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Top 10 East Coast North American Folk Songs

Updated on October 18, 2016

What is the history of the American Atlantic?

Obviously I won't be delving into extreme detail here, that's what university courses are for after all. I am, however, considering a few key things:

First, the civil war. As far as the USA is concerned, it is only rivaled by the Revolution.

Second, massive immigration from all parts of the world. This brought influences of the Celtic islands, Russia, Middle Europe, Latin America, and much more to the coast and into the heart of the industrialization.

Third, consider the areas that attracted specific groups of people. The Scots-Irish largely inhabited the southeast, bringing the celtic music of their homeland into the mountains (and evolving into bluegrass). I've read a considerable amount on the immigration of maritime canada, as well, and there seemed to be a lot of French, Russian, Polish, and Irish influence there.

Lastly, we see the modernization of the world in a very short period of time. Much of the modernization occurred on the east coast (New York, anyone?), and this greatly affected the change in musical landscape. The folk music of the coast has seen sailing, whaling, hiking, loving, drinking, smoking, driving, flying, etc., as motifs. One thing seems consistent, though, and that is that folk music remains almost entirely focused on the common man. There isn't much room for the rich and the powerful to slide into a style of music that is a reflection of the social and political climate. With modernization, too, we see an increase in this theme.

10. Shenandoah

Undeniably already a common staple among bluegrass enthusiasts, Shenandoah deserves solid recognition as one of the most important compositions in the USA's history. Also, it gets bonus points for being really beautiful.

9. Captain Kidd

While its origins truly lie in Scotland, the song has been adapted into the east coast of North America in the maritime islands of Canada and even into New England. The song is about a real Privateer, the song his canon of sorts and records the sort of life pirates endured in those times. Either way the song is upbeat and the chorus is anthemic in the realm of folk music. My favorite part, however, lies in the dark irony of the lyric.

8. Spanish Ladies

Another european invention adopted by the fishermen and sailors of the east coast for well over a hundred years now. It's impossible to meet in a gathering of sailors and not hear this song sung at some point, and it deserves being planted firmly on this list.

Oh, and "Jaws."

7. Orange Blossom Special

This iconic fiddle piece is a commonplace amongst proficient bluegrass bands, but possibly more important to the song's history is its inspiration of many songs since its being written.

Few songs capture the energy of the bluegrass period, few songs procure such awe from viewers as the fiddlers gracefully slide their bows across the strings.

6. Gallows Pole

There's of course Led Zepplin's version of this once obscure americana classic, but there have since been many renditions of the song. It's a grim tale, one full of sex, bribery, death, murder, lies, and revenge. It's a twisted joke that has a wicked punchline.

5. Drunken Sailor

This is a bit cliché, but it's another one of those "impossible not to hear" numbers. It is a widely adapted song across the board, though for the most part all versions remain relatively consistent. This version, however, is just plain out there.

4. The Lakes of Pontchartrain

This is a personal favorite. It's loathesome, it's painful, it's sad; a tale of love learned and lost just as quickly, though the indelible imprint left on one's soul can last a lifetime. Paul Brady's version is my first choice, though there are many other fine renditions recorded over the years.

3. The House of the Rising Sun

Another Louisiana song, so technically a little removed from the eastern shore, but a wonderful song nonetheless. There is of course the Animals' version, the most renowned, but I'm attaching a different version as I'm sure the former is all to familiar. The song, however, is about misfortune of gamblers. It pretty much explains itself from there.

2. The Mary Ellen Carter

While it's not a public domain song (the first on the list actually), it's nevertheless a very important song in the canon of northeastern sea shanty lore. As I'm writing this, actually, I'm preparing to head to maritime chesapeake bay, and I couldn't be more excited. The world is after all 75% water, so it's natural folk music acclimates to this theme frequently.

1. The Old Polina

This is simple, yet anthemic, and thematically enshrines the 19th century fishing boats. It's catchy, fun, and at the same time a written historical version of a true whaler in that time period, a ship that had never been beaten til its sinking in the lates 1800s. Of late, actually, I've been seeing the name pop up here and there in different documentaries, music videos, and articles.

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, and this song is true.


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