All of your best loved folk songs

12th May 2013

Freewheelin' is 50 years old !

Freewheelin’ is 50 years old !

These are the 32 best loved folk songs of all time, as voted for by you. These were the most popular of hundreds of songs which received nominations.

A few people have questioned already whether some of these are actually folk songs at all : “perhaps I’m behind the times in thinking that when someone specifies ‘folk songs,’ they mean traditional songs, not necessarily songs written to sound like traditional folk songs”. Perhaps the first thing to say about this is that the overwhelming majority of responses I had came from within the folk community, who out of anyone should be well able to recognise folk music when they hear it .

The folk world may not be able to agree on a definition of folk music, so people resolve the question in their own way.  If you recognise a song as part of your culture, maybe you’ve heard your parents sing it or you’ve heard it performed in folk clubs, then it’s folk music.   And if we were to ask why did people nominate these particular songs, in many cases the answer’s probably as simple as this.

Pete Seeger at 94

Pete Seeger at 94

The fact that songs like these are regularly performed at folk clubs should in itself tell us something, because an important feature of folk music is supposed to be that it’s community music as opposed to studio music; music capable of being sung and performed by people who aren’t professional musicians.

Before the advent of studios, the defining feature of traditional music was that it wasn’t committed to paper for people to learn and play. The music was rooted in local areas, made use of both real and improvised instruments, and was passed on through oral tradition. The world has changed, and oral tradition will never be of such primary importance again in the future. But folk music has survived, and it’s done so mainly thanks to the efforts of many many people who’ve sought to preserve and revive what’s valuable from traditional forms of music.

It’s a fool’s errand to set out a definition what folk music should sound like today – not least because every single country has its own traditional forms of music, most of which have different names. (This list represents quite a narrow take on folk music from within the English speaking world.) I would suggest that if we’re to call it folk music there should be some relationship with traditional music; and that the manner in which it’s made and performed should somehow mark it out as music of the people or of the community and not purely studio music. These are shifting, fluid concepts, and in practice it’s very difficult to draw a line.

Woody Guthrie at 100

Woody Guthrie at 100

This said, I think you’ve done splendidly, and I’m pleased to report that there were no votes for Mumford & Sons.

Here’s the top 32, in alphabetical order. Song authors are credited in brackets. Thanks to the Mudcat Forum for helping me to eliminate the more glaring errors from my notes. If you want to know which song won the poll, it was This Land Is Your Land – and it would have come top even without the votes from the Woody Guthrie Folk Club ! And if you want to know my favourite, at the moment I think I’d have to go for Goodnight Irene.


Angel From Montgomery  (John Prine 1971)

The poet Ted Kooser compared Prine to Raymond Carver, whose stories about “ordinary people elevated them to almost heroic status. John Prine has taken ordinary people and made monuments of them, treating them with great respect and love. . . . He is a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people.” I was fortunate enough to see him play this at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year.

John Prine – Angel from Montgomery


 Blowin’ In The Wind  (Bob Dylan 1962)

“I wrote Blowin’ in the Wind in 10 minutes, just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records. That’s the folk tradition. You use what’s been handed down.”  The melody actually came, as Dylan later acknowledged, from the song No More Auction Block. It wouldn’t have been the Dylan song that I’d have picked, but of all his songs this has maybe had the greatest resonance with the most number of people.

Bob Dylan – Blowin’ in the Wind


Seth Lakeman – Blowin’ in the Wind


Bridge Over Troubled Water   (Paul Simon 1969)

Paul Simon may have served his time playing British folk clubs. But this wasn’t written with folk clubs in mind. The album of the same name took some 800 studio hours to record, and the heavy production on this track was crucial to its success in topping the US and UK charts at the same time and winning two Grammy awards. To me, this makes it more of a pop song than a folk song. Yes it has a timeless quality and many people have covered it, but it’s always been more of a singers song than a tune which anyone can get up and perform.

Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water


Davy Graham – Bridge Over Troubled Water


Bury Me Beneath the Willow   (Traditional)

“Traditional” means that it’s old, and we don’t know who wrote it. And when we’re talking about songs passed down through oral tradition in various versions it may not be very helpful to think of it as being the property of a single author. The song’s narrator wants to die and be buried under a weeping willow tree so that her former lover who left her for another will perhaps weep for her under the tree. Not exactly the kind of message that would be encouraged these days, but a beautiful song nonetheless.

The Carter Family – Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow Tree


Rosanne Cash – Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow


Chris Thile and Michael Daves – Bury Me Beneath The Willow


Caledonia  (Dougie Maclean 1977)

“I was in my early 20s and had been busking around with some Irish guys. I was genuinely homesick. I’d always lived in Perthshire. I played it to the guys when I got back to the youth hostel where we were staying and that was the final straw – we all went home the next day. It took about 10 minutes but sometimes that’s how songs happen. I’m still amazed at how much it has become part of common culture. There’s not a pub singer, busker or pipe band that doesn’t play it.”

Dougie Maclean – Caledonia


Catch the Wind  (Donovan 1965)

He wrote this when he was 18, and was immediately hyped up as the new Bob Dylan. It didn’t work out that way, and his career took a different course, but this remains a classic folk song.

Donovan – Catch the Wind


The Curragh of Kildare / The Winter it is Past  (Traditional)

Despite the title, the song has roots in Scotland as well as in Ireland. A 200 year old printed ballad version under the title The Lamenting Maid adds more narrative and more context than the song that we know today.

Emmett Spiceland – The Curragh of Kildare


Christy Moore – The Curragh of Kildare


Dirty Old Town   (Ewan McColl 1949)

“Sometimes from the vantage point of the Peel Park reading room I would gaze out over Salford with its endless streets of identical houses, its rampart church spires and its innumerable factory chimneys pointing accusing fingers at the sky. Even from a distance it looked moribund, a ‘place much decayed’, and yet I was stirred by it, filled with a disturbing kind of enthusiasm. In the shabby wilderness, with its mean streets and silent cotton mills looking like abandoned fortresses, in those geometrically arranged warrens and occasional clusters of bug-infested dwellings built in the reign of daft George for ‘the better class of artisan’, in that wasteland of rotten timbers and rusting iron, of a fouled river and an abandoned canal, a quarter of a million people are born, live and die. It is my Paris.”

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – Dirty Old Town


The Spinners – Dirty Old Town


The Dubliners – Dirty Old Town


Down In The River To Pray   (Traditional)

The song appears in the book Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. At some point it seems to have been coopted into white Christian culture with a subtle change in its meaning : the word ‘valley’ is replaced by ‘river’, and the theme becomes one of Christian redemption. Then  in 2000 the song gained a new lease of life again thanks to Alison Krauss’s performance of it from the soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Alison Krauss – Down In The River To Pray


Harmony Creek String Band – Down In The River To Pray


Fields Of Athenry  (Pete St John 1979)

“It’s a song about the potato famine in Ireland – it’s that simple. I’d gone to Galway and read some Gaelic tracts about how tough life was in those dreadful times. The people were starving and corn had been imported from America to help them. But it was Indian corn with a kernel so hard that the mills here in Ireland couldn’t grind it. So it lay uselessly in stores at the docks in Dublin. But nobody trusted the authorities – the Crown – to tell them the truth, so hundreds of starving Irish people marched on the city to get the grain. Some were arrested and shipped off to Australia in prison ships. I wrote a ballad about it, inventing Michael, Mary and a baby – a family torn apart because the husband stole corn to feed his family. The `Trevelyn’ in the lyric was the Crown agent at the time, he did exist. All this information came from Galway, so I set the song in Athenry, a little Galway village where the potato fields lay empty … the fields of Athenry.”

Bizarrely, the ballad has become a sports anthem. It’s sung by the Ireland fans at both rugby and soccer matches. It’s associated with the Connaught, Munster and London Irish rugby teams among others. It’s also sung by Celtic fans, and (with altered lyrics) by Liverpool fans. St John strongly denies that the song is in any way sectarian : “Maybe if I wrote one for Rangers, it would become just as popular.”

Paddy Reilly – Fields of Athenry


The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face   (Ewan MacColl 1957)

Simon Cowell apparently thinks this is a Roberta Flack song – and thanks to him a lot more people now believe this to be true. In fact MacColl hated the slow paced Roberta Flack chart topper. Here’s all two minutes 25 seconds of the original.

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face


Four Strong Winds   (Ian Tyson 1963)

Part of the appeal of this song is that it’s so rooted in the idea of a footloose 1960s lifestyle – “If a good times are all gone, and I’m bound for moving on, I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” Which makes it ironic that Ian Tyson went on to buy his own ranch and live the life of a cowboy, helped at times along the way by the royalty cheques from Four Strong Winds.

Ian & Sylvia – Four Strong Winds


Goodnight, Irene / Irene Goodnight   (Lead Belly 1933)

Alan Lomax : “The Archive of American Folk Song, which now numbers some 60,000 songs in its files of field recordings, came into actual being one broiling summer day in the State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana. The first recording we took on our new portable equipment was of the state’s prisoner, Lead Belly, singing Irene Goodnight … My father and I had come to the penitentiary hunting folk songs. In Lead Belly we found a great folk artist, who not only stamped the songs with his own strong personality, but at once involved us in his life. Before the recording session had ended, Lead Belly had what he wanted from us—the promise to ask the Governor of Louisiana to pardon this two-time murderer … Whether because of this song or for another reason, Lead Belly was paroled to my father a year later … In the years that followed Lead Belly recorded his songs for a number of companies, though never so beautifully as he had first sung them for us in Louisiana.”

Though there were earlier versions of the  song Lead Belly made it his own and is rightly regarded as the song’s true author. Sadly there was no Irene in Lead Belly’s life, though he liked to claim otherwise. Pete Seeger : “In 1950, six months after Leadbelly died, this song of his sold two million copies on the hit parade. He always said Irene was a real person and he knew her – a girl just sixteen years old, who met a rambler and a gambler.”

Lead Belly – Irene Goodnight


The Weavers – Goodnight Irene


Mississippi John Hurt – Goodnight Irene


Green Fields Of France / No Man’s Land  (Eric Bogle 1976)

Bogle : “”A song about the waste and futility of war. Pure and simple.”

Eric Bogle – No Man’s Land


Fureys and Davey Arthur – The Green Fields of France


June Tabor – No Man’s Land


If I Had a Hammer / The Hammer Song   (Pete Seeger and Lee Hays 1949)

The lyrics were considered subversive. As Seeger commented, ”In 1949 only Commies used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’”.

Already by 1950 the Weavers were forced to stop playing this song in concert because of the threat of blacklisting. They were blacklisted anyway. In 1962 Peter Paul & Mary changed the words, livened up the song, and made it relevant to a whole new generation of radicals.

Peter Paul and Mary – If I Had A Hammer


John The Revelator  (Traditional)

Incredibly powerful piece of religious mumbo jumbo.  Blind Willie Johnson first recorded this call and response gospel blues in 1930.

Blind Willie Johnson – John the Revelator


Son House – John the Revelator


Taj Mahal – John the Revelator


The Last Thing On My Mind   (Tom Paxton 1964)

Holly Near : “Every folk singer I know has either sung a Tom Paxton song, is singing a Tom Paxton song or will soon sing a Tom Paxton song. Now either all the folk singers are wrong, or Tom Paxton is one hell of a songwriter.”

Tom Paxton – The Last Thing On My Mind


The Dubliners – The Last Thing On My Mind


Make Me A Pallet On the Floor  (Traditional)

Carp as much as you like about outdated lyrics, but I say this wouldn’t have sounded so good if the chorus had been ‘Let me crash out on your sofa’.

The earliest written version of the song that exists, from 1911, is very basic. The understated elegance of the song we know today probably owes much to Mississippi John Hurt.

Mississippi John Hurt – Make Me A Pallet On the Floor


Gillian Welch – Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor


Man of Constant Sorrow   (Traditional)

Ralph Stanley : “Man of Constant Sorrow is probably two or three hundred years old. But the first time I heard it when I was y’know, like a small boy, my daddy – my father – he had some of the words to it, and I heard him sing it, and we – my brother and me – we put a few more words to it, and brought it back in existence. I guess if it hadn’t been for that it’d have been gone forever. I’m proud to be the one that brought that song back, because I think it’s wonderful.” Stanley’s autobiography is rather morbidly titled Man of Constant Sorrow. On the soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou the song’s performed by the Soggy Bottom Boys with vocals by Dan Tyminksi.

The Stanley Brothers – Man Of Constant Sorrow


Soggy Bottom Boys – Man Of Constant Sorrow


Matty Groves  (Traditional)

If your idea of folk music is spinning some good stories, this could be one for you. It’s got a melodramatic story line that one blogger likened to a plot from Desperate Housewives. The song is at least 400 years old.

Fairport Convention – Matty Groves


Midnight Special  (Traditional)

The song had done the rounds for many years before Lead Belly sang it. Lead Belly made it a song about prison life and the hope of redemption. Alan Lomax claimed that Midnight Special was a real train: the Southern Pacific Golden Gate Limited which shone its light through the barred windows at the Texas state prison farm at Sugarland, reminding the inmates of the light and freedom on the other side of the prison walls. Whether or not this was true, there are powerful legends surrounding this song.

Lead Belly – Midnight Special


Odetta – Midnight Special


My Johnny was a shoemaker  (Traditional / WJ Florence)

Not the best known track here, and perhaps a bit fortunate to make the list, but it’s a sweet little number and I’m glad it’s here.  Mrs W.J.Florence is credited as the author in the delightful sounding book The Besom-Maker and other Country Folk Songs (1888), so it seems only fair to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Steeleye Span – My Johnny Was A Shoemaker


Churchfitters – Johnny Was A Shoemaker


Pancho and Lefty  (Townes van Zandt 1972)

“In America when I play, I’m a folksinger — just me and my guitar. And when they’re recorded in America they’re usually recorded country, like Willie and Emmylou. In Europe they’re usually rock. They’re turned into rock or grunge. But they don’t fit into a category. I don’t write for anyone. It’s between me and the spirits. And the people on Earth. Every recording ever of mine, a cover, I’ve loved. Well, a person or a band, whatever they may be, takes a song of mine, learns it and does it their way: I mean you can’t fault that. There’s Eskimos around the campfire in Alaska passing around the guitar and maybe one of them will play Pancho and Lefty or something, and that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. ”

Townes van Zandt – Pancho and Lefty


The Parting Glass   (Traditional)

The song has a rich history. It’s amazing that a song which was so popular hundreds of years ago has so much meaning and resonance today, but there seem to be a good many people who’ve been moved by it when it’s been sung at funerals or at leavetakings, or for whom it has some other personal significance.

The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem – The Parting Glass


Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh – The Parting Glass


She Moved Through The Fair  (Traditional)

In February 2013 there was a half hour programme on BBC Radio 4 of people talking about why this song meant so much to them. Sinead O’Connor who presented the show said that her father had sung it to her mother on the morning of their wedding.

The Irish poet Padraic Colum largely rewrote the song’s lyrics 100 years ago. In some versions of the song it’s explicit that the woman died and came back as a ghost; others leave you guessing.

Annie Briggs – She Moved Through The Fair


Moya Brennan and Cormac De Barra – She Moved Through The Fair


Shenandoah / Across the Wide Missouri  (Traditional)

“The traditional song Shenandoah is a shanty, a work song with chorus sung by sailors. Shenandoah is a typical windless and capstan shanty. Such pieces were sung during lengthy tasks like weighing anchor or docking and winding the line around the large capstan. These shanties did not usually employ the call and response pattern found in more rigorous examples, but involved all the sailors throughout. They are slow-paced and often have nostalgic lyrics, because the sailors were either preparing to go home or were docking someplace far from home.” – Allmusic.com

Jimmie Rodgers – Shenandoah (Across The Wide Missouri)


Trampled by Turtles – Shenandoah


This Land is Your Land   (Woody Guthrie 1940)

The Irving Berlin song God Bless America contained lines like “While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free” and “From the mountains, to the prairies / To the oceans, white with foam”. Woody heard Kate Smith singing this on the radio and hated it. What kind of America was it that glossed over the dust clouds rolling across the wheat fields, and people standing hungry waiting for relief ? So Woody wrote a song called God Blessed America for Me, which eventually became This Land is Your Land.

Many have tried to appropriate this song, but it’s never lost its dangerous radical edge. In January 2009 Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger sang an unexpurgated version at Obama’s inauguration concert.

Woody Guthrie – This Land Is Your Land


Cisco Houston – This Land Is Your Land


Universal Soldier   (Buffy Sainte-Marie 1964)

“Forget the singers and songwriters, it was a student movement, a very real thing. Those kids didn’t want to be drafted and go to Vietnam for some businessman. Kids aren’t that smart these days. Now they go to Iraq for some businessman. It was a different time. The music came from something real going on in the street and the drug was caffeine. We didn’t know if we could change the world but we were gonna try. ”

Donovan – Universal Soldier


Where Have All the Flowers Gone ?  (Pete Seeger & Joe Hickerson 1955)

The first three verses were written by Pete Seeger in 1955, and published in Sing Out! magazine. Additional verses were later added by Joe Hickerson who turned it into a circular song. The song’s universal appeal may be shown by the fact that it now exists in at least 26 different languages.

Joan Baez – Where Have All the Flowers Gone


Whiskey in the Jar / Kilgary Mountain  (Traditional)

Patrick Flemming was an Irish highwayman who was hanged near Dublin in 1650.  “The chief place of his haunt was about the Bog of Allen, where he attacked almost all who passed that way, of whatever quality; telling them that he was absolute lord of that road, and had a right to demand contribution of all that travelled it, and to punish those with death who refused to comply; therefore, if they had any regard for their lives, he advised them to deliver what they had peaceably, and not put him to the trouble of exerting his prerogative.” The accounts of his exploits are more lurid than any modern action film. On one occasion he escaped prison by climbing up a chimney. Anyway, his life was celebrated in a broadside ballad, which is one of the many roots of the song that we know and love today.

The Dubliners – Whiskey In The Jar


Shaky Horse – Whiskey In The Jar


Antonello D’Ippolito – Whiskey In The Jar


Wild Mountain Thyme / Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go  (Francis McPeake 1957)

Like many people, I just assumed that this was traditional. The McPeake song is clearly inspired by a much older song written by Robert Tannahill called The Braes of Balquidder (which contains the phrase “go, lassie, go”). It’s a great melody, and many of you included it on your lists.

The McPeake Family – Will Ye Go Lassie, Go


The Corries – Wild Mountain Thyme (Will Ye Go Lassie Go)


The Wild Rover  (Traditional)

Fingal Folk Club polled their members on their favourite folk songs, and sent me a list of the top 25. This came top with 16%, closely followed by Fields of Athenry on 14%.  So now you know whom to blame ! Though I’d have been very sorry if this hadn’t made it. Its origin lies in a rather wonderful song written by Thomas Lanfiere around 1670 entitled The Good Fellow’s Resolution; Or, The Bad Husband’s Return from his Folly. 

The Clancy Brothers – The Wild Rover


The Dubliners – The Wild Rover


Antonello D’Ippolito – The Wild Rover




I couldn’t walk away from this without giving you something extra.

So many songs were nominated which didn’t make the list. Many times I’ve been impressed by your knowledge and your good taste. So I had to share a few of these with you. These are purely personal selections, and I could have picked dozens of others : what they have in common is that they’re British folk songs, and that I was unfamiliar with them until you sent me your nominations.

Ae Fond Kiss – Eddi Reader  (Robert Burns)


Bring Us A Barrel – The Witches of Elswick  (Keith Marsden 1966)


Childbirth Shanty – Sisters Unlimited  (Sisters Unlimited 2000)


The Death of Queen Jane – Karine Polwart  (Traditional)


Generations of Change – Arthur Johnstone  (Matt Armour)


Helen of Kirkconnel – The Corries  (Traditional)


I loved a Lass – Ian Campbell & Lorna Campbell  (Traditional)


It’s a Champion Life – Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies  (Jez Lowe 2010)


Leaving Nancy – Eric Bogle  (Eric Bogle 1980)


On Morecambe Bay – Christy Moore  (Kevin Littlewood 2007)


Somewhere Along The Road – Maddy Prior  (Rick Kemp 1988)


Spencer The Rover – John Martyn  (Traditional)


Veronica – Bert Jansch  (Bert Jansch 1965)


When the Boat Comes In – Alex Glasgow  (Traditional)


Winter Turns to Spring – Roy Bailey  (Robb Johnson 1997)


Some content on this page was disabled on June 26, 2016 as a result of a DMCA takedown notice from PRS for Music. You can learn more about the DMCA here:

Some content on this page was disabled on February 22, 2018 as a result of a DMCA takedown notice from PRS for Music. You can learn more about the DMCA here:




  1. great to see you at Woody!

    i’d go for
    blowing in the wind
    bury me beneath the willow
    curragh of kildare
    down to the river to pray
    four strong winds
    gold watch and chain
    i never will marry
    john the revelator
    matty groves
    midnight special
    man of constant sorrow
    50 miles of elbow room
    pancho and lefty
    she moved through the fair
    speed bonnie boat
    this land is your land
    vincent black lightning
    meet on the ledge
    who knows where the time goes
    wild mountain thyme
    will the circle be unbroken
    mamas opry
    long black veil

  2. my votes:

    a sailor’s life##angel from montgomery

    curragh of kildare

    dirty old town

    down to the river to pray

    four strong winds

    goodnight irene

    hard times come again no more

    john henry

    john the revalator

    midnight special

    pancho and lefty

    she moved through the fair


    this mand is your mand

    coal miner’s lament

    oh death

    snow on raton

    some great choices here- thanks for asking!

  3. Great review Nick really great information on the songs and interesting that us folkie’s do all have a common passion, great lyric and simple melody 🙂

  4. […] WALL TO WALL FOLK – Nick Wall is compiling a list of the 25 most loved folk song recordings and is looking for your help. You can nominate any folk song (the definition of folk is entirely up to you) so long as you haven’t performed on it yourself(!). UPDATE – The list is now complete and can be seen here. […]

  5. Loch Lomond is conspicuous in its absence. Recorded by many of the Scottish greats, from the authentic interpretation by the Corries, to the anthem created by Runrig, this Burns classic is a worthy inclusion.

  6. very nice touching songs
    should include johnny cash

  7. Excellent work! Thank you everyone!

  8. looking for a song that ithought was called “ballad of walter irving”
    it about a gut in the woods with cabin chincked with cardboard to keep the cold out, his floor was smooth from his bare feet walking around and a wood carved picture of his love of his life that he dreamt about…any help would be apreciated im looking for a copy or video thanks

  9. Shoals of Herring!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: