Historically, folk songs were sung by people not trained in music. Whether they were lullabies to help babies sleep, or songs in story form to teach children the history of their society, these songs were passed down from generation to generation until they were written down. Generally, a folk song has a strophic melody with lyrics that can be repeated or chanted. It also has a distinct musical structure with lines that interrelate in a way that gives the song a distinct pattern (ABCD, ABAB).
Traditionally, folk songs are simple and often sung a capella or with very lain & simple acoustic accompaniment. They are often rooted in the local or traditional culture of a place and evoke images and feelings that the listener can connect with emotionally. In addition to the emotion and imagery, a folk song often has a strong historical or social message that is important for the listener to understand.
Folk songs can be about anything a person can imagine – love, work, loss or tragedy. They can be based on a historical event or a legend. They can be political or morally or spiritually important for the community at large, or they can be specific to a certain group of people. Often, they are a protest of a situation that the singer feels is wrong. They can also celebrate a particular event, such as a holiday or a season of the year.
A lot of folk songs are about the weather, or a particular landscape or setting. In the case of an historical event, they may be about a battle, an expedition or even the death of someone significant. Other common themes are the natural world, including animals and plants; a particular city or town; or a certain time period. A popular example is the murder ballads of Ireland, Scotland or the American West.
Another popular theme is a story of a hero or heroine. It could be a famous person who did something heroic, or it could be the story of a family member that is well known in the community. In modern times, many of the same themes can be found in folk songs, though they have been reworked with a new twist.
As with all genres of music, most folk songs are intended to tell a story. It’s important to create strong imagery and use a lot of metaphors and similes, as this helps the listener to visualize what is happening in the song. Using specific details of time, place and atmosphere can really help to bring the story to life. Creating suspense and anticipation is also a good technique for adding to the emotional impact of a folk song. A good way to do this is by beginning in a low key, building up to a high one toward the end of the verse – this builds a sense of anticipation and urgency that can make a song more memorable.