Songs of sadness, songs of joy

(May 18, 2016)

Why do some people observe that: "Most folk songs long dirges about misery"? Folk songs are not miserable but they are songs that reflect what’s happening to ordinary every-day people. For every song about oppression and injustice there are ‘happy’ songs ... those about coming home, meeting loved ones, bringing in the harvest. However, there’s often an underlying theme about survival, about ‘overcoming’ and making it in the end against significant odds, rather than: ‘my life is so jolly and I’m bloody happy’.

Folk music does have a not wholly undeserved reputation for being miserable music. The view being that its subjects are usually based around some form of suffering or sadness. There are numerous folk songs based on stories about being thrown out of your home, shipped off to Botany Bay or waiting in vain for a long-dead lover to return. Perhaps it’s because folk songs are usually ‘about’ something ... the songs contain a narrative with a point or a purpose and much of that is driven by the human condition, a lot of which over the years has not been particularly happy. It’s hard to break into a song with a ‘hey-nonny-nay’ when life going on around you is fairly crap.

There have always been songs about the darker sides of life, folk or not, engendered by social problems and their effect on people. From an historical perspective, issues such as land clearances, absentee landlords, famine, emigration, war and death, family breakup and domination by power and money certainly spawned a good crop of songs. Today, songs about austerity, financial problems, housing and the plight of migrants produce similar messages.

However, there’s also ‘feel-good folk’. The sort of music that lifts the soul. These songs are still ‘about’ something ... they tell tales, often ribald, sometimes cautionary and they raise a smile because like their more miserable cousins, they reflect the human condition once again, but perhaps delve into the more pleasant side of life.

To the uninitiated, it may seem the majority of this feel good folk is associated with fast tunes played with wild abandon ... although that’s not strictly true. Feel-good folk is far more than executing silly leaping to a swift jig or a foot-stamping reel, feel good folk is not simply a vein of music associated with whooping, hollering and swinging your partner around in a dervish-like frenzy. Feel good folk also includes soft warming ballads, delicate pastoral idylls and reflective reminiscences on life, love and everything in between. So folk songs of the slow and languid genre are not expressly about sad and unhappy themes and it’s not only ‘ripping up the boards’ folk that encompasses joy.

Whatever folk is ‘about’ there are multiple levels to luxuriate your desire for exploration ... investigate a story, find the history behind the narrative, explore the essence of what the writer is trying to convey. Happy or sad folk songs are more often than not songs with meaning. That’s what folk is about ... the meaning, the narrative, the story. That meaning and its message are the ‘about’. In essence, folk is about telling tales.  Unlike so many other forms of music, folk is about something ... happy or sad, fast or slow ... there’s meaning. It may reflect towering peaks and dungeon-like depths, it may rattle the boards or soothe the soul but it’s about something. And for me that’s important.

Click here to return to the Comment page