Contrary to popular belief, not all folk songs are about politics, war, disaster, and serious social issues. Quite a few artists have made great marks on American music by recording songs that range from "silly" to "absolute nonsense."
Nobody understands better than a folk songwriter how silly and nonsense songs are not just for children. Silly songs are just as important to the world as their serious counterparts, and this list is a good introduction.
This one is really a love song, disguised as a silly little nonsense tune. Said to be debuted by the Virginia Minstrels in the 1840s, the song is actually thought to be quite a bit older than that, possibly of slave origin.
This song was popularized by Peter, Paul & Mary
in 1962. Although legend has it that the song is about marijuana, the folk super-trio has adamantly denied that claim. The song is based on a poem by Leonard Lipton. Inspired by a piece by Ogden Nash, Lipton penned his coming of age poem about coming to terms with an adult world. Peter Yarrow happened to be a Cornell classmate of Lipton, and that is how he acquired the poem.
This tune from Arlo Guthrie
's Alice's Restaurant
CD is just a plain old fun song about a guy and his motorcycle. It's a simple song to learn, and one that doesn't make much sense at all; but, for whatever reason, it seems to be one of Arlo's fans' favorites.
It's hard to talk about any type of song without mentioning Woody Guthrie
. His "Car Song" isn't just a tune about a guy and his car. It's a silly, earnest tribute to the motorized vehicle which, when Woody wrote the song, was a relatively new phenomenon in America. The sounds the singer makes to mimic a car horn, for example, are now obsolete. But the song tells a great, silly history of the car, and is now actually used in car commercials.
Children everywhere love singing the catch line, "six foot, seven foot, eight foot, bunch!" But have you ever thought about what this song is saying? This traditional Jamaican calypso tune talks about the exportation of bananas, singing to the customs agent who's coming to check out the stock aboard a ship. Popularized in America by Harry Belafonte on his 1956 album Calypso
, this old folk song has sunk far into the American consciousness.
This old song was excessively popular during Andrew Jackson's presidency in the 1830s, when it was a fiddle tune called, "Old Zip Coon." The tune has been traced back to an old Irish folk song called "The Old Rose Tree." The lyrics talk about a fool-hearty field hand who just can't get his work right. Naturally, he blames it on all the animals around him.
This old slave song sings from the point of view of a house slave who was made to always swat flies away from his master. When the master is kicked into a ditch by his unruly horse, the singer sings a carefree chorus about a fellow slave who's done something wrong, "and I don't care. Massa's gone away."
There are several versions of "Iko Iko" that have made it out into the world. The song was actually written in 1950 by James Crawford, but many people believe it to be much older. It sings about the elusive Mardi Gras Indians. The Indians started out at the old Black Mardi Gras that used to take place on Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans. That park was knocked down and a freeway was put in its place.
This old silly song was originally recorded in 1929 by Nick Lucas. It became a hit several times before Tiny Tim made his unforgettable contribution with the song in 1968. It's a rather pretty love song that just reached "silly" status when Tiny Tim recorded his version using only vocals and ukulele.
Children love this song because of the silly nonsensical banjo sounds they get to sing at the end; but the song actually has a rather dubious history. It's believed to be derived both from a slave spiritual and an old Irish folk song, which makes sense, considering the folks who built the railroads in America were mostly African-American and poor Irish immigrants. It's a quintessential work song, as the railroad workers were notoriously overworked and underpaid.