PO Box 278
Friendship, ME 04547 USA
If You Know Who Wrote It, It's Not A Folk Song
by Michael Cooney
The late Kenneth Goldstein of Philadelphia was one of the great American folklorists.
(He was also a generous man who shared his knowledge and vast library of recordings,
books, etc., and his home, with people like me. I will be ever grateful to him and
his gracious wife Rochelle for their hospitality.) Every couple of years I’d ask
Dr. Goldstein his current definition of "folk music". It was ever-
"So," I asked, "if we’re all standing around the piano singing I Left My Heart In San Francisco, that’s a folk song at that time?" He said he thought it was.
What follows is not The Truth; it’s just my opinion (which is about the only way
you can really define "truth", seems to me -
If there’s such a thing as a "folk" song, that implies that it’s a kind of song which
is different from other kinds of songs. What makes it different? It can’t be what
the song is about -
According to an old legend, blues singer Big Bill Broonzy was once being interviewed
on a radio program in Chicago by Studs Terkle. Big Bill sang a song, after which
Studs asked, "Is that a folk song?" Broonzy replied, "I ain’t never heard no horses
sing it." By that definition (non horse-
We’re not tape-
Of course, this happens less today because there are so many recorded sources, and
people to say, "That’s not the way it is on the record." But it still does happen.
If you do a web search on the word "mondegreen", you will find many sites devoted
to people’s mis-
They hae slain the Earl o' Murray [hae = have]
And laid him on the green.
They hae slain the Earl o' Murray
And Lady Mondegreen
She wrote about this in a 1954 Harper's magazine article and coined the term "mondegreen" to denote such misheard words and phrases.
My favorite, which I used to illustrate "the folk process" in lecture concerts for
40 years, is from old friend Hugh Hanley. When I met him, he was teaching school
in Kansas City, MO, in 1968. He told me that he had heard one of his students singing
that Bob Dylan song which is supposed to go, "The answer, my friends, is blowing
in the wind; the answer is blowing in the wind." But Hugh’s 8-
The above examples are merely mis-
But the best way songs change, in my opinion, is accidentally-
Every folk song starts out being made up by someone. But going through lots of people,
it changes. It’s the cumulative effect of all of those changes, large and small,
that makes it a folk song. So, by that definition, if you know who wrote it, it’s
not a folk song. Sure, you can know who wrote the original version, years ago and
miles away, but not who wrote the version you’re singing, or hearing now, because
Nobody, or Anon., or lots of people helped to write it. There are people today singing
songs they learned from someone who learned ‘em from someone, who learned ‘em from
someone, stretching all the way back to the Middle Ages and beyond -
In this long process, forgettable parts of a song get forgotten and memorable parts
get remembered. So songs can get more concentrated and powerful, as they travel.
Someone makes up a song. Someone else hears it and likes it enough to go to all the
trouble to learn it. Someone else hears them and also learns it, and so on. It’s
a kind of voting -
So it bugs me when I hear people say, "I wrote a folk song."
"You wish", I think to myself.
If you know who wrote it, it’s not a folk song.
By the way, the reverse is not necessarily true: if you don’t know who wrote it, it could just mean that you need to do some research.
Most of today’s "singer-
So why are all these new songs called folk songs? I think it’s because there isn’t
A folk song is a song that has evolved through the oral process. Someone may have written a song to start, but that wasn’t really a folk song; it is the cumulative effect of all the changes on the song as it travels from person to person that make it a "folk" song. (Or a "traditional" song, as some say, in attempt to get away from the confusion; but, alas, I have heard people say they just wrote a traditional song.)
I would like to separate the phrases "folk song" and "folk music" here, because I think of the former as a type of song but the latter as a process. I have come to the opinion that folk music is what happens when (usually) money is not involved. Even if I sing an entire concert of old "traditional" (oral process) songs, if I’m being paid to do it, or if people have paid to listen, it’s not folk music. It’s show business. So I don’t call myself a folk singer; I’m an entertainer who sings a few folk songs.
When money isn’t involved, the "audience" is more likely to also be participants.
That is, it’s more likely to be a song-
No one remembers the singer. The song remains. -
I would greatly appreciate your comments.