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Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts

Updated on December 29, 2016
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Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She enjoys playing the piano, singing, and listening to classical, folk, and early music.

Traditional folk songs were often sung unaccompanied, but sometimes a fiddle or other instrument provided an accompaniment.
Traditional folk songs were often sung unaccompanied, but sometimes a fiddle or other instrument provided an accompaniment. | Source

Traditional Folk Songs

Folk songs are an important part of our culture. They are often enjoyable to hear and can transmit facts and ideas to listeners. Traditional folk songs generally come from a culture that no longer exists, but they are still interesting. They allow us to glimpse a time that has passed but that may still influence us.

The definition of "folk song" is somewhat nebulous. It's generally agreed that it's a song enjoyed and sung by the common people, or the folk, that live in a particular area. Folk songs of the past were generally transmitted orally. Singers often modified a song after they discovered it, either deliberately or accidentally. This is why different variations of lyrics exist today.

The songs that I've chosen for this article are some of my personal favourites. I've included the probable history of each one where possible. As with any piece of music that originated long ago, however, there are often uncertain or conflicting facts about a song's history, place of origin or meaning.

The riddle song explains how a cherry can have no stone.
The riddle song explains how a cherry can have no stone. | Source

I Gave My Love a Cherry

This gentle song is believed to have been sung as a lullaby for most of its history, although it may have been sung as a love song as well. I've always known it as "I Gave My Love a Cherry", but it's sometimes called The Riddle Song.

The song sung today is thought be based on a medieval riddle song dating from fifteenth century England. (The lyrics of this song can be seen by following the link in the Reference section below.) The song was carried to the Appalachians in the eighteenth century by English or Scots-Irish settlers. Today it's described as both a traditional English song and a traditional American one, depending on the writer's point of view.

The first verse in the song presents four seemingly impossible situations or riddles. The second one asks for the answers to the riddles. The third verse gives the answers. Different variations of the song exist. There are two versions of the third riddle, for example, as shown below.

I gave my love a cherry that has no stone

I gave my love a chicken that has no bone

I told my love a story that has no end (I gave my love a ring that has no end)

I gave my love a baby with no crying

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

Answers to the Riddles

According to the song, the answers to the riddles are as follows:

  • Cherry blossom doesn't have stones.
  • A chicken has no bone—or isn't eaten—when it's pipping (starting to break through the eggshell as it hatches).
  • The story of our love has no end. (When a ring is rolling it has no end.)
  • A baby doesn't cry while it's sleeping.

What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

What Shall We Do With the (a) Drunken Sailor is a sea shanty. Shanties were originally sung by sailors as they worked at sea. The tunes often have a lively beat and in earlier times were helpful for the completion of brisk tasks on board ships. Today they are appreciated as songs in their own right.

The age of the Drunken Sailor shanty is uncertain. The earliest known mentions of the song appear in the first half of the 1800s. The song gives suggestions for punishing a drunken soldier, generally without causing him lasting harm. Like most folk songs, though, the suggestions vary in different versions of the song. Common ideas include:

  • Put him in the longboat until he's sober.
  • Put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him.
  • Shave his belly with a rusty razor.
  • Give him a dose of salt and water.
  • Put on his back a mustard plaster.
  • Put him in bed with the captain's daughter. ("Captain's daughter" was a nickname for the cat o' nine tails. This was a multi-tailed whip used in corporal punishment.)

Drunken Sailor by the Irish Rovers

Today, the word "Early" in the phrase Early in the morning is generally pronounced er-lie. This may not have been the original custom, however.

A simple musical score for What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?
A simple musical score for What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? | Source

The Possible Influence of an Irish Folk Song

The traditional Irish song Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile (Irish Gaelic language) is believed to have been created in the eighteenth century before the creation of the Drunken Sailor sea shanty. The refrain in the Irish song sounds very much like the one in the Drunken Sailor, as shown in the video below. The sailor song may have been partially derived from the Irish one.

According to various sources, the word "Óró" in the title of the Irish song is a cheer. The rest of the title means "You Are Welcome Home". As is the case for English folk songs, there is some uncertainty about the history of the Irish one.

The Dubliners Play and Sing an Old Irish Song

Green Grow the Rushes, O

Green Grow the Rushes, O (Oh, Ho) is an interesting song that contains biblical, astronomical, and possibly pagan references. The song is cumulative, getting longer and longer with each verse. The video below shows how this process works. The history of the song is very uncertain, but a version without the "Green Grow the Rushes, O" refrain was being sung in the early 1800s.

The quote above the video shows the first verse of the song. The quote under the video shows how the song has progressed by the time the fourth verse is reached. There are twelve verses in total.

I'll sing you one, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What is your one, O?

One is one and all alone

And evermore shall be so.

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

Having Fun While Singing Green Grow the Rushes, O

The entertaining performers in the video above are (from left to right) Cerian Cantwr and John Inchingham.

I'll sing you four, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What is your four, O?

Four for the Gospel makers,

Three, three, the rivals,

Two, two, the lily-white boys,

Clothed all in green, O,

One is one and all alone

And evermore shall be so.

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

Biblical References in the Song

Although it seems to be accepted that the references in Green Grows the Rushes, O are symbolic, there is often disagreement about what they mean. The meaning of some of them seems obvious, but others are more obscure. They may have been corrupted over time.

The known biblical references are given below. The remaining references in the song are controversial.

  • Twelve for the Twelve Apostles: the Apostles of Jesus
  • Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven: the Apostles minus Judas Iscariat
  • Ten for the Ten Commandments: the commandments given to Moses by God
  • Four for the Gospel makers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
  • One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so: probably a reference to God

The Aurora Borealis often looks like a green curtain or drape that covers stars. It's best seen in the Arctic but is sometimes visible at lower latitudes.
The Aurora Borealis often looks like a green curtain or drape that covers stars. It's best seen in the Arctic but is sometimes visible at lower latitudes. | Source

Puzzling References

Verse two adds a reference to lily-white boys clothed in green. The identity of these boys is one of the controversies in the song. Two suggestions that have been proposed are described below.

  • The two brightest stars in the Gemini constellation are Castor and Pollux. The names represents twin brothers in Greek and Roman mythology. Zeus transformed the bothers into the Gemini constellation. In winter, the constellation is high in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere and is sometimes covered by the green light of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.
  • According to the gospels, Jesus climbed to the top of a mountain accompanied by Peter, James and John. Here Jesus was transfigured and developed a white and glowing appearance. Moses and Elijah then appeared beside him. Peter suggested that a shelter of branches be created for each man, which would have produced green "clothing".

There are multiple possibilities for the meaning of some of the other references in the song as well, including the identity of the rivals that are added in the third verse. Without further evidence, we can't reach a final decision about what the symbols mean. The song is fun to sing even though we don't know the intent of some of the phrases that we're singing, however.

An ancient cross on Dartmoor
An ancient cross on Dartmoor | Source

Widecombe Fair

Widecombe Fair is a popular narrative tale from Devon. Fairs in the time of the song were places to sell livestock and wares. The Widecombe Fair still exists, although today it offers entertainment as well as agricultural events. The full name of the village where the fair operates is Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The "moor" in the name is Dartmoor.

The song tells the story of a man who borrows a grey mare to get to and from the fair. He is accompanied on his journey by some friends. Unfortunately, the mare dies during the trip. She is transformed into a ghost that haunts the moor.

The song is not only popular as a ghost story. Each verse contains the same list of people, giving the tale a humorous aspect for many people who hear it. Interestingly, according to research carried out by the Widecombe and District Local History Group, the people named in the song may really have existed. The first verse of the song is shown below.

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.

All along, down along, out along lea.

For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,

With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,

Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

A Humorous Version of Widecombe Fair by The King's Singers

Some people spell Widdecombe with a double d, but a single d is considered to be the standard spelling today.

History of the Song

Widecombe Fair was published around 1890 in a book entitled Songs and Ballads of the West. The collector of the songs in the book was Sabine Baring-Gould, a clergyman who was interested in English folk music. His work is a valuable contribution to our present knowledge.

The song about Tom Pearce's mare likely originated in the early to mid 1800s. Since it told a story about a real fair, a real moor and possibly real people, it's easy to imagine that it held the interest of the people in the area.

Folk songs discuss matters of concern for everyday people—in other words, for most of us. Old songs that have survived allow us to look at the interests and values of people in history. Perhaps the folk songs that are being created today will serve the same purpose for people in the future.

References and Further Reading

A medieval riddle song may have been the ancestor of the one sung today.

Uncle Tom Cobley and all may have been real people.

© 2016 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Jackie. I'm sorry I didn't notice it earlier. I'm glad the music brought back happy memories.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 6 weeks ago from The Beautiful South

      Thanks for taking me back to mountain music. Just as special in its own way and with so much special meaning for those who love it.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Robert! I want to explore mountain music further. I've enjoyed what I've heard. Traditional music can be very interesting.

    • Fiddleman profile image

      Robert Elias Ballard 6 months ago from Zirconia, North Carolina

      Love your hub! I grew up playing the music we called mountain music. Many were the tunes and songs brought to the WNC mountains by our Scottish and Irish ancestors. We still play them and so thankful for our musical heritage.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the detailed comment, Alun. I was wishing I could learn more about the people referred to in Widecombe Fair as I was creating the article. It would probably be a very interesting investigation if the men really existed! Like you, I love exploring and listening to traditional folk songs.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 8 months ago from Essex, UK

      Very nice Linda. As I think you know, I love traditional folk and I know all of these songs, though not the history behind them. I love 'Drunken Sailor' - such a catchy tune - and hearing it again (for the first time in years) makes me want to find a CD of sea shanties to buy.

      Interesting too to hear 'Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile' - the similarities between this and 'Drunken Sailor' had not occurred to me before. In a similar vein, Nell Rose's comment about 'Twelfth of Never' also made me appreciate the similarities of that song to 'I Gave My Love a Cherry' (though I should say 'The Twelfth of Never' does date to well before Donny Osmond's version - I think to the 1950s).

      (Incidentally I like many of the other posts in this Comments section, and it's easy for me to agree with them).

      The story behind Widecombe Fair is particularly interesting. Wouldn't it be good to also know the stories behind the people referred to in the song, if indeed they were real-life people?

      Not quite so keen on 'Green Grow the Rushes' but again, the story behind it is intriguing, and I love the video - nobody can have that kind of fun performing a modern pop song can they!

      Thanks for this Linda - songs which survive for centuries do so for a reason - memorable tunes, enjoyable lyrics, easy to sing and play. Just plain good. Alun

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for such a lovely comment, Audrey! I appreciate the share and the pin a great deal as well.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 9 months ago from Nashville Tn.

      How I love folk songs! I sing and play each one featured here in your article. You've presented an outstanding source of information and videos. I'll be sure to pass this enjoyable write along to friends and followers. I'll also pin to my music page. Thanks Alicia!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Vellur. I love exploring the backgrounds of folk songs. They often have an interesting history.

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 9 months ago from Dubai

      Interesting and informative article about traditional folk songs. Fascinating how each song has an interesting background, thank you for sharing.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, Dianna. I agree—the first tune is both lovely and memorable.

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      teaches12345 9 months ago

      I have heard of the first song, I gave my love a cherry. The tune is so memorable. This was a sweet post.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, ChitrangadaSharan. I appreciate your visit. I enjoy listening to folk songs from different countries, too. Traditional songs from different cultures are very interesting.

      Happy New Year to you as well!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 9 months ago from New Delhi, India

      Interesting and refreshing hub ! I always enjoy folk songs , whether from any region, language or country.

      Thanks for introducing these traditional English folk songs along with the historical aspect. I found the read enjoyable as well as informative!

      Thanks and a Very Happy New Year to you!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, Nell. The nice thing about English folk songs is that there are so many that we can discuss. I love exploring them. Thanks for sharing the information about Donny's song. I'll have to listen to it.

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      Nell Rose 9 months ago

      HI Alicia, lol! you beat me to it! I was going to write English folk songs, but haven't got round to starting it yet apart from the title! You did it much better than me so I will delete and start again a new one. That first song, the cherry? if that was the original tune then I can see where Donny got his song, twelfth of never! I totally enjoyed this!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, CYong74. I haven't heard of the violent versions of the song before. Based on your description, I'm glad I've never discovered them! Thanks for sharing the information, though. It's a shame that the folk song was changed.

    • CYong74 profile image

      Cedric Yong 9 months ago from Singapore

      This is very fascinating to know!

      I remember reading some REALLY violent versions of Drunken Sailor in the 90s. Versions quite fit for a B grade slasher movie. I'm glad you didn't mention any of those. (I take it those versions were made up for humour)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment and for sharing the interesting information about the Navy choir, Mel. I hope you have a very happy new year.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Rachel. Thanks for reading the article and listening to the songs. I think the first song is beautiful and other three are fun. I hope you have a great 2017.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 9 months ago from San Diego California

      A lot of fun and great history too. Drunken sailor is one I can relate to, though the cat o nine tails had been phased out by the time I did my service, thank goodness. The Navy choir still sings that during the army-navy football game, I believe. Great stuff.

    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 9 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Alicia, What an interesting hub. I listened to the songs and they were very catchy, I wanted to tap my foot to the faster ones. I loved that first one best, I think. Thanks for sharing them.

      Happy New Year to you.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, MsDora. Best wishes for 2017.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 9 months ago from The Caribbean

      Interesting, refreshing and humorous. Thanks for introducing these songs complete with history and meanings.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Larry. I appreciate your comment a great deal.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 9 months ago from Oklahoma

      Wonderful historical overview.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, Bill. I hope 2017 is a great year for you.

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      Bill Holland 9 months ago from Olympia, WA

      That was a fun and interesting read. I knew three of these songs, but had never really taken a deeper look at them. Great read this morning, Linda. Happy New Year to you.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Martie. It would be nice if folk songs became more popular with young people. I think the songs have a lot to offer people of all ages.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 9 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Flourish. Many folk songs have stuck in my memory since childhood, too. I enjoy listening to them and singing them.

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 9 months ago from South Africa

      Singing folksongs seems to be a habit of the past. I just don't hear today's children sing any of the folk songs my pears and I, and previous generations, used to sing. Perhaps because the opportunity to play a music instrument, to sing in a choir, and to listen to music, are available in abundance?

      Thanks for reminding us of our precious folk songs, Alicia :)

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 9 months ago from USA

      This was fun and different, as I was unfamiliar with any of the songs. I still recall some of the folk songs I was taught as a child. They are usually clever in some respect and that's probably why they've stuck in my own memory for so long. Much enjoyed!