Library of Congress > Collections > The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections illustrate the diversity of the United States as a "melting pot" of many cultures.

  • The Minstrel Boy

    A heartfelt rendition of a lovely Irish air performed by tenor John McCormack accompanied by orchestra.

  • Vanka

    Baritone Albert Janpolski performs a lyrical Russian folksong accompanied by orchestra.

  • Steal Away

    The Dinwiddie Colored Quartet, an African American male vocal ensemble performs a solemn version of this famous negro spiritual.

  • Novena di natale

    In this distinctive recording, the tenor Pasquale Feis is accompanied by the ciaramella and zampogna (types of Italian bagpipe) as he performs this traditional Italian Christmas hymn by Tommaso Cappoci.

  • I'm an Indian

    Comedienne and actress Fanny Brice pretends to be a Native American squaw in this song from the 1928 Warner Brothers musical film My Man. The musical was composed by Leo Edwards with lyrics by Blanche Merrill.

Traditional songs, often called "folk songs," are learned informally, within the context of family, tribe, community, or another close-knit group. Many traditional songs have been sung within the same family or ethnic and regional communities for generations, and as in the case of American traditional songs, can sometimes be traced back to such places of origin as Great Britain, Europe, or Africa and other homelands reflecting America's diverse cultural heritage. At some point the song would have been composed by a single individual, but that author may no longer be known. Most traditional and folk songs change over time, and as they are passed from person to person many variants of the same song or tune often spring up.

In some contexts, traditional songs are an integral part of daily life and are performed to accompany particular activities associated with work, religious celebration, or social occasions. Anglo-American ballads often offer cautionary tales and moral lessons, warning young women about the temptations of honey-tongued suitors and warning men about the wiles of unfaithful women. Sea shanties and railroad songs can function to lighten the burden of routine tasks and provide a rhythm that helps workers perform as a team. Lullabies bind together mother and child, and song and music of all sorts performed within the context of family helps to connect one generation to the next. Blues and its many subgenres are also considered traditional songs.

A group of Mexican girls perform songs for folklorists John A. and Alan Lomax. Photo by Alan Lomax, San Antonio Texas, May, 1934. The children's game song " Hijo, hijo, mira esta muher" was recorded during this Library of Congress field trip, perhaps sung by these girls.

The term "folk songs" is also used to describe songs composed in the style of traditional songs in the "folksong revival" most notably beginning in the 1960s featuring performers such as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Weavers, Tom Rush, Odetta, Bob Dylan and many others.

As with all the categories of song in our Song of America presentation, songs may cross over and fit many categories. Traditional songs can become or inspire popular songs, they may be religious and sacred songs and often they may be considered ethnic songs.

Ethnic Songs

There are many ethnic recordings in this presentation. Generally speaking, ethnic songs may be of many genres including popular, classical, traditional and religious, and they are usually not sung in English.

Ethnic songs are a significant component of the American song repertoire. In a nation of many cultures, ethnic songs and music includes songs from nearly every cultural and language group in the world. Immigration to the United States played an important role in American history, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1900, 13.5 percent of the population of the United States was foreign born and the figure was much higher in metropolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, Baltimore, San Francisco and other large cities. In 1910 there were 700 foreign-language daily or weekly publications in the United States with a total circulation exceeding five million. The recent census reports that in 2010 the percentage of foreign- born people in the United States is 12.7%. Ethnic songs in America not only entertain in a language familiar to listeners, they often, as in the case of traditional ethnic songs, play an important role in expressing and conserving our nation's diverse cultural heritage.

Songs and music, as in all other forms of the arts, are a dynamic form of cultural expression. Performers borrow, interpret, and modify songs based on many factors including personal, cultural, and regional influences. And throughout the history of mankind song and music have been influenced by historic events, conquering nations, ancient trade routes and ever-changing communications systems -- commercial recordings, radio, TV and the Internet. Still to be considered is the growing movement of songs and music creations that fuse song and musical influences from two or more cultural groups. Sometimes referred to as World Music, there has been a growing innovative trend to blend elements of traditional music from many regions of the world to generate new and creative works. Whether we would classify as "ethnic" songs and music examples such as Celtic Hip Hop, Yiddish Blues, or Ethiopian Jazz, all blends of ethnic traditional sounds with modern western music, remains a question for readers to consider.

See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.

Back to top: Back to Top

Traditional Ballads


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

  • The Last Fierce Charge

    Sung by Warde Ford. This Civil War ballad in which both protagonists die was used as a plea for peace during the war.

  • Milwaukee fire

    Sung by Robert Walker. Walker was the uncle of ballad singers Warde, Pat, and Bogue Ford. They are an example of a family that handed down American, British, and Irish ballads, singing them in a traditional unembellished style.

  • Whaling song

    An occupational ballad sung by James H. Gibbs, who learned it as a boy on Nantucket, and who also spent time working as a whaler in his youth.

  • Gypsy Davy

    Sung by Woody Guthrie in 1941. This is an example of a British ballad brought to the United States by settlers and documented by James Francis Child.

  • Lament of the Old Sourdough

    A ballad of the Nome, Alaska, gold rush of 1899-1909, sung by Paul Roseland in 1975. Lyrics by Sam C. Dunham, 1901.


Traditional ballads are narrative folksongs—simply put, they are folksongs that tell stories. They tell all kinds of stories, including histories, legends, fairy tales, animal fables, jokes, and tales of outlaws and star-crossed lovers. (“Ballad” is a term also used in the recording industry for slow, romantic songs, but these should not be confused with traditional or folk ballads.) Many traditional ballads came to North America with settlers from Europe. Others were composed in North America and tell stories or relate ideas that tell us about the attitudes and experiences of our nation as it developed.

Some older ballads derive from songs composed by traveling minstrels who made their living through song in the houses of noblemen. Minstrels composed narrative songs describing love stories, historical battles and events, legends, and journeys to far off lands. As these songs were intended as entertainment, they had meters and melodies appropriate for dancing and were often sung with musical accompaniment. Early ballads, which in English date to before 1600, may also be derived from other medieval sources, including metrical romances, folk tales, and apocryphal gospels about the life of Jesus. Some early ballads from this tradition traveled to North America with the first European settlers. Margaret MacArthur, a folklorist and singer, performed some examples of the earliest known ballads brought to North America in her concert at the Library of Congress in 2005.

“King John and the Bishop of Canterbury,” tells a story about King John of England, who ruled from 1199 until 1216. Similarly, “The Death of Queen Jane,” sung for the Library’s Archive of Folk Song by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1949, recounts the story of the birth of King Edward VI of England, and the death in childbirth of his mother, Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. Such historical ballads are often assumed to have been composed not long after the events they describe, although usually this is difficult to prove. “Mr. Frog,” a folktale ballad about a frog who marries a mouse, which was sung for the Library of Congress by Pearl Nye, derives from a ballad that was first mentioned in 1548, and for which a full text survives from 1611.

The earliest ballads were often composed for the entertainment of the wealthy, but as printing became available, they were spread through printed lyrics, inexpensively published on one side of a piece of paper. Such a sheet was called a broadside or song sheet. Song sheets contained both lyric songs and ballads and were often sold by street vendors at cheap prices. Typically, such sheets contained only the words to the song, with no musical notation. Sometimes, the name of the intended melody was given, and the buyer was assumed to know the tune already. Vendors were frequently also singers who could demonstrate the proper melody to a buyer. Finally, purchasers of broadsides were also free to compose their own tunes, or to fit the song to any existing melody. In this way, the same ballad text often entered the oral tradition with many different tunes attached. The most common singing style was a cappella, perhaps because ordinary people had limited access to musical instruments.

By the late nineteenth century, scholars had begun studying the ballad tradition, both in Britain and America. Harvard Scholar Francis James Child collected early ballads from manuscript sources, and attempted to identify the earliest versions. His collection and documentation’s final form was published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. In this influential book, published in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898, Child created a system of numbers for the ballads he collected, which some scholars still use today as an indexing tool. For more on this, see the essay, “Francis James Child and The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

Battle of Lake ErieDetail from Battle of Lake Erie. Percy Moran, 1911. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6893. Ballads that describe historic events, such as “Perry’s Victory,” can give us insights into how they were viewed or debated by people at the time.

Ballads and Epics

The oldest narrative songs were epics, poems about historical events and legends, some of which are ancient. Epics are typically too long to remember word-for-word, and therefore are composed in performance through a process that involves inserting verbal formulas into a traditional structural framework. They are often chanted, and many of them take days to perform. They are commonly sung without instrumentation or with a simple accompaniment such as a stringed instrument. Johnfrom Soininen, in this field recording from 1939, provides an excerpt from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, “Vaka vanha Vainamoinen.” Another example is an excerpt from the Croatian Epic of Kosovo, sung in Serbo-Croatian by Peter Boro, who accompanies himself on a stringed instrument called a gusle. The melodies in these songs are very simple, as the focus for the listener was intended to be on the telling of the tale, while the chanting and rhymed lines help the singer to remember the verses.

Unlike epics, ballads are typically remembered word-for-word and sung to fully developed melodies. They became distinct from epics and acquired the features we recognize today during the Middle Ages. The word “ballad” is derived from a Latin root meaning “dance,” which has led to the theory that early ballads were used for dancing. Some support for this theory comes from the fact that ballads are sung for dancing in some parts of Europe today, but how old and widespread a tradition this is has never been established with certainty.

Broadside of Revolutionary War period: Tea Destroyed by IndiansDetail from Broadside of Revolutionary War period: Tea Destroyed by Indians. ca. 1773. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-53319 "Broadsides" or "song sheets" such as this were an inexpensive way to market the lyrics to songs, used extensively in the Americas beginning in the Colonial period. This example celebrates the Boston Tea Party.

Broadside Ballads

Alongside the older traditional ballads they helped to spread, printing companies also composed new ballads, frequently employing poets for this purpose. In addition to providing entertainment, such new ballads became a means of spreading news, gossip, and political commentary of the day. Ballads composed for the cheap print market are seen by scholars as a separate class of ballads from the earlier ballad tradition, and are usually referred to as “broadside ballads.” The subject matter of these ballads often concerns the lives of common people. They can be reminiscent of stories in the tabloid press today, intending to persuade, shock, or amaze with tales of murders, disasters, and extraordinary events. A broadside ballad frequently known as “The Wild and Wicked Youth” in Britain and Ireland, which tells the story of a young man who becomes a thief to support his wife, and who is caught and executed for his crime, became a widespread folksong in the United States under the title “The Rambling Boy.” It was sung for the Library of Congress by Justus Begley of Hazard, Kentucky, in 1937.

European Ballads in America

Ballads as sung in North America, while preserving many qualities of the songs as they were sung in Britain and Ireland, also introduced changes through the process of transmission from one singer to another. In some cases the British ballads were made more American as the singers recalled them. For example, Mary Sullivan sings a ballad known in England as “Young Beichan,” or “Lord Bateman,” which she learned as “Lloyd Bateman” Since the United States does not recognize aristocratic titles, she calls the protagonist a “gentleman” rather than a Lord. In early English versions of this ballad, the young protagonist sets sail from England for the Middle East, where he is captured and held captive for ransom. In Sullivan’s version, Bateman sets sail for Turkey from the coast of Georgia in the United States. The version of “The Farmer’s Curst Wife” performed by Asa Davis of Vermont strongly reflects the singer’s Irish background. A more American-sounding version, with the alternate title “Reason Why That Women Is Wiser Than Men,” sung by Lum Wilson “Bill” Jackson of California, shows that the ballad became more thoroughly American in some locations.

Ballads from many countries and languages have arrived in North America with immigrants. Listen to the Finnish murder ballad "Velisurmaaja" sung by Johnfrom Soininen and notice the melodic qualities that are absent from the example performed by the same singer from the epic, the Kalevala, mentioned above. An outlaw ballad, “Utott-kopott oreg csarda” (The Old Tavern), sung by Mary Gaidos of California, demonstrates the style of ballad brought to the United States by immigrants from Hungary. Welsh coal miners brought the ballad “The Miner’s Doom,” which was then picked up and sung by many American coal miners, including Daniel Walsh of Pennsylvania, who sang this version.

Eastern European ballads often show a relationship with the epic tradition. For example, old Russian ballads such as “Alaskan Promyshlenniki,” performed by John Panamarkoff, is chanted, like an epic, rather than sung. The recording is an excerpt from a long ballad about settlers traveling to Alaska in 1808. “Mogatz Mirza,” an Armenian outlaw ballad sung by Ruben J. Baboyan in California in 1939, still uses a simple melody, but allows the singer more opportunities to show off his voice and give emotional expression to the story than in the Russian example.

Some ballads traveled from country to country, translated along the way by polyglot singers. “Six ans sur mer” (Six Years at Sea), sung by Elita, Mary, and Ella Hoffpauir of New Iberia, Louisiana, is a ballad with a widespread international distribution. It is known in Britain, Spain, Scandinavia, and other areas, but is best known in France, where the Hoffpauirs’ version surely originated. It concerns a ship lost at sea, in which the sailors are forced to draw lots to see which of them will be eaten; after the decision is made but before it is implemented, they are rescued.

Native American Ballads

Ballads composed in the United States and passed along in tradition tell stories and legends on many topics. While retaining recognizable European roots, they developed in ways that reflect the regional differences in songs of the United States. One of the earliest known ballads composed in the American colonies is “Springfield Mountain,” a song about the death by snakebite of Timothy Merrick in Wilbraham, Massachusetts in 1761. The tale was particularly tragic because Merrick was very young, and also because he was to be married the following day. Two versions of this ballad were written down in the nineteenth century, and an account of the events leading to Merrick’s death was published in 1914. [1] Detailed information such as this is unusual for songs in oral tradition and helps historians to date the beginnings of what are called “native” American ballads, that is, those composed in North America. As often happens when songs are transmitted orally, this tragic ballad changed and became more lyric, as in this example called “Young Johnny,” sung by Winifred Bundy in 1941.

As colonial printers set up their shops in the 1700s, sheets containing song lyrics were printed and marketed in North America. These included British and Irish ballads along with ballads composed in North America. During the American Revolutionary War, ballads about battles and heroes were used to build support among the colonists. An example is a song sheet with the ballad “Britania’s Disgrace,” and a lyric song, “Lamentation of Lady Washington.” [2] “Britania’s Disgrace” is a song about the battles to secure strategic ports in New York and New Jersey. Though undated by the publisher, the lyrics of the ballad relate events that took place between 1775 and 1777. [3]

Such historical ballads also entered oral tradition, where they were passed on by word of mouth until modern times. “The Bombardment of Bristol,” here sung by Sam Hinton, tells of the bombing of Bristol, Rhode Island by a British ship during the American Revolution in 1775. (Bristol was bombed again in 1778.) Though of unknown age, the ballad has a style consistent with it being from the era of the war. Though the town was severely damaged, the song seems to make light of the event. This reflected a “Yankee” attitude of the time that often portrayed the British forces as inept, though Britain was one of the great military powers of the age. Similarly, the U.S. Navy’s early victories in the War of 1812 were cast as a humiliating defeat for England by American ballad-writers, as Pearl Nye’s version of “Perry’s Victory” makes clear. Perhaps it was songs like this that helped American soldiers face the coming battles.

Some ballads seem to have been composed to promote a particular point of view about an historical event. For example, “Custer’s Last Charge,” sung by Warde Ford, is about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was a conflict between the United States Army Seventh Cavalry Regiment and a much larger confederation of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The song depicts Commander George Armstrong Custer and the 267 men who died with him as a martyrs and heroes. Because Custer used poor judgment in planning his attack, and because the American Indian tribes were defending lands that they had been given by the United States by treaty, historians today do not view Custer’s actions as heroic. But the ballad preserves the attitude of a particular era, which painted the American Indians as the enemy regardless of their treaty rights, a situation worth reflecting upon.

The Cumberland’s Crew,” sung by Pearl Nye, and “The Iron Merrimac,” sung by Judge Learned Hand, are examples of ballads that offer a biased perspective on historical events. Both concern the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862, during the Civil War. (Hampton Roads is a strategic shipping lane at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, off the shore of Virginia.) “The Cumberland’s Crew” tells of conflict between the sloop USS Cumberland and the ironclad Confederate ship CSS Virginia, which had been constructed out of the hull of a raised Union ship, the USS Merrimack (also spelled “Merrimac”). The wooden USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by the ironclad in a devastating show of the power of this new type of warship. But rather than focusing on the defeat, the ballad extols the heroism and patriotism of the sailors in the USS Cumberland. The second day of the battle pitched two ironclads against each other for the first time in history, as the Union’s USS Monitor arrived and took on the CSS Virginia (remembered both in song and in news reports of the day as “the Merrimack”). Although this battle of the ironclads is generally regarded as a draw by historians, the ballad “Iron Merrimac,” promotes the view of the Union proponents that the battle was a Union victory.

French-American and Spanish-American Ballads

Ballads in the French and Spanish languages, both brought from abroad and composed in America, have a long history in the United States, since large portions of the country were settled by French and Spanish colonists before they became part of the United States or experienced significant Anglophone influence. Marce Lacouture, David Greely, and Kristi Guillory performed French songs of Louisiana at a concert at the Library of Congress in 2010. They learned the second song they perform, “Belle,” from a 1934 Library of Congress field recording, of a singer known only as Mr. Bornu. It is a ballad composed in Louisiana, about a man who travels from Louisiana to Texas only to learn his sweetheart has fallen ill back home. He returns to Louisiana and sells his horse Henry to pay for her treatment. (The song occurs at 7:45 of the webcast.) “Isabeau s’y promène,” sung by Lacouture and Greely (at 25:00 of the webcast), is a North American version of an old French ballad about a sailor who drowns trying to retrieve a gold ring lost by the girl he is courting. This version is one that Lacouture learned from a ballad singer in New Orleans, Louisiana. The classically trained Canadian singer Eva Gauthier made a commercial recording of the same ballad as an art song, demonstrating that French songs are distributed throughout North America, and also providing a sense of how traditional ballads can be adapted for different musical styles.

Spanish language ballads from Mexico and from states that were once part of Mexico describe the Spanish settlement of North America and the events leading to the formation of modern Mexico. Corridos, as these songs are called in Spanish, were used for dancing and entertainment, and influenced the development of song styles in the West. José Suarez was a blind singer in Brownsville, Texas, who memorized and performed many corridos. Field recordings of some of his repertoire were made by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939 and are available in this presentation. “Corrido villésta de la toma de Matamoros,” is a song from the Mexican Revolution describing the siege of Matamoros, which is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, in 1913. This violent event caused Mexican townspeople to flee over the border, thus affecting both countries. “Diecinueve de enero,” also called “El Corrido de José Mosqueda” is another corrido from the Mexico-U.S. border. It describes the robbery of a derailed train by a bandit, José Mosqueda, who is credited in the ballad with having caused the train wreck. (The historical facts are not clear.) The outlaws gave their ill-gotten gains to townspeople, probably to evade the law, leading to the gang being treated as heroes, in a legend similar to that of Robin Hood. [4]

Jesse JamesJesse James. c1882. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-3854. The killing of this outlaw on April 3,1882 became the subject of a ballad.

Ballad Themes: Heroes, Outlaws, Murderers, and Workers

Ballads that originated in the United States often celebrate heroic Americans. “Casey Jones,” relates the tragic death of train engineer Luther “Casey” Jones when his train, the Cannonball Express, collided with a stalled freight train in Vaughn, Mississippi in the early hours of April 30, 1900. Jones was the only fatality in the crash, having told his fireman, Simeon T. Webb, to jump before the impact. The ballad created a legend of an engineer who gave his life for the passengers and crew. Some versions name “Vanderbilt’s daughter” as a passenger saved by Jones, which is an embellishment to add to his heroism. Some of the historical facts of the crash are disputed, as the Illinois Railroad investigation found that Jones had missed a flagman and held him responsible for the accident, while, for the rest of his life, Simeon Webb testified that no flagman could be seen.

“John Henry,” a similar hero ballad from the African American tradition, tells the story of a “steel driver,” that is, a worker who drills holes in rocks for dynamite in order to blast a railway tunnel. In the song John Henry pits himself against a steam-powered drilling machine and wins, but dies in the effort. Though many suspect this legend to have its origins in fact, the historical John Henry remains elusive. The enduring appeal of the song is in its depiction of the American worker as heroic and in its valuing humans refusing to bow in the face of industrial progress. It has been particularly important in depicting a heroic black working man devoted to both his job and his family. In general, African American ballads often describe attributes of the ballad’s hero, merely alluding to the details of his story, and many versions of “John Henry” follow this pattern. For more on “John Henry,” including several sound recordings, see the article about this song.

On the other hand, some ballads celebrated anti-heroes, especially outlaws and criminals. Historically outlaws were sometimes romanticized in the press and popular stories as well as in songs. Ruthless criminals might be treated as “Robin Hoods.” Jesse James was a leader of a gang that committed violent robberies of banks and trains in several states in the aftermath of the Civil War. The gang was pursued aggressively by authorities and by 1880 several members of the gang had been captured or killed. James went back to his home state of Missouri, hired brothers Charley and Robert Ford both to assist in robberies and to live in his home as protection for himself and his family. The Ford brothers decided to seek the bounty offered for James, so Robert Ford shot him in his own home. The ballad “Jesse James,” here sung by E. A. Briggs, is about betrayal, focusing on James’ murder by a trusted friend. A widely distributed ballad, it helped create a folk hero out of an outlaw. On the other hand, “The James and Younger Boys,” sung by O.C. “Cotton” Davis in 1941, is told from the point of view of James’s accomplice Cole Younger. It presents a more realistic picture of outlawry, and expresses regret for the gang’s crimes. As with hero ballads, African Americans had their own outlaw ballads, often known as “bad man ballads,” which described, often with ambivalent feelings, violent crimes in defiance of white authority. “Bad Man Ballad,” (perhaps titled by the collector) was sung for John Lomax by Willie Rayford in 1939.

Murder was another frequent topic of American ballads. Some murder ballads were based on British originals, such as “Pretty Polly,” which was sung for the Library of Congress by Pete Steele of Hamilton, Ohio, in 1938. This song derives from an English ballad known as “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.” But many other murder ballads were composed in America, especially after famous murder cases. An example is “Pearl Bryant,” a fictionalized account of the murder of Pearl Bryan in Kentucky in 1896. Murder ballads often appeared on song sheets and broadsides, including such obscure pieces as “The Thirtieth Street murder.”

Occupational ballads tell stories related to particular professions, and are often composed by people in those professions. Cowboy ballads originated in the nineteenth century as entertainment on long cattle drives. They might tell a sad story, as “Sam Bass,” here sung by E. A. Briggs in 1939, or they might be entertaining and humorous, as is the ballad of the “Zebra Dun,” sung by Frank Goodwyn in 1939. (A “zebra dun” is a light brown horse with a black mane and tail and markings such as stripes on the legs, which suggested wildness to many cowboys.) Coal miners also sing ballads, sometimes used as entertainment on work breaks in the mines, or to recount historical mining events. “The Avondale Mine Disaster,” sung by John J. Quinn in 1947, tells the story of the fire at Avondale Colliery near Plymouth, Pennsylvania, United States on September 6, 1869, which took the lives of approximately 110 men and boys. The song is more than a recounting of a tragedy, it is a protest song concerning the safety of mines. Logging also gave rise to ballads, which were sung as entertainment in the camps and shanties where lumberjacks lived. Many ballads unrelated to lumbering were sung by loggers, but a good example of a ballad about the lumberman’s life is “Colly’s-Run-I-O,” sung by L. Parker Temple in 1946. The ballad has versions set in Maine, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Conclusion: The Ballad Continues

The demise of ballads has long been predicted, and this is one reason folksong collectors have avidly sought them out, but old ballads continue to be sung and new songs are still written that hark back to the ballads of earlier times. The folksong revival of the 1940s, and the later revival of the 1950s through the 1970s, led to new interest in narrative songs. Singers such as Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez not only sang old ballads, but wrote some of their own. This movement entered the mainstream in the late 1950s, when singers performed ballads with both acoustic and electric arrangements. Lloyd Price’s 1958 recording of the African American ballad “Stagger Lee” was just one version of this song to become a rhythm and blues hit. The Kingston Trio’s 1958 recording of the traditional ballad “Tom Dooley” went to number one on the charts and won a Grammy award in the “country and western” category. It was based on this 1940 Library of Congress field recording of Frank Proffitt. On his 1967 album “John Wesley Harding,” Bob Dylan intended to invoke ballads of the frontier, while singing narrative songs in his own style. In the 1970s the late Jim Croce was famous for his unique style of urban narrative songs, such as “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” and “Rapid Roy,” which blended African American and Anglo ballad styles. Ballads continue to be of interest to songwriters such as Paul Simon, who began his career playing traditional ballads such as “Scarborough Fair” and “Barbara Allan,” and who has written many narrative songs in his long career, from “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” (1972) to “The Teacher” (2000). Both rap and hip-hop music have drawn heavily on ballad-style storytelling, while modern Mexican and Mexican-American popular songs draw deeply on the corrido tradition. Whether songwriters compose new songs to resemble earlier forms of balladry or cloak their narratives in the styles of current popular music, they compose them for an American public still eager to hear songs that tell stories.


  1. Peck, Chauncey E., 1914. The History of Wilbraham, Massachusetts. Published by Wilbraham, Massachusetts. Two versions of the song appear in this history. The first, titled "The Elegy of the Young Man Bitten by a Rattlesnake," found on page 81 is the most complete known version of the ballad, which the author reprints from an 1886 source. The lyric version, on page 83, with the first line “On Springfield Mountain there did dwell...” more closely resembles the recording in the example provided. This book is available online from various sources.[back to article]
  2. A two page song sheet with the lyrics of several songs includes a related ballad from the British point of view on the American Revolution titled “General Gage.” Instead of boasting victory, this song laments defeat, but in other ways the song parallels “Britania’s Disgrace.” For example, both songs say that colonial soldiers “like grasshoppers rise,” and the last four verses of both songs describe the events of the battles of the New York and New Jersey Campaign, although General Gage was not present at these battles. These similarities demonstrate that soldiers on each side in the conflict were often aware of the songs the other were singing, and wrote answers to them. [back to article]
  3. Although published sheet music largely replaced song sheets by the twentieth century, the printing of these continued. Today we may download lyrics from the internet, and print these out for gatherings. Folk songs, labor union anthems, protest songs, and hymns may be printed on single sheets for singing sessions. So, in a sense, this means of transmitting traditional song lyrics continues. [back to article]
  4. The title of this corrido written down by the collectors, “La batalla del ojo de agua,” is incorrect, as it is the title of a different ballad. An article about this corrido, "’El Corrido de José Mosqueda’ as an Example of Pattern in the Ballad,” was published by folklorist Américo Paredes in Western Folklore (Vol. 17, No. 3, Jul., 1958, pp. 154-162). It provides a full text of this performance with a translation into English, along with analysis of the song. [back to article]


Back to top: Back to Top

Children's Songs


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections

  • A record for the children

    An early example of a sound recording for children. Included are nursery rhymes and the songs “London Bridge is falling down” and “Three blind mice” performed by William F. Hooley in 1900.

  • Chish–hi–you–bung–gay Bat Song

    Lura May Jumper sings a traditional Seminole children’s song, in an interview with Robert Cornwall, 1940.

  • Hijo, hijo, mira esta muher

    A children‘s game song sung in Spanish by Josephine and Aurora Gonzalez, Pearl Manchaco, Lia Trujillo, and Adela Flores. Recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax in San Antonio, Texas, May 1934.

  • Come through the saw mill

    A game song sung by Viola Brown and Otto Washington of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina. Recorded by John and Ruby Lomax, 1939

  • To mikro potamaki

    Helen Sarris, aged ten, sings a children‘s play song in Greek. She is introduced by folklorist Carita Doggett Corse. Recorded in St. Augustine, Florida, 1940

Children's songs may include songs that adults sing or teach to children, songs children pass along to each other, and songs that children compose themselves. These distinctions are not always clear cut, however, as adults may teach children songs that they learned from other children in childhood, and children may pass along songs learned from adults to other children.

The songs adults and older siblings sing to infants are often designed to make the work of taking care of a child easier. Lullabies reflect various ideas about what will send an infant off to sleep. Some have soothing rhythms for rocking a baby such as the Puerto Rican lullaby, "Niño Querido," sung by Cruz Losada, while others use a gently jostling rhythm, such as "Come up, Horsey, Hey, Hey," an African American lullaby sung by Vera Hall. Lullabies may express the frustrations of caring for an infant, have nonsensical lyrics, or have lyrics intended to entertain older children who may be present. Parents are free to express frustration in their songs, especially while their children are too young to understand the words. For example, the lyrics of "Rock-a-bye-baby" are disturbing if examined too closely. The lyric, "When the bough breaks the cradle will fall," would more likely induce nightmares than sweet dreams if the baby understood it. Another familiar lullaby, "Pretty little horses," expresses something that an adult may imagine that an infant might dream of, but that infants themselves would not understand. Like all folk songs, lullabies are difficult to date. The lullaby "Ughniyah li al-Atfal," sung in Arabic by the Lebanon-born Nicholas Debs of Jacksonville, Florida, and recorded in 1940, is said to be the story of an historic event in the fourteenth century, so the song itself may be many centuries old. It tells of a young Lebanese girl who is enslaved and made a nursemaid. She puts coded information in the lullabies she sings, which helps her family to find and rescue her. [1]

African American children playing a singing game, Eatonville Florida, June 1935

African American children playing a singing game, Eatonville Florida, June 1935. Alan Lomax, photographer Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ppmsc-00383. Many game songs are composed and passed along by children.

Songs that adults teach to older children include educational songs designed to teach counting, the alphabet, cultural awareness, or other subjects. For example, "Diez perritos pequeños" (Ten little puppies), sung in Spanish by Señora Isabella Salazar, teaches children to count backwards from ten to zero. For school-age children, songs may be used to teach them about patriotism and current events. For example, "Land of the Free," by Edward Roberts and William O. Bourne, published in 1862, was composed for children to sing in support of the Union during the Civil War. Another example is "Children of America are we," sung by students at the Blalack School for children of Hispanic heritage in Blalack, Texas, recorded by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939. Holiday and religious songs are taught for educational purposes to children at home, in classrooms, and in religious settings. An example is "Holy Babe," a Christmas song sung by African American students (recorded by Willis James, 1943 in Fort Valley Georgia). Songs adults create and teach to children may tell us a good deal about how children are regarded in a particular historical period, and what parents and teachers want children to learn.

Adults may also sing and teach children songs to entertain them, or to give them a way to pass the time while doing household chores or during long car rides. A familiar song for traveling with children is "Bingo was his name,"(select the link to hear a Bahamian American version sung by Robert Butler). Nursery books provide songs that adults may sing to or with children not yet old enough to read, and may also be used to teach reading and memorization skills. Little Songs of Long Ago, by Alfred Moffatt (1912) includes songs that existed in oral tradition long before they were written down. Songs such as "London Bridge is falling down," and "O, dear what can the matter be?" originated in the folk tradition and stabilized in their current forms during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries after they became available in published form. Today, in addition to song books, children learn songs from television, radio, recordings, internet music and video sites, and film.

Nonsense songs in many forms are often entertaining for children and these may include songs learned from adults or from other children. For example, "Billy Boy" is a familiar song that sounds like a courtship song, but the lyrics do not quite make sense. Billy Boy's new wife's age, the listener is told, is "three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven," but, "she's a young thing and cannot leave her mother." Edward Lear was a nineteenth century poet who wrote many nonsense poems appropriate for children, some of which have been set to music. Lear's poem, "The old man with a beard," set to music by Margaret R. Lang is an example. In addition to being entertaining for both children and adults, nonsense songs and verse are also thought to play a role in the educational development of children.

Little songs of long ago: more old nursery rhymes

Little songs of long ago: more old nursery rhymes, by Alfred Moffat (1910). Rare Book and Special Collections Division. An example of a nursery book for teaching children songs and poems. It includes songs from oral tradition, such as “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

Songs that children choose to sing and pass on amongst each other include those that are used to entertain or tease each other, songs for games, songs used to determine who is "it" in preparation for games, and songs for holidays, among other types. Children may define the boundaries between their world and the world of adults by setting irreverent lyrics to the tunes of songs of which adults approve. For instance, many Americans remember singing some version of the song, "Glory, glory, hallelujah, teacher hit me with a ruler," set to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," when they were children. In the United States the repertoire of songs that children share among themselves may vary a great deal among ethnic groups, and this is especially true if children live, or are schooled, separately, as happened during the era of racial segregation, and as happens among children who attend ethnic schools or live in ethnic neighborhoods. During the 1930s and 1940s there was a growing interest in children's folklore. Folklorists became interested in the singing games of African American children, which differed from those of white children. Zora Neale Hurston, Alan Lomax, and Herbert Halpert were among the ethnographers who made an effort to talk with African American children and document their songs, and some examples of these are available in this presentation. Children of different ages and genders in the same ethnic group may also have different song repertoires.

Children also appropriate the songs of adults and adapt them to suit their own activities. Political jingles, popular songs, and dance songs frequently find their way onto the playground. "Skip to my Lou" was an adult dance song of the American frontier that became a children's song. "Play-party" songs were originally songs for young adults to sing at parties, particularly when dancing was forbidden for religious reasons. Gatherings where adults sang and played games were acceptable, and so songs were created for these occasions. Some of these have since become children's songs. The humorous song, "Crawdad," here sung with mouth harp by Mrs. Vernon Allen in 1940, is an example of a song that has long been enjoyed by both children and adults. It started as a play-party song for adults before it became a song for children. But it continues to be enjoyed by adults as well , and versions intended for adults were recorded by Woody Guthrie in 1944 and by Harry Belafonte in 1962.

Since children's songs created by children, if they are successful, are often sung, changed, and adapted by generations of children, it is usually impossible to identify the original author. But the provenance of children's songs can sometimes be documented. For example, the documentary fieldwork of Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin identified child composers whose families had fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and subsequently lived in the Shafter Farm Security Administration (FSA) Camp in Shafter, California. Children often compose songs about what is happening in their lives, and so the "Government camp song," composed by sisters Betty and Mary Campbell with Margaret Treat, describes what happened in the lives of younger children of migrant workers. Mary Campbell and Margaret Treat were twelve at the time of the recording (1941), but Betty's age is not given. In the lyrics the children describe the "little rag-house homes" that they live in and the activities of the camp in the song. Younger children of Dust Bowl migrants were cared for and educated in the camps while their parents worked, but older children went to work alongside their parents. Lloyd Stalcup, age fourteen, sings his own composition about his life as a migrant worker and his hopes for the future in "The Cotton Picker's Song," also recorded in the Shafter FSA Camp. While he sings of being happy, it is also clear that the life of a young cotton picker is not an easy one, and he wants to go home to Texas.

Children's play, games, and work songs usually circulate among children, and if published, are intended for children. But adults also enjoy children's songs, and occasionally children's songs are recorded and presented for the world of adults. An example is "Sea Lion Woman," sung along with "Old Uncle Rabbit" by Katherine and Christine Shipp in this field recording made by folklorist Herbert Halpert in 1939. "Sea Lion Woman" was an African American ring game song. As a result of this documentary recording, was featured in the 1999 Paramount film, The General's Daughter. A number of versions of it have also been recorded by professional pop musicians, including Nina Simone and Leslie Feist.

In the world of the playground as well as in the commercial world of children's recordings, films, and television programming, songs are generated and passed on at a fast pace. The repertoire of children's songs sung by both children and adults today may change a great deal in a short time. Yet there are some songs that endure and are enjoyed by many generations.


  1. Stephen Winick, 2012. "Folklore and/in Music," in A Companion to Folklore, edited by Regina F. Bendix and Galit Hasan-Rokem, p. 470. [back to article]
Back to top: Back to Top

Traditional Work Songs


Five recordings from Library of Congress collections.

  • Señora Santa Anna

    A lullaby sung in Spanish by a group of girls at the Blalack School, in Blalack, Texas, 1939.

  • John Henry

    Arthur Bell sings a hammering song about the legendary John Henry, 1939

  • The Northern Neck Chantey Singers

    perform songs used in menhaden fishing from the Chesapeake Bay region. (video)

  • Iruten har nuzu

    A spinning song sung in Basque language by Mrs. Francisco Etcheverry, Matias Etcheverry, and Antoinette Erro, 1940.

  • Unloading steel rails

    Henry Truvillion demonstrates a chant used to organize men unloading railroad rails.

In traditional cultures around the world, work is often accompanied by song. Americans have developed work songs for many occupations, from agricultural jobs like picking cotton, to industrial ones, like driving railroad spikes. Iconic American figures such as cowboys had their work songs, as did sailors, whose songs kept work going smoothly on tall ships throughout the age of sail.

Work songs are typically sung for two reasons: to coordinate the labor of a group of people working together, which improves the efficiency of the work, and to relieve the boredom of a tedious job, which improves the lives of the workers.

In southern cornfields and cotton fields, workers often relieved their boredom with an "arwhoolie," or "Cornfield Holler:" a plaintive chant with only a few words, sung by a worker in the fields. Sometimes, a plantation worker or sharecropper in one field would hear a neighbor's arwhoolie carried on the breeze, and would answer with his own. There were often special calls for quitting time, such as "Oh the Sun Done Quit Shinin,'" and even for mealtimes, such as "She Brought My Breakfast." Similarly, when out cutting sugarcane on a cold fall morning, a Texas singer might complain:

Ain't no more cane on the Brazos
They done ground it all up in molasses

It's impossible to be bored when thinking up lyrics like that!

A good example of the kind of song needed to coordinate labor is the railroad work song. When hammering in spikes to hold down the rails and ties, workers swing ten-pound hammers in a full circle, hitting the spike squarely, one after the other, without faltering or missing. The most efficient way to do this is to get the workers into a rhythm, which is traditionally provided by chants or songs, such as "Steel Driving Song," collected from Henry Truvillion by John and Ruby Lomax in Louisiana in 1939. In the same way, realigning whole sections of railroad that have been shifted by trains—rails, ties, and all—requires a crew to tap on the rails with hammers or pull on them with crowbars. If one man taps the rail alone, or five men tap it at different times, it won't move at all, but if five men tap it at exactly the same time, they can move it. Songs like "Track Callin'" provide the rhythm to get them all tapping or pulling at the same time.

Moses Platt (Clear Rock)

Moses Platt (Clear Rock), Sugar Land, Texas. Alan Lomax, photographer. 1934. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG--ppmsc-00285. Platt sang a number of songs for John Lomax., including "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos."

Most field recordings of work songs were not made while the singers were actually working. The remoteness of the typical work locations was inconvenient to the collectors, while the presence of the recording equipment was inconvenient to the workers. In the prison environment, however, the presence of the collector was an interesting novelty to the prisoners, who in any case had no choice but to obey their wardens, and work tasks, such as chopping down trees or hoeing fields, could be undertaken for the purpose of getting a recording. Field recordings made under such conditions, which include "Early in the Mornin'" and "Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad," are useful for getting a sense of how the work went together with the song.

American sailors had a very developed work-song tradition, and Library of Congress folklorists collected these songs from retired sailors in the 1930s and 1940s. Seagoing work songs, known as chanteys or shanties, had different structures depending on the task they accompanied. Typically, a lead singer, or shantyman, would sing the bulk of the song, and the men who were working just sang refrains and choruses. Short-drag, or short-haul shanties, such as "Haul Away," had just short refrains suitable for a few pulls on a rope. Stamp-and-go or walkaway shanties, such as "Drunken Sailor," for jobs that required walking a few steps to take in a rope's slack, had slightly longer refrains. Halyard shanties, such as "Hangin' Johnny," which were used for moving the wooden yards that held the sails up and down, had still longer ones. Finally, capstan shanties and pumping shanties, for long, sustained labor, had a slower pace and full choruses, such as "Away, Rio." It's interesting that sailors were allowed to complain about working conditions only through the medium of their shanties—the songs were so important to keeping things moving that the officers tolerated a little grumbling in the lyrics.

Detail from 139. As STAR OF ALASKA, 1925. Crew members at the forecastle deck capstan. (J9.28,516n) - Ship BALCLUTHA, 2905 Hyde Street Pier, San Francisco, San Francisco County, CA. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: HAER CAL,38-SANFRA,200--139.

In addition to work songs, which are sung during work, folklorists recognize a related category generally called "occupational songs." Most work cultures that had work songs had occupational songs too, but occupational songs predominate in occupational communities in which work is done by individuals rather than coordinated teams, such as coal miners and loggers or lumberjacks. Occupational songs frequently tell stories about workers on the job, warn against the dangers of the occupation, or teach about the tools and techniques required to be a successful worker. Examples include "The Miner's Doom," recorded from Dan Walsh by George Korson in Pennsylvania in 1947, and "The Lumberjack's Alphabet," collected from Gus Schaffer by Alan Lomax in Michigan in 1938.

Because women's work was not always recognized as labor by male collectors, most work songs have been collected from men. However, women created work songs as well. In California folklorist Sidney Robertson Cowell found waulking songs, used by Gaelic-speaking women in Scotland for fulling woven cloth; an example is "Fhillie duhinn s'tu ga m'dhi (My brown-haired lover, I'm without you)," Most folklorists now recognize lullabies as work songs too; after all, putting children to bed is a traditional parental job in all societies. Like other work songs, lullabies contain an element of protest, in which mothers express consternation with their lives and even hostility toward their babies: why else sing about putting your baby in a tree-top, so that "when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall?" Of course, this hostility is not serious, but it allows parents to vent just a little bit about the frustration that sometimes comes with the joy of parenting. Library of Congress fieldworkers have recorded lullabies in several languages across the United States, including the English-language "Come Up Horsey, Hey, Hey," the Icelandic-language "Budar ei lofti," and the Arabic-language "Ughniyah li al-Atfal."

Just like parents communicating with babies who haven't yet learned to talk, cowboys needed to use pure sound to communicate with their animals. When trying to control a herd of horses or cows, they made soothing, murmuring sounds, and occasional shouts and grunts. They sometimes incorporated these sounds into songs, and literally sang to their animals to keep them calm and on-track. One of these songs, called the "Night Herding Song," was collected by John Lomax from its author, the Texas cowboy Harry Stephens. Because of the popularity of Lomax's publications, versions of this song have since been recorded by Roy Rogers, Tex Ritter, Don Edwards, and other popular cowboy singers.

The "Night Herding Song" is only one example of a work song incorporated into popular culture. From the earliest days of recorded popular music (especially the blues and country music) work songs have been adapted to fit the styles of singers who then became models for later generations. In 1929, Mississippi John Hurt recorded the popular tune "Spike Driver Blues," his adaptation of the traditional "Take This Hammer." The work song "Black Betty," first documented by the Library of Congress, has been recorded by rock bands Ram Jam (1977), Spiderbait (2004), and The Melvins (2011). Thus, in the driving rhythms and sad lyrics of contemporary pop music, one can still hear echoes of the chopping, hammering, and daydreaming of centuries of American workers.



Back to top: Back to Top
Previous: Children's Songs