Folk songs: A living history we must cherish and protect.

I love folk songs. 

I admit it. I am a folk song aficionado. 

I grew up listening to them, learning them, singing them. When I was a very young child, my mother taught me many songs from her homeland of Ireland and she also introduced me to her favourite songs from other parts of the world, mostly from Scotland and America. 

At school, I learned many more songs from diverse places such as Spain, Israel and Hungary and Australia! My early childhood was infused with this music; rich and varied in its heritage. I loved it. 

Folk songs are part of our shared history. No matter where we are from. They are, in fact, a living history, as they continue to be performed to this day. More than that, new folk songs, by new singers and songwriters are being composed and performed. Eventually, these ‘new’ songs will also find their way into the canon, taking their rightful place among the songs of old; enhancing and augmenting the already rich tapestry of songs, stories and melodies woven into the music.  

Folk songs contain universal and time-honoured subject matter. Themes of love, death, war, poverty, violence, politics, revolution, protest, the weather, nature, the seasons, the sea, slavery, imprisonment are all tackled in the folk song cannon. Best of all, folk songs are ‘living history’, a way of connecting with the past and bringing it into the present. Folk songs are historically passed down through the oral tradition and, as a result, often appear in variations far removed from their original melodies. This is quite normal and perfectly fine!

What is the oral tradition? 

A traditional way of passing down songs and stories from generation to generation. Long before the internet, before telephones, recording devices or even the written, printed word, we used our voices to share ideas, stories and songs. Mothers taught their children nursery rhymes and folk songs, that they themselves had learned from their mother or father. Elders in the tavern sang songs of war, teaching the younger men the music and melodies of their respective struggles; songs of famine, war and death. Songs of war, peace and protest, songs of revolution, rebellion and freedom. Slaves in the plantations, prisoners in the chain-gangs, sailors on the press-ganged ships, women in the fields, in the kitchens, in the sewing circles all wove music around the stories of their lives. Not just limited to singing about ‘real’ events; these songs contained fairy stories, folklore, witchcraft, goblins, monsters and changelings, myth, legend and all. Nothing was left untouched, it all went into song. 

Anyone can sing folk songs. 

As a professional singer, I’m bound to say that best way to learn about folk music is to start singing it! Yes, this is true. But….even if you aren’t a singer or any kind, I’d suggest to you that you can sing these songs. That’s the beauty of folk music. It can be performed by anyone, anywhere….by someone with stacks of musical ability or none at all. They are stories and stories just need a passionate communicator. Singing ability is optional! But, that said, if you’re someone who wants to improve your musical ability, they are an easy and enjoyable way to begin singing. Why is it ‘easier’ to sing folk songs? 

Well, from a purely ‘musical ability’ perspective, three reasons stand out. 

1. They are generally very repetitive, (i.e. verse after verse after verse), giving you loads of time to nail down that melody.

2. They are usually easier melodies to learn. Nothing too fancy or difficult going on. This is generally because these are songs that were often ‘composed’ by ordinary people. When I say ‘ordinary’ I mean, workers; farmhands, women in the sewing circle, prisoners, sailors, slaves, and so forth. Not nobles, kings or famous composers. 

3. They generally have a smaller vocal range. In other words, there are (usually) very few very high notes or very low notes in the melodies; for example, ‘money notes’ that none-singers may struggle with. 

Have I convinced you to check out some folk songs from your own history? Fab! Go for it. Simply by exploring the internet for time-honoured songs and tunes, you’ll likely come across melodies that you hazily remember, like a long-ago memory from a time gone by. 

Oh...yeah, I know this tune!! '

So, often, hit songs and popular melodies in films are actually taken form traditional folk songs. 

A classic example is Belfast Child by rock band Simple Minds

The melody is heavily borrowed from the traditional Irish lament She Moved Through The Fair. 

Listen to both and hear for yourself. 

Simple Minds - Belfast Child - YouTube 

She moved through the fair - Caitlin Grey - YouTube 

They find their way into every area of music. Films, TV, pop music, classical music, musical theatre. 

To be honest, the usage of folk song melodies in other genres deserves a blog post all of its own. So, I’ll not wax lyrical about that subject for now. 

Research your own folk song heritage. 

So, folks (no pun intended1), get onto YouTube and look for folk music, folk songs from your own country’s musical history or, indeed, any country you like. Into American folk perhaps? 

Then check out this link for some traditional folks songs.

Or, if your interest lies in the (partial) origins of American folk, then you can’t go wrong by looking at traditional folk songs from the United Kingdom and Ireland. I may be biased but I believe that some of the most exquisite folk song melodies ever written are from the Celtic heartlands and England. 

Irish and Scottish Folk_Playlist

English folk

Ye Madcaps Of England - YouTube 

Welsh folk. 

Dacw 'Nghariad - YouTube 

Of course, other European countries have similarly deep-rooted folk music traditions and exploring these will definitely enrich your experience. Although there exist many similarities in style and history, the musical and vocal differences of songs can be often quite dramatic which is always so lovely to discover. So, have a listen to as many as you can, the folk song world is literally at your fingertips. 

Hungarian folk, Hebrew folk, Spanish folk, African and West Indian folk music…..the list goes on.  

The internet has allowed modern audiences to delve deeply into folk music's rich traditions, without having to spend hours in the music libraries, (yes, I mean actual physical libraries) or troll through the niche folk music section in record shops! 

There has never been a better time to explore and immerse yourself in this wonderful musical tradition. It will enhance and enrich your musical knowledge tenfold. 

So many modern melodies take their inspiration and influence from folk songs. 

After all, folk songs are/were the song of the people, the songs of the folk. Not songs that were written by composer at the court of a King1 or a composer whose job it was to supply cantatas and hymns for church services every Sunday2

No, these songs came from ordinary folk, for ordinary folk; people like you and me. 

They come from our ancestors, working in the fields, in the towns, finding love, losing love, complaining about money, getting drunk and so on. 

Real life stuff. 

What I love most about it is that fact that you can change it and it’s not considered musical sacrilege! Can you imagine changing a single note of a Mozart aria? Mortal sin! But, much like popular music and pop songs,  folk songs can be rearranged and re-imagined with infinite variations on time-honoured themes. Folk music evolves; it alters and morphs into something new and exciting, depending on whoever is performing it. And you can sing it however you like. 

Like I said, it’s a living history and we are part of that history. Speaking from my own experience, folk music, both performing it and writing my own versions of these traditional songs has greatly enriched my life and musical career. 

In fact, in 2019, I was hugely honoured to be approached the British Sound library in London to have my music catalogued and archived, in recognition of my contribution to the genre. So, I am living proof that new, original folk material is taken very seriously and its place in history will be cemented for all time. So, I say to you, go make your own songs of the people. Tell your own story, your own struggles and joys and those of your family and communities through this incredible, important medium. 

These songs catalogue both the lives and the times of the world in which we live so much better than stuffy history books! 

They belong to us. Sing them play, them, write them, share them, own them. 

They are you. 

In love & music, 

Caitlin xx

Ps. If you’d like to check out my folk song recordings, both original & traditional, go here: Celtic/Folk - YouTube 

About the author
Caitlin Grey is an award-winning singer and songwriter in the Celtic folk tradition. 
Her debut Celtic/folk album Siren’s Song won the 2013 Best Celtic Album award at the Ladylake Independent Music Awards in the US. 
In 2018, Caitlin & Neil Harvey were honoured to have their back catalogue archived at the British Sound Library, due to their contribution to British Folk Music.
Caitlin also teaches voice and runs Harvey/Grey Music, a songwriting & production company with co-writer Neil Harvey, an accomplished producer and composer. 
Caitlin holds a BA Hons.(First Class)in Music & English Literature & a Masters in Music & Performance. 

1Franz Joseph Haydn was, for many years, the official composer at the court of the wealthy Esterházy family at their Eszterháza Castle. 

2J.S Bach often had to write a cantata for regular Sunday services as the resident organist at the Blasius Church in Mühlhausen

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