LYRICS TO SOME FAMOUS FOLK SONGS:  A SAMPLER  

 

The following section contains lyrics to some famous folk songs (in the world of folk music, "famous" is a relative term).  These songs, which are standards in the repertoire of American folk singers, have various roots:  some come directly, or with little change, from the rich folk music traditions of England, Ireland, and Scotland.  Others sprouted on American soil, from American experiences, but still within the musical heritage of those European classics.  In cases, new, more "American" sounds began to filter in.  Still others arose out of the African slave experience - either in America or in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean - where unconscionable depths of suffering led to unmatched heights of musical attainment, leading to a wealth of hymns and spirituals - songs which were the wings of the enslaved.

As is almost always the case with folk music in the public domain, there is no rigid and fixed form for any one song, lyrics change according to the artist and the moment: there are innumerable variations off of a basic script. 

The songs cover many themes, often love and longing colored by the sensibility of other times; sometimes homesickness; and, of course, in the case of spirituals, themes of hurt, endurance, and faith - liberation by God, when all the power of the earth seemed to be stacked against freedom. 

The songs contain a lot of history, but I will not trace it all, here.  There are better sites and resources for that.  (Two good folk music sites are http://www.mudcat.org and http://www.contemplator.com .)  However, brief mention can be made of some historical tie-ins, here.  "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", for example, was one of the main theme songs of the Northern (Yankee) army during the American Civil War (1861-1865), as it did battle against the slave-holding Southern (Rebel) states.  The tune had formally belonged to "John Brown's Body", a song honoring controversial abolitionist John Brown (some saw him as a Biblical-style hero who took up arms against slavery, while others saw him as a rigid, violent fanatic).  The new lyrics were written by Julia Ward Howe.  In "The Trees Grow High", evidence of the custom of child marriage which once existed in "olde" England, may be gleaned.  "Mary Hamilton" seems to be loosely based on an episode from European history (there is controversy about which one), or perhaps it's just a blurring of several similar historical incidents (a recurring theme), into one powerful opportunity for emotional expression (the tragic downfall of a woman trapped on the wrong side of power).  "Dona, Dona" is a song whose words were originally written in Yiddish by Aaron Zeitlin and Shalom Secunda (the English translation is by Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz).  Deeply rooted in the historic Jewish experience of persecution, it appeals to all whose freedom has ever been threatened.

Being in the public domain, these songs, many of which have beautiful melodies, have offered themselves not only to folk musicians dedicated to reproducing them, but also to folk artists in search of musical vehicles to carry their own, often very different lyrics.  You will frequently find these songs, or suggestions of these songs, resurfacing in the work of other artists. 

When speaking of folk music, of course, not only do these old classics come to mind, but also the more contemporary and often socially-motivated work of artists such as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Buffy St. Marie, Tom Paxton, and Bob Dylan.  These performers have created many wonderful and important songs in the folk tradition, but as their work is not in the public domain, I cannot reproduce it here, only recommend it. 

One of the most outstanding performers of folk music in its traditional form during the last 50 years has been Joan Baez, and I highly recommend her beautiful renditions of several of the songs included in this sampler.

Without further adieu, I leave you with the songs.

 

East Virginia  

Silver Dagger  

Man of Constant Sorrow

Nine Hundred Miles

Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair

Shenandoah

John Reilly

The True Lover's Farewell 

The Trees Grow High 

Mary Hamilton

Hangman

Sinner Man

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Michael, Row The Boat 

The Battle Hymn of the Republic  

All My Trials

Dona, Dona

 

 

EAST VIRGINIA

I was born in east Virginia
North Carolina I did roam
There I met a pretty fair maiden
Her name and age I do not know

Her hair it was of a brightsome color
And her lips of a ruby red
On her breast she wore white lilies
There I longed to lay my head

Well in my heart you are my darling
And at my door you're welcome in
At my gate I'll meet you my darling
If your love I could only win

I'd rather be in some dark holler
Where the sun refused to shine
Than to see you another man's darling
And to know that you'll never be mine

Well in the night I'm dreaming about you
In the day I find no rest
Just the thought of you my darling
Sends aching pains all through my breast

Well when I'm dead and in my coffin
With my feet turned toward the sun
Come and sit beside me darling
Come and think on the way you done

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SILVER DAGGER

Don't sing love songs, you'll wake my mother
She's sleeping here, right by my side
And in her right hand, a silver dagger
She says that I can't be your bride

All men are false, says my mother
They tell you wicked, loving lies
The very next evening, they'll court another
Leave you alone to pine and sigh

My daddy is a handsome devil
He's got a chain five miles long
From every link a heart does dangle
Of some fair maid he's loved and wronged

Go court another tender maiden
And hope that she will be your wife
For I've been warned and I've decided
To sleep alone all of my life

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MAN OF CONSTANT SORROW

I am a man of constant sorrow
I've seen trouble all of my days
I bid farewell to old Kentucky
The place where I was born and raised

All through this earth I'm bound to ramble
Through storm and wind, thru sleet and rain
I'm bound to ride that Northern railroad
Perhaps I'll take the very next train

For six long years I've been in trouble
No pleasure here on earth I've found
For in this world I'm bound to ramble
I have no friends to help me now

It's fare you well, my own true lover
I never expect to see you again
For I'm bound to ride that Northern railroad
Perhaps I'll take the very next train

Your friends they say that I'm a stranger
You'll never see my face no more
There is just one promise that is given
We'll meet on God's golden shore

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NINE HUNDRED MILES

Well I'm walkin' down the track, I got tears in my eyes
Tryin' to read a letter from my home

 If that train runs me right, I'll be home tomorrow night
'Cause I'm nine hundred miles from my home,
And I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow.

Well the train I ride on is a hundred coaches long
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.

If that train runs me right, I'll be home tomorrow night
'Cause I'm nine hundred miles from my home,
And I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow.

I will pawn you my watch, I will pawn you my chain
Pawn you my gold diamond ring.

If that train runs me right, I'll be home tomorrow night
'Cause I'm nine hundred miles from my home,
And I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow.

Well if you say so, I will railroad no more
Sidetrack my train and come home.

If that train runs me right, I'll be home tomorrow night
'Cause I'm nine hundred miles from my home,
And I hate to hear that lonesome whistle blow.

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SHENANDOAH

Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,
Way-hey, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah, I long to hear you
Cause we're bound away 'cross the wide Missouri.

Oh, Shenandoah, I love your daughter
Way-hey, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah, I love your daughter
 And we're bound away 'cross the wide Missouri

 

For seven years I waited for her

Way-hey, you rolling river.

For seven years, I waited for her

And we're bound away 'cross the wide Missouri

Farewell, my dear, I'm bound to leave you

Way-hey, you rolling river

Farewell, my dear, I'm bound to leave you
And we're bound away 'cross the wide Missouri

 

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BLACK IS THE COLOR OF MY TRUE LOVE'S HAIR

Black is the color of my true love's hair
Her lips are like some rosy fair
The purest eyes and the neatest hands
I love the ground whereon she stands

I go to the Clyde for to mourn and weep
But satisfied I never can sleep
I'll write to you in a few short lines
I'll suffer death ten thousand times

I know my love and well she knows
I love the grass whereon she goes
If she on earth no more I see
My life will quickly fade away

A winter's passed and the leaves are green
The time has passed that we have seen
But still I hope the time will come
When you and I will be as one

Black is the color of my true love's hair
Her lips are like some rosy fair
The purest eyes and the neatest hands
I love the ground whereon she stands

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JOHN REILLY

Fair young maid all in a garden
Strange young man passerby
Said fair maid will you marry me?
This, then sir, was her reply

O no, kind sir, I cannot marry thee
For I've a love who sails all on the sea
Though he's been gone for seven years
Still no man shall marry me

What if he's in some battle slain
Or drownded in the deep salt sea
What if he's found another love
And he and his love both married be

If he's in some battle slain
I will die when the moon doth wane
If he's drownded in the deep salt sea
I'll be true to his memory

And if he's found another love
And he and his love both married be
I wish them health and happiness
Where they dwell across the sea

He picked her up all in his arms
And kisses gave her one, two, three
Saying, weep no more, my own true love
I am your long, lost John Reilly

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THE TRUE LOVER'S FAREWELL

O fare you well, I must be gone
And leave you for a while:
But wherever I go, I will return,
If I go ten thousand miles, my dear,
If I go ten thousand miles.

Ten thousand miles it is so far
To leave me here alone,
Whilst I may lie, lament and cry,
And you will not hear my moan, my dear,
And you will not hear my moan.


The crow that is so black, my dear,
Shall change his colour white;
And if ever I prove false to thee,
The day shall turn to night, my dear,
The day shall turn to night.

O don't you see that milk-white dove
A-sitting on yonder tree,
Lamenting for her own true love,
As I lament for thee, my dear,
As I lament for thee.

The river never will run dry,
Nor the rocks melt with the sun;
And I'll never prove false to the girl I love
Till all these things be done, my dear,

Till all these things be done.

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THE TREES GROW HIGH

The trees they grow high,
the leaves they do grow green
Many is the time my true love I've seen
Many an hour I have watched him all alone
He's young,
but he's daily growing

Father, dear father,
you've done me great wrong
You have married me to a boy who is too young
I'm twice twelve and he is but fourteen
He's young,
but he's daily growing

Daughter, dear daughter,

I've done you no wrong
I have married you to a great lord's son
He'll be a man for you when I am dead and gone
He's young,
but he's daily growing

Father, dear father, if you see fit
We'll send him to college for another year yet
I'll tie blue ribbons all around his head
To let the maidens know that he's married

One day I was looking o'er my father's castle wall
I spied all the boys a-playing at the ball
My own true love was the flower of them all
He's young, but he's daily growing


And so early in the morning
at the dawning of the day
They went out into the hayfield
to have some sport and play;
And what they did there,
she never would declare
But she never more complained of his growing.

At the age of fourteen, he was a married man
At the age of fifteen, the father of a son
At the age of sixteen, his grave it was green
And death had put an end to his growing.

I'll buy my love some flannel
and I will make a shroud
With every stitch I put in it,
the tears they will pour down
With every stitch I put in it,
how the tears will flow
Cruel fate has put an end to his growing

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MARY HAMILTON

Word is to the kitchen gone
And word is to the hall,
And word is up to Madam the Queen
And that's the worst of all,
That Mary Hamilton's born a babe to the highest Stuart of all

"Arise, arise, Mary Hamilton,
Arise and tell to me,
What thou hast done with thy wee babe
I saw and heard weep by thee?"

"I put him in a tiny boat,
And cast him out to sea,
That he might sink or he might swim,
But he'd never come back to me."

"Arise, arise, Mary Hamilton,
Arise and come with me;
There is a wedding in Glasgow town
This night we'll go and see."

She put not on her robes of black,
Nor her robes of brown,
But she put on robes of white,
To ride into Glasgow town.

And as she rode into Glasgow town,
The city for to see,
The bailiff's wife and the provost's wife
Cried, "Ach, and alas for thee."

"Ah, you need not weep for me," she cried
"You need not weep for me;
For had I not slain my own wee babe
This death I would not die."

"Ah, little did my mother think
When first she cradled me,
The lands I was to travel in
And the death I was to die."

Then by and come the King himself,
Looked up with a pitiful eye,
"Come down, come down, Mary Hamilton,
Tonight you'll dine with me."

"Ah, hold your tongue, my sovereign liege,
And let your folly be;
For if you'd a mind to save my life
You'd never have shamed me here."

"Cast off, cast off my gown," she cried,
"But let my petticoat be,
And tie a napkin 'round my face;
The gallows I would not see."

"Last night I washed the Queen's feet,
And put the gold upon her hair,
And the only reward I find for this,
Is the gallows to be my share."

"Last night there were four Marys,
Tonight there'll be but three,
There was Mary Beaton, and Mary Seaton,
And Mary Carmichael, and me."

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HANGMAN

Hangman, hangman, hangman, please,

why donít you wait a while?
I think I see my father coming,

travelling many a mile.

Father did you bring me silver?

Father did you bring me gold?
Did you bring me anything

to keep me from the gallows pole?

No, Iíve brought no silver,

No, Iíve brought no gold
Iíve come to see you hanging, son,

hanging from the gallows pole.

 

Hangman, hangman, hangman, please,

why donít you wait a while?
I think I see my mother coming,

travelling many a mile.

Mother did you bring me silver?

Mother did you bring me gold?
Did you bring me anything

to keep me from the gallows pole?

No, Iíve brought no silver,

No, Iíve brought no gold
Iíve come to see you hanging, son,

hanging from the gallows pole.

 

Hangman, hangman, hangman, please,

why donít you wait a while?
I think I see my brother coming,

travelling many a mile.

Brother did you bring me silver?

Brother did you bring me gold?
Did you bring me anything

to keep me from the gallows pole?

No, Iíve brought no silver,

No, Iíve brought no gold
Iíve come to see you hanging, brother,

hanging from the gallows pole.

 

Hangman, hangman, hangman, please,

why donít you wait a while?
I think I see my sister coming,

travelling many a mile.

Sister did you bring me silver?

Sister did you bring me gold?
Did you bring me anything

to keep me from the gallows pole?

No, Iíve brought no silver,

No, Iíve brought no gold
Iíve come to see you hanging, brother,

hanging from the gallows pole.

 

Hangman, hangman, hangman, please,

why donít you wait a while?
I think I see my sweetheart coming,

travelling many a mile.

Sweetheart did you bring me silver?

Sweetheart did you bring me gold?
Did you bring me anything

to keep me from the gallows pole?

No, Iíve brought no silver,

No, Iíve brought no gold
Iíve come to see you hanging,

hanging from the gallows pole.

 

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SINNER MAN


O sinner-man , where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to
All on that day?

Run to the moon: O moon, won't you hide me?
Run to the moon: O moon, won't you hide me?
Run to the moon: O moon won't you hide me
All on that day?

The Lord said : O sinner-man, the moon'll be a-bleeding,
O sinner-man, the moon'll be a bleeding,
O sinner-man, the moon'll be a-bleeding
All on that day.

 

O sinner-man , where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to
All on that day?


Run to the stars: O stars, won't you hide me?

Run to the stars: O stars, won't you hide me?

Run to the stars: O stars, won't you hide me?

All on that day?


The Lord said : O sinner-man, the stars'll be a-falling,

O sinner-man, the stars'll be a-falling,

O sinner-man, the stars'll be a-falling,

All on that day.

 

O sinner-man , where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to
All on that day?

Run to the sea: O sea, won't you hide me?

Run to the sea: O sea, won't you hide me?

Run to the sea: O sea, won't you hide me?

All on that day?


The Lord said : O sinner-man, the sea'll be a-sinking,

O sinner-man, the sea'll be a-sinking,

O sinner-man, the sea'll be a-sinking,

All on that day.

O sinner-man , where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to
All on that day?


Run to the rocks: O rocks, won't you hide me?

Run to the rocks: O rocks, won't you hide me?

Run to the rocks: O rocks, won't you hide me?

All on that day.


The Lord said : O sinner-man, the rocks'll be a-melting,

O sinner-man, the rocks'll be a-melting,

O sinner-man, the rocks'll be a-melting,

All on that day.


O sinner-man , where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to
All on that day?


Run to the Lord: O Lord, won't you hide me?

Run to the Lord: O Lord, won't you hide me?

Run to the Lord: O Lord, won't you hide me?

All on that day.


The Lord said : O sinner-man, you should've been a-praying,

O sinner-man, you should've been a-praying,

O sinner-man, you should've been a-praying,

All on that day.
 

O sinner-man , where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to
All on that day?

Run to Satan: O Satan, won't you hide me?

Run to Satan: O Satan, won't you hide me?

Run to Satan: O Satan, won't you hide me?

All on that day.


Satan said : O sinner-man, come and step right in.

O sinner-man, come and step right in.

O sinner-man, come and step right in.
All on that day.

 

O sinner-man , where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to ?
O sinner-man, where are you going to run to
All on that day?

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SWING LOW SWEET CHARIOT

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home

If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my brothers I'm a coming there too
Coming for to carry me home

 

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home
 

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MICHAEL, ROW THE BOAT

Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah,
Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.

Sister help to trim the sail, Hallelujah,
Sister help to trim the sail, Hallelujah.

Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah,
Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.

The river Jordan is deep and wide, Hallelujah,

Can't see across to the other side, Hallelujah.

 

Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah,
Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.

The river Jordan is deep and wide, Hallelujah,
Milk and honey's on the other side, Hallelujah.
 

Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah,
Michael, row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.

 

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BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling in the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,
He has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword
His truth goes marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth goes marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps
His day goes marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth goes marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnish`d rows of steel,
"As ye deal with my condemners, So with you my grace shall deal";
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel
Since God goes marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth goes marching on.

He has sounded from the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God goes marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth goes marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God goes marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth goes marching on.

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ALL MY TRIALS, LORD

Hush little baby, don't you cry
You know your mamma was born to die
All my trials, Lord, soon be over

The river of Jordan is muddy and cold

It chills the body, but not the soul

All my trials, Lord, soon be over

 

I've got a little book that was given to me
And every page spells liberty
All my trials, Lord, soon be over

Too late, my brothers
Too late, but never mind
All my trials, Lord, soon be over

If living were a thing that money could buy
The rich would live and the poor would die
All my trials, Lord, soon be over

There grows a tree in Paradise
And the pilgrims call it the Tree of Life
All my trials, Lord, soon be over

 

Too late, my brothers
Too late, but never mind
All my trials, Lord, soon be over

 

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DONA DONA

On a wagon bound for market
There's a calf with a mournful eye.
High above him there's a swallow
Winging swiftly through the sky.

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer's night.

Dona dona dona dona
Dona dona dona don
Dona dona dona dona
Dona dona dona don

"Stop complaining," said the farmer,
"Who told you a calf to be?
Why don't you have wings to fly away
Like the swallow so proud and free?"

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer's night.

Dona dona dona dona
Dona dona dona don
Dona dona dona dona
Dona dona dona don

Calves are easily bound and slaughtered
Never knowing the reason why.
But whoever treasures freedom,
Like the swallow must learn to fly.

How the winds are laughing
They laugh with all their might
Laugh and laugh the whole day through
And half the summer's night.

Dona dona dona dona
Dona dona dona don
Dona dona dona dona
Dona dona dona don

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