There are several elements that make a song a folk song or ballad as opposed to an opera aria or a Top 40 hit. No one agrees as to which elements are absolutely necessary before a song can truly be considered a folk song. Generally, a folk song is a simple composition, that has been passed down mainly through oral tradition over a period of some years, and somehow reflects the culture of the people that keep it alive.
Bawdy ballads, and folk songs in general, come from a wide variety of places. There are, of course, American ballads written by Americans. But a greater number of the ballads can be traced to the immigrants that settled America, bringing their favorite songs with them. The songs changed over time to reflect American styles of music, and Americans' unique brands of bawdy behavior. Many folk songs sung in America, bawdy and otherwise, come from the British Isles, the source of Americas' first great wave of immigrants.
Roll Your Leg Over, for example, dates back to 17th century England, and was originally titled Whack Fol De Diddle Do.
A singer performing something like Whack Fol De Diddle Do
was a much more appreciated form of entertainment before radios, TV,
movies, automobiles, internet, or any of our other modern diversions were
available. A singer would perform for his family and friends, and perhaps
at village fairs and markets.
In North Carolina, singers often performed at square dances. The dances were often held as rewards for "workins", where the entire town would gather to help harvest or build a house.
Whatever the performance venue, the songs were repeated by the listeners and other singers. Poor memory and the natural human urge to create and improve would gradually change the song, until its author was lost in the mist of time and the song had truly been written by the "folk."
The Money Rolls In, for example, is set to the tune of My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, but reflects a much less pure-minded sentiment. Roll Me Over, an old army song, has many more verses than the ones that appear on this site. Singers of this song constantly improvised new verses over the years.
Other folk songs have not changed that much over the years. They have achieved their status as folk songs because people love them and sing them...they are the songs that "everybody knows."…they have become songs The Bastard King of England is an example. We even know the author of this ballad--English writer Rudyard Kipling. It is possible that Kipling was denied a knighthood because of his venture into bawdy balladry.
But most folk songs do evolve, and the evolution is by no means limited to the distant past. The 1960s folk singer Woody Guthrie created an anti-Hitler rallying cry, Round and Round Hitler's Grave, from the square dance tune Old Joe Clark.
Blinded by Turdsand For the Birds use the same tune to convey two very different bawdy subject. Perhaps not surprisingly, the censor's eye has looked askance at some of these songs. I'll Go Chasin' Womenand It May Be Silly (But Ain't It Fun) were both banned from Sid Gunther's radio show. Folk music also suffered from the blacklists of the sixties, when folksongs and their singers were often associate with left-wing groups, hippies and Communists.
Despite censorship and competition from modern forms of flashy entertainment, folk songs and ballads live on. You may think you know nothing about folk songs, but if you have ever gone Christmas caroling or taught "London Bridge" to a child, you have sung folk songs.
In order for a ballad to be passed down, it must not only be simple and catchy to sing but easy to remember. It must have a theme that people can relate to. The themes of the songs on this site--love, lust, the treachery of lovers--are certainly slow to change. Enjoy.
Brand, Oscar.The Ballad Mongers: Rise of the Modern Folk
& Wagnalls, New York, 1962.
Droke, Maxwell. Bawdy Ballads and Lusty Lyrics. Indianapolis, 1935.
Liner note sources: