Folksong of the Day

American Roots FYS



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  • Hoochie Coochie Man.
  • Bourgeois Blues.  Lead Belly wrote this song as a protest against segregated housing in Washington, D.C. Alan Lomax may have helped in the composition of the song, or at least encouraged Lead Belly to write and perform political songs such as "Bourgeois Blues" that would appeal to his left-leaning audience.  The chords to this song follow the classic twelve-bar blues pattern.
  • Goodnight, Irene.
  • O Dem Golden Slippers.  If you grew up in or near Philadelphia, you probably associate this song with the Mummers Parade.  However, it was originally written by an African American composer, James A. Bland (1854-1911), who toured the United States and Europe with "Haverley's Genuine Colored Minstrels."  It was a parody of the spiritual "Golden Slippers" performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  Although minstrel shows, which featured white—or sometimes black—performers in blackface and ridiculed African American culture, would seem extremely offensive today, these entertainments were popular in the nineteenth century.  It is quite possible that minstrelsy paved the way for black artists such as Lead Belly to reach a wider audience.  "Golden Slippers" eventually entered the country music repertoire and is most closely associated with country today (and, of course, the Mummers).
  • Idumea.  You won't find the lyrics to this song in Rise Up Singing—maybe it's too gloomy!  Here's how a Sacred Harp singer would sing it; I rearranged the lyrics so you can see how they fit the melody.  Charles Wesley, the author of the lyrics to "Hark, the herald angels sing," wrote the words in 1763, while Ananias Davisson composed or arranged the music in 1816 (the melody might have been from a folk song).  The song has always been popular with Sacred Harp singers, but came to a wider audience when Tim Eriksen recorded it as part of the soundtrack for the movie Cold Mountain.  For a very different take on the song, see the Cordelia's Dad version (also Eriksen!).
  • Old Joe Clark.  This is of the most commonly known Appalachian fiddle tunes played for clog dancing or square dancing.  For religious reasons, some people sung it a cappella as a play party song.  When playing Old Joe Clark, fiddlers tune the strings of the fiddle to A-E-A-E (instead of G-D-A-E) so they harmonize with the melody.  Henry Reed's version is extremely syncopated.
  • Barbara Allen.  This tragic ballad is one of the oldest songs in the English language that is still performed today.  Samuel Pepys referred to it as a "Scotch song" in his diary in 1666.  Two broadsides of the song from the 1600-1700s appear in the UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive.  It is Child Ballad #84.  Many versions were collected in the United States (this trailer for the movie Songcatcher dramatizes the song collection process).  The Grateful Dead and Joan Baez performed "Barbara Allen" together in 1981.  Of the more recent recordings, I particularly like Colin Meloy's, which he learned from British folk singer Shirley Collins.  Collins and Meloy use a different melody, but the story is the same...
  • The Rock Island Line.  Lonnie Donegan's version of this song launched the skiffle music craze in Britain; skiffle performers included the teenaged Beatles (under the name The Quarrymen) and David Bowie.  The song was written by Kelly Pace, a prisoner at a segregated black prison in Arkansas, and first recorded by John Lomax in 1934.  Lead Belly popularized the song and he has influenced other well-known versions, such as Johnny Cash's.  Jim Bickal of Minnesota Public Radio has developed a web site "The Rock Island Line: A Mighty Good Road" where you can hear different versions and read about the artists.
  • Amazing Grace.  This old song has its very own page at the Library of Congress.  You can hear lots of different performances and see published versions.  (Click on the Timeline link for details.)  Tim Eriksen has recorded several different tunes with the same words.

Future Folksongs of the Day

  • Kumbaya
  • Tom Dooley
  • This Land is Your Land
  • We Shall Overcome
  • Home on the Range
  • Simple Gifts


Rachel W. Hall / Department of Mathematics / Saint Joseph's University / last updated March 4, 2011