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American Folk Songs

Learn more about individual American folk songs, the place they had in history, and how they have adapted to the ever-changing world of American folk music.

Patriotic Folk Songs
Here's a look at the background of some of the most popular and memorable patriotic American folk songs.

"America the Beautiful" - Katharine Lee Bates & Samuel Ward
"America the Beautiful," which is often called the national hymn of the United States, was adapted from a poem by a Wellsely College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates, written in 1893.

"Auld Lang Syne" - Robert Burns
"Auld Lang Syne" started its life as a poem written by Scottish poet Robert Burns that was set to the tune of an old Scottish folk song. It wasn't long before the song became traditional in Scotland and the British Isles as a folk song to be sung to commemorate the New Year.

"Blowin in the Wind" - Bob Dylan
Blowin' in the Wind is, inarguably, one of the most popular protest songs in the history of the craft, although when Bob Dylan introduced it to the world in 1962, he insisted it wasn't a protest song.

"Camptown Races (Do-Dah)," by Stephen Foster
"Camptown Races" was written by preeminent American songwriter Stephen Foster, who first published the song in 1850. Learn more about this historical American folk song.

"Don't Think Twice It's Alright" - Bob Dylan
"Don't Think Twice It's Alright" is a song from Bob Dylan's 1963 album, 'The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.' The melody is said to have been taught to Dylan by folksinger Paul Clayton, from whom Dylan also borrowed a few lyrics that were originally in Clayton's "Who's Goin' to Buy You Ribbons When I'm Gone?"

"Goodnight Irene" - Leadbelly
From Leadbelly to the Weavers and beyond, "Goodnight Irene" has been a seminal song in American folk music history.

"Home on the Range," Dr. Brewster M. Higley, Traditional
"Home on the Range" was adapted from a poem by Dr. Brewster M. Higley called "My Western Home," first published in the Smith County Pioneer in 1873.

"If I Had a Hammer," by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays
"If I Had a Hammer" was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949, and was first recorded by their band the Weavers. More than a decade later, in 1962, Peter Paul and Mary recorded the song and enjoyed much greater success with their version. Trini Lopez recorded it a year later. Numerous other artists from around the world have recorded versions the song throughout the years.

"I Shall Not Be Moved," Traditional
"We Shall Not Be Moved" is a traditional American folk song whose lyrics probably stretch back to the slave era, although there is no indication of when the song was written or who wrote it. It has been used in worship as well as several socio-political movements. Learn more about "We Shall Not Be Moved."

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" - Traditional
"I've Been Working on the Railroad" may just be the best known folk song about the U.S. railway system. You may know our nation's railroads were built primarily by African-Americans and immigrants (particularly Irish immigrants). It was grueling work and, like much grueling work, was no doubt made more tolerable by the presence of music.

"Jingle Bells" - James Lord Pierpont
"Jingle Bells" was written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, and was originally titled "One Horse Open Sleigh." Learn more about the history of "Jingle Bells."

"Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" - Traditional
Based on the classic hymn "Hold On" (a.k.a. "Gospel Plow"), this song's exact origins are unknown. However, it was adapted for the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s by an activist named Alice Wine. Wine added verses and changed some lyrics to adapt it specifically to the plight of Civil Rights activists.

"Like a Rolling Stone" - Bob Dylan
When “Like a Rolling Stone” hit the airwaves on July 20, 1965, things would never be the same. The impact was enormous. Revolutionary. And it's no overstatement to say that this extraordinary song was instrumental in reshaping not only Bob Dylan's career, but in many ways, the entire spectrum of American popular music.

"Little Brown Jug" - Joseph Winner
"Little Brown Jug" Was written by Joseph Winner in 1869, and was originally intended as a drinking song. Although it was written in the mid-19th Century, it enjoyed new popularity during prohibition when people were sneaking illegal alcohol. Several big band versions were recorded, bringing the old folk song further into the mainstream.

"Michael Row the Boat Ashore"
"Michael Row the Boat Ashore" is an old American folk song that hails from the slave era. Its existence was first noted in the early 1860s, although the song itself is probably much older. The man responsible for notating the song was an abolitionist named Charles Pickard Ware, who heard it when he was living on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.

"Love Me, I'm a Liberal" - Phil Ochs
"Love Me I'm a Liberal" is a politically-themed folk song written by Phil Ochs. The song was written in 1966, and was included on his 'Phil Ochs in Concert' album from that same year.

"My Country Tis of Thee" - Samuel Francis Smith
According to the U.S. Library of Congress, the origin of the tune behind "My Country Tis of Thee" is highly debatable in terms of what year it was composed and by whom. At any rate, it was printed in England in 1744 as "God Save the King."

"O Christmas Tree (O Tannenbaum)" - Ernst Anschütz
"O Christmas Tree" (a.k.a. "O Tannenbaum") is a German Christmas carol whose earliest lyrics date back to the mid-16th Century. The melody is a traditional German folk melody whose origin is unknown, but the most popular lyrics come from a 19th Century composition by Ernst Anschütz.

"Oh Freedom" - Traditional
"Oh Freedom" is thought to date back to the newly-post-Civil War era, though no specific author is known. It was recorded by Odetta in 1956 and became an important anthem during the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th Century.

"Oh! Susanna" - Stephen Foster
Oftentimes in traditional American folk music, a song is around long enough to evolve, gain and lose verses, and change meaning. "Oh! Susanna" is a great example of this.

"Peace Train" - Cat Stevens
"Peace Train" originally appeared on Cat Stevens' 1971 album 'Teaser and the Firecat'. It was a Top 10 hit for Stevens in the year of the album's release, peaking at number seven on the Billboard chart.

"Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" - Johnny Marks
The story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus' special ninth reindeer, was written in 1939 by Robert L. May. He was an employee of Montgomery Ward, and the store created a book about Rudolph to give away to children on Christmas.

"Scarborough Fair" - Traditional/Simon and Garfunkel
"Scarborough Fair," popularized in America by Simon and Garfunkel, is an English folk song about a trade fair that took place in the resort town of Scarborough during the medeival times.

"Silent Night" - Joseph Mohr, Franz Gruber
"Silent Night" is actually an Austrian hymn titled "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." The lyrics were a poem composed by a young priest named Joseph Mohr in 1816. It was two years later when Franz Gruber wrote the melody and a guitar part so that Mohr could have the song played at Christmas mass. The carol was first sung in America by an Austrian family singing group in 1839.

"Star Spangled Banner" - Francis Scott Key/Traditional
It is a tradition in American folk music to borrow the melodies of already popular songs and write new lyrics for them. So it is no surprise that Francis Scott Key's poem, "The Star-Spangled Banner" (c. 1814), was sung to the tune of an already popular English drinking song.

"Sunday Morning Coming Down" - Kris Kristofferson / Johnny Cash
"Sunday Morning Coming Down" is an American folk and country song written by Kris Kristofferson while he was working as a janitor at a recording studio. While Kristofferson recorded the song for his debut album, Johnny Cash took the tune to Number One in 1970. Learn more about the history and lyrics of "Sunday Morning Coming Down."

"Swing Low Sweet Chariot," Traditional
"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," while no certain composer is known, is often credited to Choctaw freedman Wallis Willis during mid- to late-19th Century. The earliest known recording was made by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in the late 1800s.

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game"
"Take Me Out to the Ball Game" may be one of the most universally known and enjoyed folk songs in America these days. Learn more about the history of this song, its original lyrics, and how it became a mainstay at baseball games.

"This Land is Your Land" - Woody Guthrie
A brief history of "This Land is Your Land" - one of America's most memorable and timeless folk songs by singer/songwriter pioneer Woody Guthrie.

"This Little Light of Mine"
"This Little Light of Mine" was written by Harry Dixon Loes in 1920 and made it into the American folk music tradition when it was found and documented by John Lomax in 1939. Even though it's become a great anthem of the Civil Rights movement, it's not believed to have hailed from slave spirituals.

"Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)" - Patty Griffin
Patty Griffin certainly isn't the first artist—and by no means the first folk singer-songwriter—to have penned a tune inspired by Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. But this song, from her 2007 album 'Children Running Through,' has made waves throughout the music community.

"We Shall Overcome" - Pete Seeger
A look at one of the most memorable American folk song anthems from the Civil Rights movement - "We Shall Overcome."

"Yankee Doodle" - Traditional
"Yankee Doodle" is one of the most popular American patriotic songs, and is also the state song of Connecticut. However, despite its popularity, it started out as a song that made fun of American troops.

"Big Rock Candy Mountain"
"Big Rock Candy Mountain" is an American folk song sung from the point of view of a hobo dreaming about an ideal world. Learn more about the story of the lyrics to "Big Rock Candy Mountain" and the history of this great American folk song.

"John Henry"
Learn more about the traditional folk song "John Henry," as well as some background about who John Henry was, and how images of him in modern folk music invoke the spirit of the labor movement in America.

"Guantanamera"
Learn more about the lyrics and history of "Guantanamera" - a famous folk song from Cuba.

"Which Side Are You On?"
Learn about the rich history of the song "Which Side Are You On?" and how it's evolved since it was first written for coal miners in 1931.

"Over the River and Through the Woods"
Learn more about the classic Thanksgiving song, its lyrics and origins, including recommended MP3s.

"We Gather Together"
Learn the history and lyrics to the classic Thanksgiving song "We Gather Together" with this brief exploration.

"House of the Rising Sun"
Learn more about the history behind the song "House of the Rising Sun" and its lyrics, with this brief background, including MP3s of original recordings.

"Deck the Halls" - Traditional
All about the popular Christmas carol "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly", from its Welsh folk origins, to Mozart, and beyond.

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