Folk Songs

Updated: March 01, 2011

The term folk song is used in two ways by folklorists: first, it is a generic phrase applied to all traditional songs; second, it is a term used to distinguish between narrative and nonnarrative songs in the repertoires of folksingers.

The term folk song is used in two ways by folklorists: first, it is a generic phrase applied to all traditional songs; second, it is a term used to distinguish between narrative and nonnarrative songs in the repertoires of folksingers. Ballad is the term applied to traditional songs that tell a story, while folk song is used for those songs lacking a connected narrative (these are also referred to as “lyric songs”). Most folk song specialists have followed the assumption that in ballads action dominates over sentiment and that in folk songs sentiment is accentuated over action. In actual practice, though, classification is often arbitrary. For example, Celestin P. Cambiaire categorizes a version of “Wagoner’s Lad” as a ballad, while the editors of The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore list “Wagoner’s Lad” as a folk song.

Because ballads feature narratives, they are relatively easy to identify and therefore have received considerable study. The first monumental classification system for various types of ballads was Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98), an attempt to present “every valuable copy of every known ballad.” To date, no work performs for folk songs the service that Child’s magnum opus and later classification studies provide for ballads. Indeed, the few published works devoted exclusively to nonnarrative songs are collections rather than classification systems.

Because folk songs lack a narrative, they are often thought of as being without shape or meaning. Such a view is inaccurate. Folk songs are coherent and have distinctive characteristics, some of which they share with ballads. Folk song lyrics are organized around a central idea or ideas, and thus the stanzas in folk songs are arranged purposefully. In some instances, lyrics may be sung in any order as long as they con- tribute to the overarching sentiment of the folk song. In other folk songs, however, stanzas are arranged in a specific order so as to present certain definite ideas. Thus, most versions of “On Top of Old Smoky” begin with the idea of a slow courtship, then discuss the thief-like qualities of a “false- hearted lover,” then state why such a love is worse than a thief. Folk songs are usually presented in the first person, meaning that a folk song projects the narrator’s opinions.

Often a folk song provides little detail about the places referred to in the song. Also characteristic of folk songs are several types of repetition, a feature they share with ballads. Plain repetition (the simple repeating of phrases or stanzas) and the listing of family members (commonly used in religious folk songs) are the most popular types of repetition used in Appalachia. A folk song is generally advanced by means of a monologue addressed to an unnamed party—often a folk song addresses a lover or, less specifically, all lovers. In the case of some folk songs, especially humorous ones, it is difficult to determine exactly to whom the text is directed. Like ballads, folk songs often rely on formulas, but the latter are much more dependent on “floating” verses—verses that are found in numerous songs and that seemingly fit all equally well. Traditional singers use both formulas and floating verses as mnemonic devices. Because folk songs are more fluid than ballads and have been much less studied, it is more difficult to be absolutely certain about their age. Even so, most lyric folk songs from Appalachia are probably of relatively recent vintage, going back no more than a couple of centuries.

Of the many types of folk songs known in Appalachia, six categories dominate. The largest category includes songs about love and lovers, such as “On Top of Old Smoky.” Ranking second in popularity are religious songs, including “Go Wash in That Beautiful Pool.” Numerous songs, such as “Billy Shaftoe” and “Go Tell Aunt Rhody,” have historically been intended primarily for children, though they are also sung and enjoyed by adults. Other songs, including “Skip to My Lou,” “Cindy,” and “Old Joe Clark,” are generally per- formed at such social occasions as dances and, in years past, play parties. Although work songs, such as “Roll On, John,” are found in Appalachia, folk song collectors have tended to overemphasize them. The sixth major category of Appalachian folk songs is comprised of comic songs, including “The Kicking Mule” and “Watermelon on the Vine.”

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"Folk Songs," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2018, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Sep 2018 <>

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"Folk Songs." (2018) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved September 23, 2018, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia:

Cover of “Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains” by Tom Paley