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Top 20 covers of traditional folk songs (part 4)

Updated on February 21, 2013

This hub is the fourth and final instalment in a series of hubs counting down my favourite top 20 cover versions of traditional folk songs.

5. Scarborough Fair – Simon and Garfunkel

Scarborough Fair is a traditional British folk song which dates back to the 17th century, possibly earlier. The song tells the story of a young man, who tells the listener to ask his former love to perform for him a series of impossible tasks. If she completes the tasks he will take her back. Often the song is sung as a duet with the woman giving her lover a series of similarly impossible tasks.

The song has been adapted and modified throughout the 19th and 20th century, with the popular refrain “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” added during the 19th century. Some have suggested that the words of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme” are a plague reference with these herbs being used to fend off the smell of the dead and dying.

Scarborough Fair remains one of the most popular and widely performed traditional British folk ballads. Various versions were made popular throughout the 1940s and 50s, however it wasn’t until the song was picked up by Simon and Garfunkel that the song reached a mainstream audience. The song became a hit for the duo in 1968 after being part of The Graduate soundtrack. This is Simon and Garfunkel performing ‘Scarborough Fair’ live in Central Park.

4. A Cowboys Prayer/Bury Me Not (On the Lone Prairie) – Johnny Cash

I have already included a Johnny Cash cover in part 3, but his version of these old cowboy songs is so good I couldn’t leave it out. This track is from Cash’s first American Recordings album from 2002 and comprises of two separate pieces performed together as a medley.

This recording begins with ‘A Cowboys Prayer’, a poem by Badger Clark. ‘A Cowboys Prayer’ was first published in 1906 in The Pacific Monthly. The poem was written by Clark while living on his ranch near Tombstone, Arizona. Clark moved to South Dakota in 1925 where he lived for thirty years. Clark was named the Poet Laureate of South Dakota in 1937. Clark’s works have been widely published, and this poem ‘A cowboys Prayer’ is perhaps his most popular.

The second part of this track is ‘Bury me not on the Lone Prairie’, also known as ‘The Cowboys Lament’ or ‘The Dying Cowboy’. The song was adapted from an old sailor’s song called ‘The Sailor’s Grave’ which began with the line “O bury me not in the deep deep sea” which was written many years earlier. The current version of the song first appeared in print in 1932.

“Oh Bury me not on the lone Prairie” has been covered by numerous artists and goes down in history as one of the most famous Cowboy Ballads of all time. This is Johnny Cash’s version of A Cowboys Prayer/Oh Bury me not.

3. When the Saints Go Marching In– Bruce Springsteen

When I started writing these hubs I wanted to cover just folk songs written over a century ago and not to try to take on Blues or Gospel songs. Not because I don’t love those styles of music, but because they are two separate strands of traditional music and it would take many more hubs to even begin to scratch the surface. However with this next song, I make one exception. The reason being that this song is so widely recognized and has crossed over multiple genres of music including Blues, Gospel, Folk and Jazz.

‘When the Saints go Marching In’ is an American gospel song that dates back to 1937. The lyrics to the song were written by Luther G. Presley and the music was written by Virgil Oliver Stamps, both musicians.

Though the song is more likely to be heard today played by a Jazz band as an up-tempo “Hot” number, the traditional use of the song is as funeral music, and it would be played down-tempo as a dirge.

The song has been performed by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tears for Fears, Dolly Parton and numerous blues and gospel musicians over the years. This version of the ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ is performed by Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band from their 2006 concert tour.

2. Star Spangled Banner – Jimi Hendrix

Arguably the most recognisable song in history, it is hard to think that ‘Star Spangled Banner’ started out as a humble poem. The lyrics to the song come from the 1814 poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry” written by Lawyer and amateur Poet, Francis Scott Key. The Poem was set to the tune of a popular British song called "The Anacreontic Song" written in 1780 by John Stafford Smith.

‘Star Spangled Banner’ was recognised for official use by the US Navy in 1889 and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. On March 3, 1931 congress made the song the national anthem of the United States.

‘Star Spangled Banner’ has been performed by many famous artists over the past century, however for me one performance stands out for its passion, originality and raw beauty. That version is Jimi Hendrix iconic performance at Woodstock 1969. Hendrix’s performance has polarized opinion with some calling it the most important political rock statement of the 60’s and others calling it a mangled mess. Here is Jimi Hendrix performing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ live at Woodstock.

1 .Amazing Grace – The Blind Boys of Alabama

Amazing Grace is one of the most recognizable folk songs ever written. ‘Amazing Grace’ is a Christian Hymn which dates back to the 18th century. The lyrics to the song written by John Newton, an English poet and Clergyman. The song was first published in 1779 but remained in relative obscurity until 1835 when the words of ‘Amazing Grace’ were assigned to the traditional song called “New Britain” by American Baptist song leader William Walker. The song became enormously popular and came to be an anthem for the religious movement in the US during the 19th century. Although the music “New Britain” version of the song is the most widely known, ‘Amazing Grace’ has been interpreted thousands of times with different variations on the words and music.

‘Amazing Grace’ has been performed by a huge number of musicians from Elvis Presley to Whitney Houston. Of all the versions of the song this version by the Blind Boys of Alabama is my favourite. The Blind Boys of Alabama completely reinterpret the song by singing it to the tune of ‘House of the Rising Son’. This version of the song is so powerful and soulful I have trouble listening to the more conventional version of the song. This is the Blind Boys of Alabama performing ‘Amazing Grace’ live in 2003.

That concludes the list of top 20 covers of traditional folk songs. These are just my opinions and as with any list like this purely subjective. There are many more great traditional folk songs that didn’t make this list and perhaps should have. As I was writing these hubs I was constantly struck by just how great some of these songs written hundreds of years ago, are.

The following songs are ones which didn't make the top 20 but came very close.

I’ve been working on the Railroad – Howe Gelb/Giant Sand

Streets of Laredo – Marty Robbins

John Barleycorn must die – Traffic

Dixie – Elvis Presley

She’ll be coming round the Mountain – Pete Seeger

America the Beautiful – Ray Charles

House of the Rising Sun – The Animals

Home on the Range – Willie Nelson

Feel free to add any of your own favourite traditional songs to the comments, or to tell me I have the top 20 completely wrong. Thanks for reading!


Submit a Comment

  • Larry Rankin profile image

    Larry Rankin 

    3 years ago from Oklahoma

    Wonderful list of folk music.

  • Theeyeballkid profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago

    Thanks very much spartucusjones! Appreciate your comments on these hubs.

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 

    6 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Great hub, and I really enjoyed your series of hubs. Once again a great selection of traditional cover. It is also hard to beat Hendrix radical reconstruction of the Star Spangled Banner.


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