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Top 20 covers of traditional folk songs (Part 3)

Updated on July 20, 2012

This hub is part 3 in a series counting down my favourite top 20 cover versions of traditional folk songs.

Traditional folk songs are some of the most influential and enduring songs ever written, and continue to be covered by new generations of artists.

This hub counts down from number 10 to 6. You can find the ealier hubs, part 1 and part 2 here.

10. Hard Times - Mavis Staples

‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ or simply ‘Hard Times’ was written in 1854 by the great American folk songwriter, Stephen Foster. The song was a popular hit in its day on both sides of the Atlantic. The song asks the more fortunate to consider the plight of the less fortunate. It is a cruel irony then, that despite composing some of the most popular songs of the 19-century, Stephen Foster died nearly penniless. (Due to a lack of copyright law at the time and unscrupulous publishers)

‘Hard Times’ is still very relevant over a century since it was written. The song is often seen as an anthem during times of financial hardship and recession. ‘Hard Times’ has been covered by hundreds of artists including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Mary J Blige. This version is neither of those artists. Here is’ Hard Times’ performed by Mavis Staples from the album ‘Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster’.

9. Tom Dooley – The Kingston Trio

‘Tom Dooley’ is a murder ballad based on the 1866 murder of a woman named Laura Foster in Wilkes County. The writer of the song is unknown; however in the documentary Appalachian Journey (1991), folklorist Alan Lomax describes the “Original source” for the song to be a Banjoist named Frank Proffitt. The song tells the story of an impoverished confederate vet, Tom Dula (Dooley) who was convicted of murder for the alleged stabbing of his lover and possible fiancée Laura Foster. Dula was hanged on May 1, 1868. A man named “Grayson” is mentioned in the song who was instrumental in supplying information which led to Dula’s arrest. Some versions of the song paint Grayson as a romantic rival of Dula’s, others have him as a vengeful sheriff who presided over Dula’s capture and eventual hanging. Dula’s last statement on the gallows was “Gentlemen, do you see this hand? I didn’t harm a hair on the girl’s head.”

The song became a big hit in 1958 for ‘The Kingston Trio’. The song went to number 1 on the billboard charts and sold in excess of 6 million copies. The song is often credited with starting the folk boom of the late 50’s and 60s. Here is the Kingston Trio’s version of ‘Tom Dooley’.

8. Whiskey in the Jar – Thin Lizzy

‘Whiskey in the Jar’ is a famous Traditional Irish Song which has been recorded by numerous artists and continues to be one of the most widely performed Irish Folk Songs. ‘Whisky in the Jar’ is about a Highwayman who, after robbing a military or government official, is betrayed by his wife or lover.

The origins of the song are unknown but are very similar to a song called "Patrick Fleming" a song about an Irish highwayman executed in 1650. Folk Historian Alan Lomax suggests that the song originates in the 17th century. At some point, the song found its way to the United States and was a favorite in America due to its irreverent attitude toward British officials.

‘Whisky in the Jar’ has been covered by a multitude of artists including The Dubliners, The Seekers, Peter Paul and Mary, Jerry Garcia, Thin Lizzy and Metallica.

Thin Lizzy had a hit with the song in 1973 and it reached number 6 in the UK. This is Thin Lizzy’s version of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’

7. The Minstrel Boy - Joe Strummer

‘The Minstrel Boy’ is an Irish patriotic song written by Irish Poet/Songwriter Thomas Moore. It is believed that Moore composed the song in remembrance of a number of his friends who were killed during the Irish Rebellion of 1768. The song became widely popular during the 19th and 20th century and became a favorite of many Irishmen who fought during the US Civil War. The song gained more popularity after the First World War. Today the song is often played at funeral services of Irish-American Service Men.

‘The Minstrel Boy’ features heavily in the soundtracks of The Man who would be King (1975) and can be heard in the end credits of Black Hawk Down (2001.

This version of ‘The Minstrel Boy’ is by the late great Joe Strummer from the album Global-a-Gogo and is also used on the Black Hawk Down soundtrack.

6. God’s gonna cut you Down – Johnny Cash

God's Gonna Cut You Down" is a traditional folk song which has been covered by many artists under a variety of different genres. The song is also sometimes called "Run On" or "Run On for a Long Time”. The origin of the song is unknown, however it likely dates back to sometime around the mid 1850s. The song is a warning to sinners that they cannot escape Gods judgment.

Notable covers of ‘Gods Gonna Cut you Down’ include Elvis Presley, Odetta, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Moby and more recently Johnny Cash. Here is Cash’s version of the song from the 2006 album American V: A Hundred Highways (2006).


Submit a Comment

  • Theeyeballkid profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago

    Thanks very much for reading SpartacusJones.

    I was very late discovering Mavis Staples and the Staple sisters, she does have an incredible voice.

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 

    6 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Great Hub!

    I love Mavis Staple soulful vocals. Including Cash and Strummer is pretty awesome.


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