Favourite Folk Songs

Like all story tellers, we ask questions here of the folks that we come in contact with. And the answers we get are often both entertaining and surprising. A few years ago, we published this article based on a series of question and answer sessions in the Pub.

First up is Kage Baker with a Grateful Dead-ish answer

Probably ‘The Rambling Sailor’. The lyrics are sort of heartless, but it makes a helluva dance tune, especially a morris dance. I was once at a morris-ale held in an oak forest one summer night in northern California. Kate and I were providing the ale. The conditions were perfect — a full moon, thunder rumbling around the sky, there was a big turnout of dancers, we had a fairly full band– two fiddlers, a concertina, a standing bass, a couple of pennywhistles and a shawm.

There was a lantern strung up in the branches of this one big oak tree that must have been about 400 years old, and the dancing was done in the open space underneath. The different sides did the usual tunes, with the sword dances and the sticks, but then everyone got out the white handkerchiefs and the band struck up ‘Rambling Sailor’. There must have been fifty or sixty dancers moving in perfect time, and my memory insists the boys were all as beautiful as young satyrs and the girls all looked like wood nymphs. The white cloths flashed like seagull wings. The little gold bells rang. The ground shook. It was one of the most perfect moments of my life.

Elizabeth Bear wants her songs to be playable… and murderous as well…

If the question is, which one do I have the most versions of, it’s either ‘Stagger Lee’ or ‘The House of the Rising Sun.’ If the question is, which one is my favorite to play, ‘Duncan and Brady.’

I’m a sucker for a good snarky murder ballad, and the tune of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ gives me goosebumps.

Peter Beagle has a wonderful answer

I know way too many folk songs to have a special favorite, Cat. Besides, I’m not always sure what counts as a folk song. Big Bill Broonzy used to say, ‘I guess all songs is folk songs – I never heard no horse sing one.’ When Merle Travis was asked to write an album’s worth of folk songs and explained to the producer that you don’t write folk songs – they just sort of spring up, like grass – the producer replied, ‘Well, then write some stuff that sounds like folk songs.” Travis came up with, among others, ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘Dark As A Dungeon,’ which any number of people still present as a folk song. And Aristide Bruant (Toulouse-Lautrec’s buddy, the guy in the black hat and red scarf) wrote ‘Sur La Route De Louviers’ – I don’t know how many times I heard that as a folk song in Berkeley, in the old days…

I do love the haunting old French song ”A La Claire Fontaine,’ and my friend Phil and I still love to sing ‘The Miller of Dee’ when we get together. But if I had to pick just one, it might be a strange, utterly surrealistic tune called ‘Nottymun Town’ that I picked up from Jean Ritchie. I’m teaching it, on the rare occasions we’re able to jam together, to the guys of Emerald Rose, a great Celtic band, who could do it justice.

And then there’s wonderful ‘Tumbalalaika’ in Yiddish, and ‘La Llorona’ in Spanish…But in the end, my favorite song of all is still ‘Au Bois De Mon Coeur,’ which is not a folk song, but was written by Georges Brassens – so there you are. Go figure…

Pamela Dyer-Bennet says

Jane Yolen is a total treasure. And of course she’s right. [See comments by Jane below.] I went through all the Child ballads when I was trying to think of a frame for Juniper, Gentian, & Rosemary, and the only other remotely feminist ballad I could find was ‘Riddles Wisely Expounded,’ which is not nearly as active for the young woman as ‘Tam Lin’ is.

Well, there is the one where a young woman ransoms her guy and says, ‘The blood had flowed upon the green afore I lost my laddie,’ which is nice, but all she does is take all her money and hand it over.

Stephen Brust picked a current singer-songwriter

At this moment, it’s probably Leonard Cohen’s ‘Halalujah’ because it’s stuck in my head. Are you counting Cohen’s work as folk songs?

[We said yes.]

Cassandra Clare has a cool one as she says here

‘Tanglewood Tree’ by Dave Carter. Mostly because of the awesome lyrics and the cool double harmony.

Love is a garden of thorns
Love’s garden of thorns, how it grows
And a crow in the corn

Black crow in the corn hummin’ low
And the brake growing wild
Brake nettle so pretty and wild
And thistles surround the edge of the
Cold when the summer is spent
Dim dark hour as the sun moves away

In the jade heart’s lament
Lamenting a lost summer day
For the faith of a child
Cool huh?

Chris Fowler has a surprising answer given the folk motifs found in his Bryant and May novels

I don’t have any folk, unless you count Rufus Wainwright, in which case I would name Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk, because ‘everything I like is just a little bit stronger, a little more harmful for me’.

Christopher Golden says he’s not much of a folkie so he says

I’m far from an expert on folk music. In fact, a lot of it just doesn’t interest me. But I do love Common Rotation. Their song ‘All Smiles’ is a favorite of mine for several reasons. It’s beautiful and sounds like a happy tune, but the lyrics are about the people of New Orleans being abandoned to fate during and after hurricane Katrina. Great song.

Deborah Grabien says ‘Heh. Are you asking me? Favourite folk song?’ I said I was so here’s her reply

Answer — what time is it? Because they move with my head, my mood, the tides. If there’s a gun to my head at this particular moment — one song only! stop dithering! Good, she’s picked one, boot her off the boat onto the desert island with just the one! – I’d have to be completely traditional and go for ‘Matty Groves’, yes, the Fairport version from Liege & Lief. All it’s missing to fulfill every requirement I’ve got is Martin Carthy, but everything else is there.

Elizabeth Hand pondered her answer while consuming some excellent chocolate that was part of the Elevenes we were serving them

Favorite folk song? Hmmm. If we’re talking melody and not words, then I’d have to say the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, which I first heard (and saw the accompanying dance performed) about 25 years ago at a performance of John Langstaff’s Christmas Revels in DC. You can find it on a CD of the Revels, and also on various websites where you can download or stream other versions. It’s a very simple melody, but I find it utterly haunting — it seems like the musical accompaniment to something like Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood. The tune also shows up, with words (”I saw a pig went out to dig …”), as ”Christmas Day in the Morning.” I have no idea how old the tune actually is, but it sounds ancient, and whenever I hear it I see the eerie dancers with their reindeer horns and the weirdly incongruous costumes — hobby-horse, man/woman, boy hunter, etc. I’d never heard of it when I first saw it, and it had a powerful effect on me. Researching it since then I’ve found all kinds of strange resonances with ancient myths and folklore, none of which can be proven, of course. But they’re still intriguing.

Runners-up would be ”In the Pines,” a superbly creepy murder ballad that Kurt Cobain famously covered (under the title ”Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) during the Nirvana Unplugged sessions, and ”John Barleycorn Must Die,” because I always liked the idea of anthropomorphizing beer or ale, even though I don’t like drinking it.

Last thoughts on this subject come from Jane Yolen…

Actual folk song? Any one of a number of brutal Scottish songs like ‘Long Lankin’ and ‘Mary Hamilton’ and ‘Little Musgrave’ because of their storytelling. And the one truly feminist Scottish ballad, ‘Tam Lin.’

But of semi-folk, i.e. written by a known writer, the one that gives me pleasant tingles is the wonderful ‘The Girl from the Hiring Fair’ by Ralph McTell, especially as sung by Fairport Convention

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