What is a Folk Song?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

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.

Songs that have traditional elements and lasting popularity are considered to be folk songs.
Songs that have traditional elements and lasting popularity are considered to be folk songs.

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.”

American folk rock often uses the acoustic guitar.
American folk rock often uses the acoustic guitar.

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.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


@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????


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!

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