What is a Folk Song?

There is little agreement about the definition of a folk song. One extreme is Big Bill Broonzy‘s quip that, “All music is folk music: I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.” The other extreme is “If You Know Who Wrote It, It’s Not A Folk Song.” I actually think both arguments have merit, but holding both views at the same time is problematic. The discussion, especially at Mudcat.org is lengthy and often vitriolic.

My opinion is colored by my commercial perspective as a writer and editor. Any discussion about folk songs in this day and age must take into consideration copyrights and public domain.

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution, known as the Copyright Clause, empowers the United States Congress, “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Therefore we have three categories for potential folk songs:

  1. Traditional Songs,
  2. Songs written by Individuals, but now in the public domain, and
  3. Copyrighted songs.


Traditional songs are those passed down from generation to generation and have stood the test of time. Barbara Allen, Greensleeves, Scarborough Fair, Lord Randall, The Water Is Wide. The Sow Took the Measles, The Erie Canal, Sweet Betsy From Pike, Clementine, John Henry, and Springfield Mountain are examples of such songs. These songs often have varied tunes and varied lyrics resulting from the folk process.

The phrase “folk process” was originally coined by musicologist Charles Seeger, father of the folk singer Pete Seeger, but the underlying concept goes back all the way to 1907, when Cecil Sharp observed that the transmission of folk songs and the forms they took when they were collected and attested was the result of three factors: continuity, variation, and selection.These factors were expanded on in 1954 by the International Folk Music Council, which wrote that:

Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission. The factors that shape the tradition are: (i) continuity which links the present with the past; (ii) variation which springs from the creative impulse of the individual or the group; and (iii) selection by the community, which determines the form or forms in which the music survives. (wikipedia)


Public Domain includes all traditional songs, but also includes those songs which can be attributed to individual composers and writers for which is no longer possible to hold a copyright. Examples of this type of song includes Swing Low Sweet Chariot (Wallis Wallis), The Grandfather Clock (Henry Clay Work), Meet Me in St. Louis (Kerrie Mills and Andrew B. Sterling), Sailing Sailing Over the Bounding Main (James Frederick Swift), etc. Also, any song or musical work published in 1922 or earlier is in the Public Domain in the United States. And while a song written and copyrighted after 1922 could fall into Public Domain, it is often only after a lengthy court case (JibJab Media v. Ludlow Music—”This Land”Parody) can the issue be resolved.
Does a song written by an individual in the the last 90 years and restricted from broad use because of the copyright, automatically negate it from being a folk song? Alan Lomax thinks not. In his seminal work The Folk Songs of North America he includes two copyrighted songs from Merle Travis, Sixteen Tons and Dark as a Dungeon. Lomax writes, these two ballads “conform so superbly to our native ballad tradition that they have already gone into oral circulation throughout the English-speaking world.”

There are other songs which we could list that capture the human spirit and rise above a pop or commercial use to folk song status, but each choice would be argumentative. I’ll offer three suggestions:

  1. The Field Behind the Plow, Stan Rogers—iTunes
  2. 1913 Massacre, Woody Guthrie—iTunes
  3. Cold Missouri Waters, James Keelaghan—iTunes
These songs and a few others might be added to this website in the future. It is hard to leave some of these copyrighted songs out of any extensive folk song list.SEE ALSO:

Folk Music, Copyright, and the Public Domain by Peter Irvine should be required reading for all folk enthusiasts.

What is a Folk Song? Adam Miller’s excellent article

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