Folk Music consists of Folk Songs (music with words) or instrumental Folk Music (often used to accompany Folk Dances). Although there is a degree of overlap and cross-fertilisation, Folk Music is informal and secular in nature, whereas church music is formalised and more likely to be written down. Although there are many contemporary artists writing new folk music in traditional styles, most people think of Folk Music as being the older Traditional Music itself. Folk Music often has a National flavour to it with different countries or cultural groups having their our distinctive styles, though there can often be an overlap in styles either between neighbouring countries or following the movement or emigration of large numbers of people. The origins of the oldest Folk Tunes can be obscure and they are frequently communicated by imitation, handed down from generation to generation often without the aid of music notation, or passed on by cultural interaction of folk musicians with other communities and perhaps adapted and changed over time. There is such a wide range of Folk Music that it includes a number of specialist categories e.g. Nursery Rhymes are Folk Songs sung to and by children, National Anthems and Patriotic Songs are frequently Folk Songs used to express national solidarity, and many of the older Christmas Carols are Folk Songs sung at Christmas time.
The topic of Folk Music is so wide-ranging (with many of the world's countries having one or more groupings of musical traditions) that it is almost impossible to describe folk music in any depth in an article such as this. But with the mfiles website having a significant focus on Classical and Film music, it is natural for us to explore where folk music has influenced these styles of music, and even a brief examination reveals that Folk Music, Folk Songs and Folk Styles have often been used or adapted for these genres of music. Many Classical Composers have used Folk Melodies and/or Folk Styles in their works. In some cases composers have simply found the music of a particular country to be a source of inspiration, such as Johannes Brahms, a German composer who composed a number of "Hungarian Dances", and Franz Liszt who paid tribute to his birth-place with his "Hungarian Rhapsodies". Other Classical Composers have absorbed the styles of their native country and sought to promote their folk inspirations to a greater extent, and these composers are often described as Nationalist Composers: e.g. Edvard Grieg (Norway), Antonin Dvorak (Czech Republic/Bohemia), Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly (Hungary), Jean Sibelius (Finland), Isaac Albeniz (Spain), Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Russia), and Ralph Vaughan-Williams (England).
Many film and television composers include folk songs or stylistic aspects of folk music in their works. Sometimes this is done to give a national character to the film or programme but, since these folk songs are so well-known by the intended audience, folk music quotations can also help to communicate other ideas, thoughts or emotions. Christopher Gunning used the English folk-song "Scarborough Fair" as the basis for his TV theme to "Rosemary and Thyme", Paul Giovanni used and adapted folk songs and styles for his score to the film "The Wicker Man", Franz Waxman used and quoted the Russian Song "Kalinka" in parts of his score to the film "Taras Bulba", Mikis Theodorakis wrote the music for "Zorba the Greek" whose main theme has become synonymous with Greek Folk Music, and Michael Nyman's music for the Piano was based in part on the styles of traditional Scottish folk music.
The mfiles site is based and maintained in Scotland, and so many of the music topics covered within the site have a Scottish or British focus. Nevertheless there is significant overlap and cultural exchange between English-speaking countries and other countries with cultural connections, such that many folk-songs are familiar to people in many different parts of the world. Conversely some of the folk music traditions of other countries are also well-known (and frequently adopted) in Britain. At the current time there are only a small number of Folk Songs on mfiles, but the number is growing such that we feel the topic requires its own dedicated page. The main purpose of this page is to collect together in one place the various folk songs which can be found on the site, and you will find links to our current selection of Folk Songs below.
Technology has had an enormous impact on communication, and there is almost certainly much less transmission of ideas through oral traditions than there was in the past. Nevertheless Folk Music continues in many cultures in many different ways, passed on through a combination of oral and other methods. Folk Songs continue to be sung at particular social occasions, and the ubiquity of folk melodies means they are often adopted by supporters singing football chants and rugby songs. In addition contemporary Folk Music and even Popular music continues to borrow melodies or ideas from folk traditions which then become incorporated into new Songs where they become familiar to new generations.
The following sheet music examples are mostly arranged for solo piano, and these arrangements can also be used as an accompaniment to singers. In many cases if you open up the piano version, you will find arrangements for different instruments, and also links to allow you to download the sheet music in PDF format, or audio versions in MIDI and MP3 formats.
One particular type of folk music which has made a major comeback recently in the UK and elsewhere is the Sea Shanty. Originally Sea Shanties were Sailors' work-songs, but the terms is often widened to include any song with a nautical connection. The Sea Shanty comeback started during the UK Covid lockdowns when the Scottish singer Nathan Evans started trending on TikTok with his own rendition of traditional shanties such as "Wellerman". The comeback has spread to other countries and influenced several artists and other genres. Here are two examples of Sea Shanties on mfiles:
Some Folk music is hundreds of years old. Although many more folk songs will almost certainly have been lost (especially those from an exclusively oral tradition) some early examples survive today, usually because they have been written down in some physical form which has survived through the centuries. Apart from the first item, the following examples originate in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods (9th to 16th Centuries) and "Greensleeves" for example is still familiar to many people today. It is hard to date music exactly, partly because melodies can change over time (like language), so the age of these examples is based on best estimates:
Most folk music does not have such a strong national focus, though it may have an easily identifiable national character. Instead some folk songs may tell a simple story (such as "boy meets girl") or express universal themes such as love or regret. Other folk songs or ballads may tell a story (either a fictional story or an historical one) while in other examples the meaning of the lyrics may be obscure. Finally another category of folk music is instrumental in nature, and such folk tunes may have originated as dances with no lyrics.
The song "Polly Perkins of Paddington Green" listed above is a Music Hall Song, and a number of such songs have now become almost indistinguishable from folk songs. Another modern song in the character of a folk song is "The Happy Wanderer" whose original German lyrics were written by Florenz Friedrich Sigismund in the 19th century and whose recognisable melody was actually composed in the late 1940s by Friedrich Wilhelm Möller. Although the song-writers are known to historians and musicologists, the songs themselves are often taught via an oral tradition by parents or teachers to children.
The last several songs above are difficult to classify and are also included in our collection of Nursery Rhymes and Children's Songs, which includes school songs, campfire songs and other examples of folk songs often sung by children.