Story of Folk Songs in Nineteenth Century US

  June 17, 2021   Read time 2 min
Story of Folk Songs in Nineteenth Century US
Folk songs and ballads in the United States in the nineteenth century somewhat followed the British style, but there were significant variations because of racial, ethnic, economic, and geographical diversity.

By the early nineteenth century there existed a diverse body of folk music throughout the country, heavily influenced by both British and African musical styles, and often with a religious message. In addition, as immigrants from European countries began arriving in large numbers by midcentury they brought their own music and songs, as did those Mexican citizens whose lands in the Southwest had been incorporated into the country, as well as the Native Americans. By century’s end there existed a vast array of musical forms and styles, much of which could be (or would later be) classified under the folk music rubric.

British, which included Scottish and Irish, as well as native songs and ballads were common throughout the United States by the mid-nineteenth century. There were also other forms of folk songs, including play party songs,such as “Skip to My Lou” and “Get Along Home, Cindy,” which originally were accompanied by singing and hand clapping, but not musical instruments. There were also numerous fiddle tunes, for example “Soldier’s Joy” and “Old Joe Clark.” Just as in Britain, songs circulated through oral means as well as in published forms—broadsides, songsters, and sheet music. British influences were common. Songs and ballads were transported either wholesale to the New World, orinfluenced American versions. For example, the melody of “The Cowboy’s Lament” (also known as “The Streets of Laredo”) originated originally in Ireland as “The Bard of Armagh” (later the nationalist tune “Bold Robert Emmet”), while “Sweet Betsy from Pike” started as “The Ould Orange Flute.” Few ballads survived in oral traditions from the eighteenth century,such as “On Springfield Mountain” and “Brave Wolfe,” and others in the Child canon.

In the nineteenth century, ballads and folk songs were newly written and often related to various occupations and experiences, such as lumbermen and sailors. These occupations produced what were called shanties, such as “Blow the Man Down,” “Reuben Ranzo,” “Shenandoah,” and “Blow, Boys, Blow,” which derived from long months at sea, while “The Jam on Gerry’s Rock,” “The Lumber Camp Song,” and “The Lumberman’s Alphabet” came from life in the North woods. Sea shanties were the work songs of sailors on the sailing ships, while in the logging camps, “shanty” referred to the primitive housing conditions; a “shantyboy” was another name for a woodsman or lumberjack. There were two kinds of sailor songs: work songs that paced various group efforts on the sailing ships, and forecastle songs that were sung for entertainment, which could include ribald verses.