We often hear and use the term “Folk song,” but do we really understand what it is? And, of course, we might ask, where do they come from?
Folk music often forms a very basic part of our musical education. We might sing these songs at school or home. There are plenty to choose from. That’s why I decided to make a list of folk songs every kid should know, so let’s get started with…
- What is a Folk Song
- ‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’
- Scarborough Fair – Malinda
- Row, Row, Your Boat – Classical Lullabies
- Skip To My Lou – Lisa Loeb
- Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush – Lisa Loeb
- Mary Had a Little Lamb – Nursery Rhyme, Folk Tune
- The Grand Old Duke of York – Nursery Rhyme and Folk Song
- Hot Cross Buns – The Little Kids Band
- Michael Row The Boat Ashore – Peter, Paul and Mary
- Go Tell It on the Mountain – Mahalia Jackson
- Ring A Ring o Roses – Traditional
- Home On The Range – Roy Rogers
- Danny Boy – Peter Hollens
- Are There Modern Day Folk Tunes?
- Blowin’ in the Wind – Bob Dylan
- Where Have All The Flowers Gone – Pete Seeger
- Puff The Magic Dragon
- The Times They Are A Changin – Bob Dylan
- Looking for Music Children Will Enjoy?
- Folk Songs Every Kid Should Know – Final Thoughts
What is a Folk Song
It is a song passed down by oral and cultural traditions. Passed from one singer to the next and then from one generation to the next. It tends to originate in one particular area and can sometimes exist in different versions.
It is usually recognized by simple repetitive verses and words that might tell a local story or tradition from the past. They are often hundreds of years old. The older they are, the better they tend to be. And sometimes, it isn’t particularly pleasant. This is a good example of that.
‘Ring-a-Ring o’ Roses’
A folk song sung by kids but has its origins in the Black Plague in London in 1665, which killed hundreds of thousands.
The blotches on the body resembled “rings of roses.” The “pocketful of posies” was a reference to sweet-smelling flowers that were often placed on the body to get rid of the stench. Sneezing was a symptom, “tishoo, tishoo.” And “we all fall down” is quite obvious.
Most are more cheerful folks songs for kids than that. But, it does have its place and teaches children about historical facts rather than imaginary facts.
I am going to include some very old folk songs. But, I am also going to include some that are written by modern-day poets and songwriters that have relevant comments to make.
They, after all, are also folk songs. And kids will be singing them in years to come if they aren’t already. So let’s have a look at some folk songs every kid should know.
Here is one to get you started; you will know. I have included a version here by Malinda, who sings it very much the way it might originally have been sung. It is an old English tale about a string of tasks impossible to complete given to a lover. The song is a variation of the tune “Elfin Knight.”
It probably dates back to the 18th Century when there was a famous market in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Likewise, it was written in the Dorian mode, which was common at the time. However, it was re-invented in the 20th Century by several performers. Simon and Garfunkel are just one version.
This goes back into the mists of time somewhere. It is a nursery rhyme sung to children. It encourages them to persevere and not give up. To tackle life easily and make it simple.
It describes the nature of life as we see it and can experience it. Almost like a dream. The boat refers to you, the stream is the pathway you choose and how you live your life. Merrily is your attitude, be happy.
This is one of the most popular folk songs at square dances in America in the 1840s and after. Its derivation is unclear as the ‘Lou’ in the title is an old Scottish word, ‘loo’ meaning love.
It is still popular today. It is a common song played as an icebreaker at parties and gatherings. Especially where the people do not know each other.
This is a traditional European nursery rhyme and song that goes back to the mid-1800s. It was found in Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and the UK. It had its variants. In the UK, it was often sung as “Bramble Bush” rather than Mulberry. In Scandinavia as “Juniper.”
It is thought that the song may have had an interesting start in life. Female prisoners in Wakefield Jail in the early 19th century grew a Mulberry bush around which they would dance to get exercise.
A Children’s Game
It has also evolved into a children’s game played in a circle and round either a tree or another child in the middle. Similar to the ladies in Wakefield Jail. There are also variants of words to the same music, as in “Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May.”
Some may assume that this is a very European nursery rhyme that became a children’s folk song. However, it did originate in America. It goes way back, possibly to the 1830s in Massachusetts.
Originally a poem written by a teacher who observed one of her students followed into class by the girl’s pet lamb. She used the poem to teach the class about loving and caring for our animals. The theme has remained largely untouched and unaltered today when it is sung to children.
This is a nursery rhyme/folk song that pokes fun at futility. It appears they had that in the 1700s as well, which is where this little song emanated. The lyrics ridicule the actions of those in charge of armies, “marching them up and then marching them back down again.”
It has been speculated that the song was written about Prince Frederick, who was the Duke of York and Albany from 1763-1827. He made a bit of a mess of things in the war that followed the French revolution. But, he made amends with his restructuring of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars.
Still, a fun little folk tale emanating from a real person that kids love to sing.
This is a folk tune that was again taken from actual events, as many of them are. This was a cry you would hear in English streets in the 1800s as sellers went about selling their buns.
Hot Cross Buns, if you don’t know, is a sweet, glazed confectionery bun produced for the Easter period and usually eaten on Good Friday. It was made into a nursery rhyme and then became a song that children would sing. It was also used in schools for children to sing as part of their musical education.
One of the most well-known American folk songs is this one that started life as an African-American spiritual. It has had a variety of names over the years, including “Michael Rowed the Boat Ashore” and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.”
History tells us that the song emanates from the American Civil War period around St. Helena Island in South Carolina. It was sung originally by former slaves whose owners had abandoned them. Charles Pickard Ware wrote the song down as he heard the freed slaves sing it.
This song was first published in 1867 as part of an anthology called “Slave Songs of the United States.” It was first recorded in 1960 by The Highwaymen, an American Folk band. Peter, Paul, and Mary covered it later.
Staying with the spiritual theme, this is another example that has African-American roots. This also dates back into the slave era, probably around the mid-1860s. Originally it was sung at Christmas time, but it has been borrowed and has been re-written on several occasions.
It is still sung today, with some of the lyrics changed to reflect the civil rights movements and civil liberties. It has been recorded and covered by innumerable artists from a range of genres.
We have already spoken of this, and it’s a rather gruesome side story. However, it ought to be included if only for its historical perspective.
Young children, of course, sing it without realizing what it is about. That is fine, it is only when they get older they understand. By then, it is just accepted.
A great little folk tune that once again can be used as a dance, and don’t the kids just love the “all fall down” bit at the end. As a result, it is one of the best folk songs every kid should know.
A much-loved song about the American West, it has been recorded by many people. Most people see the song as a mournful longing for home. In reality, it is a song about broken promises to the Native Americans about land given to them supposedly in perpetuity.
Another folk song that has an unpleasant undercurrent. It is nevertheless a song that is often sung by children.
Over to the Emerald Isle now for this folk song that has legendary status in Ireland. It is not as old as some might think, making its first appearance in the early 1900s. The words were actually written by an Englishman to the tune of “Londonderry Air.”
Various meanings have been interpreted in the song. But given that it was written by an English lawyer in Bath in Somerset, fanciful tales of Republicanism are very unlikely. It may be a father sending his son off to war – the first recordings were made in 1915. Or leaving as part of the Irish diaspora.
Whatever the meaning, it is a beautiful song and one of the great folk tunes.
Are There Modern Day Folk Tunes?
So, most of those are very old and what you might call traditional. But that is the nature of the folk song. A song that has been passed down through generations. A song that speaks of another time and another age. Will some songs that have been sung in the last fifty years achieve the same position in the future?
The times are different now, of course. In the days of those folk songs, they were heard from passing musicians, in some cases jesters. They were picked up on and remembered because they were nice tunes. Or they had something to say.
There could be songs of our generation that will be sung to children in one hundred years. Will they be the folk songs of the future? Why wait for the future when today’s children will possibly already know and appreciate these. Even if some might take some explaining, let’s have a look at some that might be the future of folk music for kids.
Will any of our generation’s poets/songwriters be likely to have a song being sung in one hundred years? There might not be too many, but Bob Dylan is one of two likely contenders.
It is a song that asks a series of rhetorical questions. Questions about issues that are prevalent today. And interestingly, were also prevalent when some of our traditional folk tunes were being sung.
Dylan is wonderfully ambiguous with his lyrics, as usual. The answer is “Blowing in the Wind.” Does that mean that it cannot be seen, you just feel the effects? Or does it mean the answer is so obvious it is in our face?
This was a song that was banned from TV, Radio, and even some concert halls. Oh, there are some intelligent people walking the streets, aren’t there? Probably crawled out from under a stone that morning. How do we breed them, is there something in the water?
You don’t need to read too much into these lyrics, they are quite forthright.
“Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one.
Where have all the graveyards gone?
Gone to Flowers everyone.
When will we ever learn?”
The song was written by Pete Seeger, with inspiration from a book he read. The last two verses were added by Joe Hickerson in 1960.
A lovely little song with what is, I suppose, a sad message in some ways. It was written by Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul, and Mary. He took the words from a poem written by Leonard Lipton. It was a big hit for them in 1962.
It is a song about children. As they grow up, they lose their innocence and move away from their child-like actions. It was never about drug-taking, as some asserted. This is one that is going to be sung through the ages, I suspect.
If we are going to close this look at modern folk songs for kids, there may be only one place to finish. Released under the album of the same name in 1964, it was a single in the UK in 1965. It was not released as a single in the US.
It has become an anthem for many people. Dylan wrote it essentially for himself as a warning to parents and leaders. Others have used his lyrics to emphasize certain aspects that need change.
It has been covered by everyone and his dog, and rightly so. In the years to come, this will be one of those folk tunes that we teach our kids. Telling them that is how things used to be. Or will they immediately recognize that not much has changed?
Looking for Music Children Will Enjoy?
We can help. Have a look at our handy articles on Funny Songs to Sing with Kids, the Best Sing-Along Songs, Fun Music Activities For Kids, Easy Echo Songs For Schools, the Best Songs About Ice Cream, and the Best Songs About Friendship for more great song options.
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Folk Songs Every Kid Should Know – Final Thoughts
A list with a difference. Well, some might see it that way, but Folk tunes of the past started as songs that people sang. And they often had a meaning and some cultural and historical meaning attached to them.
The songs from the more recent days are the same and will become folk tunes in their own right. If they aren’t already.
So, until next time, let your music play.