Folk music entertains, tells or supports a story, and is transmitted from generation to generation. It is the music of the common person as well as the wealthy. A significant number of American ballads were obtained from other societies such as Scotland, Ireland, Germany, England, and Wales, and the words were altered to fit the interpretation of the singer. Most often, the songs were obtained through oral tradition, rather than in written form, and the singer was left with the task of interpreting the meaning of the lyrics on the basis of his or her cultural milieu.
Most of the early folk songs were sung without instrumental accompaniment. According to folklorist Maude Karpeles, while collecting songs in the southern Appalachian Mountains during the years 1916 to 1918 with her colleague Cecil Sharp, found:
The songs were, with one exception, sung without instrumental accompaniment. This is in accordance with the older traditional methods of singing, both in England and in America. The present custom of singing to the accompaniment of guitar or banjo, which has been adopted by some traditional singers, is fairly recent and is probably due to the influence of popular and pseudo-folk music heard on the radio. (Sharp and Karpeles 1968, p. 9)
The instrument used while singing a folk song varies with the culture, from the drum in Africa to the bagpipes in Scotland to the plucked dulcimer in the American Appalachians. In the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the major instruments were the guitar, five-string banjo, upright bass, and fiddle.
The durability of a folk song may be attributed not only to the song itself, but to the folklorists and collectors who accepted the task of obtaining songs in various sections of the world and tracing their origin. Folklorists such as Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, Maude Karpeles, and Alan and John Lomax have preserved a folk music legacy that might otherwise have been lost.
Folk music has been written and performed portraying every theme imaginable. There are love songs and silly songs. There are songs with religious themes and songs with secular lyrics. Folk songs portray the good life and they delineate hardship. Some of the most popular folk lyrics portray dying and/or death. Common themes are death and its relationship to accidents, the supernatural, trains, murder, natural causes, the elements, war, suicide, and religion.
Death by Accident
There are many forms of accident that can result in death. Vehicular death has been portrayed in folk songs on more than one occasion. "The Drunken Driver" tells the story of two small children who were killed as they walked along a state highway. One of the deceased children turns out to be the drunken driver's son. "The Fatal Wreck of Bus" is the true tale of mass death when a bus goes over a cliff.
The death of two small children via drowning is reflected in "Kiss Me Mamma, For I Am Going to Sleep," which originally appeared in sheet music form. Songs about the sea, such as "Asleep in the Briny Deep" and "The Sailor's Sweetheart," tell the story of maidens who have lost their lovers to the sea. "Mighty Mississippi" and "The Flood Disaster of 1937" are only a few of the folk songs about floods and death. In the popular ballad "The House Carpenter," a wife leaves her husband and children to run away to sea with her lover. They are both killed when the ship sinks.
"Companions Draw Nigh" (also known as "The Dying Boy's Prayer") provides an account of a young man crushed in a construction accident and destined to die without prayer, song, or Bible present: "I must die without God or hope of his son, covered in darkness, bereaved an' undone." The popularity of cowboy songs in the early 1900s produced "Little Joe, the Wrangler," the tale of a young boy killed in a cattle stampede. When an avid cave explorer named Floyd Collins was trapped in a sandstone cave in Kentucky, and died before rescue workers could save him, several songs were composed about the tragedy. Eric Clapton's commercial recording of "Tears in Heaven" (1992) is reminiscent of early folk songs of tragedy. It tells the story of Clapton's son, who fell from a sixth-story window to his death. The song asks a question often found in folk music: "Would you know my name, if I saw you in Heaven?"
Sensational accidents involving a large number of people are especially likely to become popularized in musical literature. Train wrecks, mining disasters, airplane crashes, fires, cyclones, and sea disasters are a few of the themes in folk music. "Lost on the Lady Elgin" and "The Ship That Never Returned" are about separate ship wrecks. The most famous of all the sea disasters is probably the sinking of the Titanic, immortalized in songs such as "The Sinking of the Titanic" and "Just as the Ship Went Down."
"The Akron's Last Flight" is about an airplane disaster. "The Avondale Mine Disaster," "The Dying Miner," and "Dream of the Miner's Child" reflect the relationship between coal mining and death. "Bonnie James Campbell" and "Darcy Farrow" concern horseback riding accidents that result in death. Death via fire is delineated in songs such as "Baltimore Fire."
Trains and Death
Perhaps no machine has ever captured the imagination of Americans like the train. In the early 1900s adults and children alike were in awe of the steam locomotive. The so-called father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers, was known as "the singing brakeman" because of his obsession with trains and songs about trains. Many songs reflect the death of the hobo, the common man who was often without home and food, and content to ride the rails. A few such as "The Fate of Chris Lively and Wife" concern death resulting from being hit by a train. Most, however, are about train wrecks and the brave engineers willing to die with their trains. "Casey Jones" (a train engineer on the Chicago and New Orleans Limited in Vaughan, Mississippi, in 1900) became an American hero when he died refusing to abandon his engine when it was about to crash into another locomotive. In "The Wreck of the Old 97" the engineer is "found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle, a-scalded to death by the steam." The devotion of the railroad engineer is best exhibited in "Engine 143" when George Alley's last words are, "I want to die for the engine I love, One Hundred and Forty-three."
The Supernatural and Death
One of the oldest folk songs containing a supernatural theme is "The Wife of Usher's Well" (commonly called "The Lady Gay"), an English ballad reflecting the view that excess grief will cause the dead to return. A woman sends her children away to get an education, they die, she grieves, and they return to her in a vision. As a woman walks by the side of a river, her dead lover, "Lost Jimmy Whalan," returns to her in an apparition. In "Lily Lee," a sailor has a death vision involving his true love. When he returns years later she is dead. In the classic "Grandfather's Clock," the clock stops and never works again when its owner dies. Elements of the supernatural appear in the popular "Bringing Mary Home." The singer picks up a little girl walking along a highway and takes her home. When he opens up the door to let her out of the car, she is gone. The lady of the house explains that her daughter died thirteen years previously in an automobile wreck, and states, "You're the thirteenth one who's been here, bringing Mary home."
Death from Natural Causes
Death from natural causes is a common subject in musical literature. When the song involves a child, the title of the song often contains the word "little" followed by the first name (e.g., "Little Bessie," "Little Mamie," and "Darling Little Joe"). The listener does not know what the cause of death is, but the last hours of the child are sometimes emotionally portrayed. For example, in "Put My Little Shoes Away," the dying child's major concern is that the parents will give his or her prized shoes away. "Darling Little Joe" focuses on what others, both human and infrahuman, will do after he is dead. The dying soldier in "Break the News to Mother" is worried about the welfare of his mother when she receives the news of his death, and "Little Bessie" experiences auditory hallucinations common among those who are dying:
There were little children singing,
Sweetest songs I ever heard.
They were sweeter, mother, sweeter,
Than the sweetest singing bird.
(McNeil 1988, pp. 172–173)
Death from the Elements
The plight of orphans frequently appears in folk music, often coupled with death from the elements to provide a more pathetic story. In "The Two Orphans," "The Orphan Girl," "Poor Little Joe," and "Little Paper Boy," children are discovered frozen to death at the end of the song. "Mary of the Wild Moor" and her child die from the cold weather and are discovered the next morning on the doorstep at the home of Mary's father.
The fact that failure to heed the advice of parents can end in death is emphasized in "The Frozen Girl" (also "Young Charlotte"), the true story of a young girl who froze to death on her way to a ball on January 1, 1840, after failing to heed her mother's warning:
"Oh, daughter dear," her mother cried, "This blanket 'round you fold,
Tonight is a dreadful one, you'll get your death of cold."
"Oh, nay, oh, nay!" Charlotte cried, as she laughed like a gypsy queen,
"To ride in blankets muffled up I never would be seen."
(Sandburg 1927, pp. 58–59)
Children As Victims in Murder Ballads
Murder stories involving children have been very popular in musical literature. While mothers are generally portrayed as gentle and kind, there are songs that portray their violent side. Feticide/ infanticide may be found in "Mary Hamilton" and "The Cruel Mother" (also known as "Down by the Greenwood Sidie"), and rejection/neglect is delineated in "Lady Gay" ("The Wife of Usher's Well").
Drunken fathers are factors in songs like "The Drunkard's Child." "Little Blossom" goes to the bar to find her father and in a drunken rage he murders her. Poisoning is the variable in death for "Lord Randall." Revenge against the father for failure to pay a debt leads to the murder of his son in "Lamkin."
Several of the child murder ballads popular in America were transplanted from Europe. Sir Hugh tells the story of a little boy murdered by a Jew's daughter, and "Dunbar the Murderer" is the tale of a man who murders two children left in his care by the parents. However, most child murder ballads are original to the United States. Surprisingly, sensational cases, such as the murder of fourteen-yearold Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb on May 21, 1924, and the murder and cannibalism of Grace Budd by Albert Fish in the 1930s, never made their way into musical literature. However, the killing of "Little Mary Phagan" at the pencil factory where she worked in 1913, the murder and beheading of "Little Marian Parker" on December 14, 1927, and the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932 were popularized in the media, commercial records, and folk music. Mass murders such as the "Ashland Tragedy" in 1883 (two children and a neighbor in Ashland, Kentucky, were murdered and the bodies burned) and the "Murder of the Lawson Family" (the father killed his wife, six children, and himself) made their way into the folk music tradition.
Women As Victims in Murder Ballads
The common theme in ballads involving the murder of women is the luring of the woman by the man to the place of her demise under false pretenses. Most of the songs are English ballads or altered forms of English ballads.
The victim dies when she refuses to marry her murderer in "Banks of the Ohio" and "Poor Ellen Smith." Money appears to be a factor in "Down in the Willow Garden" (also known as "Rose Connelly"). Jealousy on the part of the killer is extant in songs like "Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor" (the name of the woman changes with the singer). Pregnancy sometimes exists as a variable. For example, when Scott Jackson and a fellow dental student murdered Pearl Bryan at Fort Thomas, Kentucky, in 1896, both pregnancy and jealousy were factors. Jonathan Lewis drowned "Omie Wise" in Deep River in 1888 for dual reasons: She was pregnant and he preferred a local girl. "Knoxville Girl," a British broadside (single-sheet ballads sold for a penny or half-penny on the streets of towns and villages around Britain between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries) written in the early 1700s, contains some of the most violent lyrics in any folk song.
Men As Victims in Murder Ballads
Few songs feature the murder of a man by a woman. Outstanding are the English ballad "Young Hunting" (known in America as "Loving Henry" and "Lord Henry and Lady Margaret") and American ballads such as "Frankie and Albert" (also known as "Frankie and Johnny") and "Frankie Silvers." In all these songs the homicide is the result of jealousy.
Men kill men for many reasons and under varied circumstances in folk songs. There are heroes (e.g., "Pretty Boy Floyd" and "Jesse James") and anti-heroes such as "Stagger Lee." Murder may be committed for wanton cruelty or economic remuneration. An act of homicide may involve the killing of one man ("Jesse James") or many ("The Golden Vanity"). The killing can be the result of jealousy and/or hatred. Whether the song is simply to tell a story or entertain, it is popularized and transmitted from generation to generation.
Parental opposition to a love affair is a major theme in songs concerning suicide. In "Silver Dagger," both the boy and girl commit suicide when her parents oppose their love. Death due to grief is a factor for women ("Barbara Allen" and "Earl Brand") and men ("The Two Sisters"). In "It's Sinful to Flirt" the boy kills himself because the girl won't marry him, while the reverse is true in "The Butcher Boy." The girl commits suicide in "Johnny Doyle" because she is being forced to marry someone whom she doesn't love. The man dies from a self-inflicted wound in "The Last Letter" when the girl marries someone else.
Songs about war are fraught with death and dying. There are lyrics portraying the grief (and death from grief) of those left behind. In "The Cruel War" the girl refuses to be left behind, dresses as a man, and goes off to war with her lover. The horror and violence of the battle are often portrayed in folk songs. Reflections of the dying soldier are quite poignant in folk music. Most of the final thoughts involve mother and/or the sweetheart left to mourn. In "Legend of the Rebel Soldier," the dying Confederate is concerned with whether his soul will pass through the Southland one last time on the way to the hereafter.
Songs concerning religion have three major themes. First, there are songs that provide a blueprint for living prior to death. Second, the means of conveyance to the hereafter is occasionally a subject. For example, it might be by train ("Life's Railway to Heaven"), a band of angels (that may carry the soul to Heaven as in "Angel Band"), boat ("The Gospel Ship"), or chariot ("Swing Down, Sweet Chariot"). Third, there are lyrics that denote what the afterlife is like. It is portrayed as a place of "Beautiful Flowers" and an "Uncloudy Day." It is a realm where there is no suffering or pain, loved ones may be greeted, and "The Soul Never Dies."
Folk songs provide helpful insight into the cultural traits related to death and dying in a specific society at a particular point in time. They also allow for comparisons of traits over a period of time. The provision of entertainment and knowledge at the same time makes folk music an integral part of any society with a music tradition.
Clapton, Eric. "Tears in Heaven." On Eric Clapton Unplugged. Reprise Records 9-45024-2.
Cohen, Norm. Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folklore. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981.
Crissman, James K. Death and Dying in Central Appalachia. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
Johnny Cash— Motion Picture Songs. New York: Hill and Range Songs, 1970.
McNeil, W. K., ed. Southern Folk Ballads. Vol. 2. Little Rock, AR: August House, 1988.
Sandburg, Carl. The American Songbag. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927.
Sharp, Cecil, and Maude Karpeles. 80 Appalachian Folk Songs. Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber, 1968.
The Country Gentlemen. "Bringing Mary Home." On Bringing Mary Home. Rebel Records REB 1478.
JAMES K. CRISSMAN