Folk Music

traditional-italian-folk-musicHi everyone!

We had a class about folk music, and its many varieties, and I’m sharing something here with all the families and the students, so that everyone can keep listening and singing these songs.

*Warning. The links to the songs are YOUTUBE songs, so I caution the parents to watch the videos together and to beware of commercials.

Traditional folk music has been defined in several ways: as music transmitted orally, music with unknown composers, or music performed by custom over a long period of time. It has been contrasted with commercial and classical styles.

Traditional folk music often includes sung words, although folk instrumental music occurs commonly in dance music traditions. Narrative verse looms large in the traditional folk music of many cultures. This encompasses such forms as traditional epic poetry, much of which was meant originally for oral performance, sometimes accompanied by instruments.

Other forms of traditional narrative verse relate the outcomes of battles or describe tragedies or natural disasters.

Sometimes, as in the triumphant Song of Deborah found in the Biblical Book of Judges, these songs celebrate victory. Laments for lost battles and wars, and the lives lost in them, are equally prominent in many traditions; these laments keep alive the cause for which the battle was fought. The narratives of traditional songs often also remember folk heroes such as John Henry to Robin Hood. Some traditional song narratives recall supernatural events or mysterious deaths.

John Henry is an African American folk hero. He is said to have worked as a “steel-driving man”—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry’s prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered hammer, a race he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand as his heart gave out from stress.



Hymns and other forms of religious music are often of traditional and unknown origin. Western musical notation was originally created to preserve the lines of Gregorian chant, which before its invention was taught as an oral tradition in monastic communities. Traditional songs such as Green grow the rushes, O present religious lore in a mnemonic form, as do Western Christmas carols and similar traditional songs.




Leader: I’ll sing you one ho
Group: Green grow the rushes ho, What is your one ho?
Leader: One is one and all alone and ever more shall it be so.
That is the basic form. Here is the second round:
Leader: I’ll sing you two ho
Group: Green grow the rushes ho, What is your two ho?
Leader: Two, two little Cub Scouts, Clothed them all in green ho
Leader and Group: One is one and all alone and ever more shall it be so
So, you can see how it goes. Here are the other 10 lines:
Twelve for the Twelve Apostles
Eleven for the eleven who went to Heaven
Ten for the Ten Commandments
Nine for the night (nine??) bright shiners
Eight for the April rainers
Seven for the seven stars in the sky
Six for the six proud walkers
Five for symbols at your door
Four for the Gospel makers
Three, three the rivals

Work songs frequently feature call and response structures and are designed to enable the laborers who sing them to coordinate their efforts in accordance with the rhythms of the songs.

In the American armed forces, a lively oral tradition preserves jody calls (“Duckworth chants”) which are sung while soldiers are on the march.


Professional sailors made similar use of a large body of sea shanties. Love poetry, often of a tragic or regretful nature, prominently figures in many folk traditions. Nursery rhymes and nonsense verse used to amuse or quiet children also are frequent subjects of traditional songs.

SEA SHANTIES: Of uncertain etymological origin, the word shanty emerged in the mid-19th century in reference to an appreciably distinct genre of work song, developed especially in American-style merchant vessels that had come to prominence in decades prior to the American Civil War



SPIRITUALS are generally Christian songs that were created by African slaves in the United States. The only people that played a role in the composition of Spirituals were blacks in America. Spirituals were originally an oral tradition that imparted Christian values while also describing the hardships of slavery.





“Wild Mountain Thyme” (also known as “Purple Heather” and “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?”) is a Scottish folk song that was collected by Francis McPeake 1st, who wrote the song himself for his wife. The McPeake family claim recognition for the writing of the song. Francis McPeake is a member of a well known musical family in Belfast, Ireland. The lyrics and melody are a variant of the song “The Braes of Balquhither” by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810), a contemporary of Robert Burns.

“If Music is a Place — then Jazz is the City, Folk is the Wilderness, Rock is the Road, Classical is a Temple.” ― Vera Nazarian

At home, we sing folk songs from AMBLESIDE ONLINE FOLK SONGS -link

BONUS: some of our favorites,

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Scarborough Fair

When We Were Young Maggie

Along the Road to Gundagai

Star of the County Down

The Rose of Tralee …

and many more… Most of them have wonderful stories behind worth reading about.


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