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Top 20 covers of traditional folk songs (Part 1)

Updated on April 4, 2012

Traditional folk music has produced some of the most enduring and influential songs ever written. Traditional folk songs are those which have been passed down from generation to generation, dating back centuries and often without any credited composer. This hub counts down my favourite interpretations and re-workings of these classic traditional folk songs.

20. Oh Susanna – Dave Matthews and Neil Young

‘Oh Susanna’ was written by Stephen Collins Foster and originally performed in 1847. Foster was regarded as “the father of American music” and wrote a string of iconic folk songs in the 19th century including ‘Old folks Home’, ‘Hard Times’, ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ which still remain popular over a century after they were written.

This version of ‘Oh Susanna’ by Dave Matthews and Neil Young is a radical re-working of the original tune which is based on a new melody of the song first performed by Tim Rose in 1963. Dave Matthews and Neil Young perform ‘Oh Susanna’ live at the Bridge School Concert in 2011.

19. Greensleeves – Blackmore’s Night

Anybody who has learnt the Piano will probably be familiar with this next song.

‘Greensleeves’ is a traditional English folk song which dates back to 1580 as the ballad “A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves”. The song was registered by Richard Jones of London Stationer’s Company. It is unknown who wrote ‘Greensleeves’ and debate still rages as to how old the song is and who wrote it with many historians claiming the song is over 1000 years old. What is clear is that by the 17th century ‘Greensleeves’ was widely known and the song is found in numerous late 16th and 17th century sources including Shakespeare’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor in 1602.

This version of Greensleeves is performed by Blackmore’s Night who are a British Folk due led by Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple and vocalist/multi instrumentalist Candice Night. This version of ‘Greensleeves’ is a respectful but modern interpretation of the original song.

18. Stagger Lee - Mississippi John Hurt

‘Stagger Lee’, otherwise known as Stagolee, Stackerlee, get the picture, was first published in 1910 by folklorist John Lomax. ‘Stagger Lee’ is one of the great American murder ballads. The song tells the story about the murder of William Lyons by Stagg “Lee” Sheldon on Christmas Eve 1923 in a St. Louis Saloon. The origins of the song are unclear, however various versions of ‘StaggerLee’ were well known in the Black community of the lower Mississippi around 1910.

Over 400 different artists have recorded the song since the songs first recording in 1923 including Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Nick Cave, The Grateful Dead and many more. The song was a big hit for Lloyd Price in 1959 and reached number 1 on the Billboard chart.

This version of Stagger Lee was recorded in 1928 by the great Country Blues Singer and Guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.

17. Gallows Pole

‘Gallows Pole’ is a centuries-old folk song about a woman condemned to die who is pleading for someone to buy her freedom from the executioner. The writer of the song is unknown; however it is believed it originated in a language other than English. Over 50 versions of the song have been reported in Finland where it is known as Lunastettava neito.

One of the first well known early recordings of the song was by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly who first recorded “Gallis Pole” in the 1939. The Lead Belly version of the song was influential and set the stage for the songs popularity as we know it today. The song has been covered by numerous artists including Odetta, Steeleye Span and perhaps most famously Led Zeppelin.

This version is from Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, performed during their “Unledded” reunion tour in 1994.

16. The Ballad of John Henry – Van Morrison

The 'Ballad of John Henry' is one of the most enduring tales in American folk music. There are many versions of the John Henry Story, in nearly all versions of the song John Henry is a Black man of immense strength who becomes the greatest “Steel Driving Man” to expand the railroads from the East Coast of the United States. The song tells the story of the owner of the railroad who buys a steam powered hammer to do the work of the steel driving crew. In order to save the crews jobs, John Henry challenges the owner and his steam powered hammer to a race. John Henry is victorious but exhausted, collapses and dies. The origins of the song date back to sometime around the 1870’s and there have been many versions of the song written often with differing verses and song structure. It is not known who recorded the first version of the song.

The legend of John Henry is memorialized just outside the town of Talcott, West Virginia with a Statue of Henry and a sign which reads.

"Big Bend Tunnel -- The great tunnel of the C&O Railroad was started at Big Bend in 1870 and completed three years later. It is more than a mile long, and now has a twin tunnel. Tradition makes this the scene of the steel driver's ballad, John Henry”

This version of ‘The ballad of John Henry’ is performed by Van Morrison and appears on the album The Philosopher's Stone.


Submit a Comment
  • Vic Dillinger profile image

    Vic Dillinger 

    5 years ago

    "Stag" Lee Shelton killed Billy Lyons in 1895 not 1923; otherwise how could the song have been "collected" by Lomax in 1910,? You should fix that Oh, and the murder was on December 27, not Christmas Eve. You should fix that, too.

  • Theeyeballkid profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thanks for your comments Alun, I did try to find different versions of these classic folk songs. I like the Vaughan-Williams version also.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

    Greensleeves Hubs 

    8 years ago from Essex, UK

    Interesting page Theeyeballkid, including several songs I know, but not the versions I know. Particularly (as you might expect), I was interested to hear the version of 'Greensleeves', the song which gave me my username, and a longtime favourite. I must admit that even though I much prefer folk music to classical music it is the Vaughan-Williams classical version Fantasia on Greensleeves which I like best of all. But all versions are good, including this one. Thanks for sharing.

    Thanks. Alun. (Greensleeves Hubs)

  • Theeyeballkid profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thanks you very much for the kind comments, The Frog Princess.

  • The Frog Princess profile image

    The Frog Princess 

    8 years ago from Florence area of the Great Pee Dee of South Carolina

    Memories is what you brought to us. Thanks for a great hub with my morning coffee.

  • Theeyeballkid profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thanks for reading Dahoglund, yes you are right the song is also called "Gallows Tree", which may have been an earlier variation on the song before "Gallows Pole". There are so many versions and names for this song it is impossible to tell which came first or what the original was. I haven't heard the Joan Baez version yet, but will definitely give that a listen.

  • dahoglund profile image

    Don A. Hoglund 

    8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

    Gallows Pole I am more familiar with it as Gallows Tree. I've always liked Joan Baez's version of it although there were several recorded in the 1950s and 60's.

  • Theeyeballkid profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago

    Thanks very much for reading. Yes Gallows Pole is a classic, I was torn over which version to include.

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 

    8 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Thanks for the hub! A great list of tunes. I always loved Gallows Pole.


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