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What is a Folk Song?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A folk song is defined as a song of the people of a culture or region that reflects their outlook and life. Usually, this refers to a song with no known composer or lyricist and one that exists in multiple versions developed as it spread, rather than a single, standard, copyrighted edition.

Folk songs exist in many cultures around the world. Among English-speaking countries, Britain and the United States have strong folk traditions. Popular British folk song examples are “Barbara Allen,” “Greensleeves,” “Lavender’s Blue,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Lord Randall,” “The Water Is Wide,” “Blow the Man Down,” “The Gypsy Rover,,” and “The Drunken Sailor.” United States examples of the folk genre include “The Sow Took the Measles,” “The Erie Canal,” “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” “Clementine,” “The Cowboy’s Lament,” "John Henry," and “On Springfield Mountain.”

Folk song has also, however, been used to designate popular music that draws on the folk tradition. In this usage, one can speak of a folk song by Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; Woody Guthrie; Pete Seeger; Sam Hinton; Burl Ives; The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and The Weavers.

In addition, songs that have traditional elements and wide and lasting popularity have been considered to be folk songs, whether by mistake or an expansion of the term is not always clear. This is true, for example, of the song variously titled “Donna Donna,” “Dona Dona,” or “Dana Dana,” The original words in Yiddish are by Aaron Tsaytlin and the composer is Sholom Secunda. It was a show tune, written for the show Isterke, and during World War II became an anthem for European Jews, leading to its widespread use.

Another song often mistaken for a folk song in the sense of arising from the people is “My Grandfather’s Clock,” which also has a known attribution. The music is by Henry Clay Work and words by either C. Russel Christian or by Work based on a story he was told at an inn in Piercebridge, England.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Musical Expert, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By calabama71 — On Jul 02, 2010

@cmsmith10: I also was a girl scout and Clementine will be embedded in my mind forever! Let me refresh your memory:


In a cavern, in a canyon, excavating for a mine,

Lived a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter Clementine.


Oh my darling, Oh my darling, Oh my darling Clementine,

You are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine.

Anyway, you get it. That was a nice walk down memory lane! Anyone want to buy some Girl Scout cookies????

By cmsmith10 — On Jul 02, 2010

Wow. Hearing some of those examples took me back a few years when I was a Girl Scout. I think the most famous folksong that we sang was "Clementine". I'm not even sure I remember the words!

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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