was created and performed long before that. 

Folk Song Definition and Examples

Folk Song Definition

A folk song is a piece of music that belongs to a traditional genre of folk music. It could also be used to refer to a contemporary version of the same genre that became popular in the 20th century.

There are a few features of folk music that one might use to define it. 

  • It is transmitted orally (no longer exclusively orally). 
  • Songs have unknown composers. 
  • Played on traditional instruments. 
  • Songs are about a particular culture or event. 
  • Music is played on certain days of the year and at particular festivals. 
  • Songs are associated with folklore and myth

Folk music takes its name from “folklore.” That is collections of tales associated with a specific culture. This usually includes origin stories and stories to define important events in a people’s history. These stories are usually passed down orally. This means that they are never written down, changes occur to their structure and events, and they have no original author (or the author has been forgotten). 

Popular Folk Music 

Today, it is not uncommon to see “folk” as a popular, contemporary genre of music. This refers to songs that were first made popular in the 1960s and continue to be written to this day. Often, these songs are performed on instruments like the banjo, violin or fiddle, acoustic guitar, and other stringed instruments. Most contemporary folk songs, like traditional pieces of music, are about specific events. They usually tell stories that listeners can relate to. This means the lyrics are usually more complicated and may not follow the normal pattern of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, refrain, etc. 

Popular folk music takes its influence from its traditional counterpart as well as from rock.

Examples of Folk Songs 

Barbara Allen 

This traditional folk song is popular throughout English-speaking countries and beyond them. It tells the story of a character, Barbara Allen, who denies a dying man’s love. She dies soon after he passes away. It has been published under a variety of names. These include ‘Bonny Barbara Allen,’ ‘Barbry Allen,’ ‘The Ballet of Barbara Allen,’ and more. Scholars do not believe that there is a definitive original version in existence today, or at least one they can pinpoint. But, most versions speak on the same topics. 

Barbara visits a dying man, he asks her to love him, she refuses and he dies soon after. She’s grief-stricken and dies as well. They are buried near one another. Here is a quote from one version of the song: 

Scarlet Town, where I was bound,

There was a fair maid dwelling,

Whom I had chosen to be my own,

And her name it was Barbara Allen.

All in the merry month of May,

When green leaves they was springing,

This young man on his death-bed lay,

For the love of Barbara Allen.

These lines are from around 1690 and are believed to be the earliest known version of the song. 

I’m a Man You Don’t Meet Every Day

This folk song is written from the point of view of a rich landowner. He tells the story of his day while drinking. The song has a Scottish or Irish origin. There are a few different versions of the song, as one would expect, but the most famous was recorded by Jeannie Robertson in 1960. Here are a few lines from the song:

Oh my name is Jock Stewart

I’m a canny gun man

And a roving young fellow I’ve been

So be easy and free

When you’re drinking with me

I’m a man you don’t meet every day

I have acres of land

I have men at command

I have always a shilling to spare

So be easy and free

When you’re drinking with me

I’m a man you don’t meet every day

Today, the lyrics are commonly sung as a drinking song rather than a ballad as it was originally performed. 

Green Grow the Rushes, O

This song, sometimes titled ‘Green Grow the Rushes, Ho, or ‘Green Grow the Rushes, Oh’ is an English folk song that is sometimes sung as a Christmas Carol.  Sometimes, it takes the form of an antiphon, meaning that it is used as part of a Christian ritual. These chants are sung as refrains or repeated sections of verse. The lyrics are cumulative, meaning that each verse adds to the previous until it reaches the final, twelfth verse. Here are the first lines from this long verse: 

I’ll sing you twelve, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What are your twelve, O?

Twelve for the twelve Apostles

Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven,

Ten for the ten commandments,

Nine for the nine bright shiners,

Eight for the April Rainers.

Seven for the seven stars in the sky,

Six for the six proud walkers,


Why are folk songs important? 

Folk songs are important because they contain information about a culture’s history. This includes events that happened throughout time as well as the development of music. Looking back through folk songs is a way of learning about the past. 

What is the purpose of folk songs? 

The purpose is to entertain and bring joy, or another emotion, to the listener. Some songs are more story-based than others but they all have an amount of interest to them that should appeal to listeners. 

What are some folk music traditions?

Folk songs touch on subjects like love, work, travel, war, antiwar, drinking, ethics, history, mythology.

Related Literary Terms 

  • Carol: a song sung during a festive period, such as Christmas, although not exclusively. They are usually religious in nature.
  • Elegy: a poem or song that is written in dedication to someone who has died.
  • Nursery Rhyme: a short rhyming song or poem that conveys a lesson or tells an amusing story. They are aimed at children.
  • Paean: expresses thanks, elation, or triumph through the form of a song or lyrical poem.
  • Psalm: a sacred song of worship, such as those featured in the Book of Psalms in the Bible.

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