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Top 20 covers of traditional folk songs (Part 2)

Updated on May 8, 2012

This hub is a continuation of an earlier hub looking at some of my favorite versions of traditional folk songs. This hub is part 2 of the top 20 cover versions of traditional folk songs, counting down numbers 15 to 11.

15. Henry Lee – Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Henry Lee’ is an old Scottish murder ballad which can be traced back to the 18th century. The original version of the song is called ‘Young Hunting’, however like most folk songs regional variants of the song exist notably under the names ‘Henry Lee’ or ‘Love Henry’. The first written version of the song was contained in Francis J Child’s five volume works The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898).

The song tells the tale of “Young Hunting” who is drugged and stabbed to death by a woman scorned after she learns of Hunting’s love for another woman. The woman is taunted by a Bird and racked with guilt she later confesses to the murder and is burnt at the stake.

One of the earliest recordings of ‘Henry Lee’ was made in 1929 by American Blues singer Dick Justice. Since this time the song has been widely covered by a number of musicians in different styles.

‘Henry Lee’ was covered by Nick Cave on his 1996 album Murder Ballads. Performed with his then wife PJ Harvey the song was a minor hit reaching # 36 in the UK charts. Here is that version.

14. Spanish Lady – Shane MacGowan and the Popes.

'Spanish Lady' is a traditional Irish Folk ballad which was first registered in England December 14, 1624 with the Stationers' Company. The Irish variant of the song is called Gallway City, however it is impossible to tell which version came first.

This version of 'Spanish Lady' is performed by the Pogues legendary front man Shane MacGowan from his 1997 album of Irish folk covers Crock of Gold.

13. The Ballad of Casey Jones – Jerry Garcia and David Grisman

The 'Ballad of Casey Jones' is about Casey Jones, the famous railway man of the Illinois Central. The song is based on the train wreck of April 1900 in Vaughan, Mississippi. Jones, a well respected train driver was driving into Vaughan when they discovered another train ahead of them on the line. The switching station at Vaughan did not have enough room to accommodate the length of the train and Casey Jones met his death at the controls of the train, while remaining on board to try to rescue the train from disaster.

The first Casey Jones ballad was written by Casey’s friend and surviving engine wiper, Wallace Saunders. The song was a hit up and down the intercontinental line and the song was taken on the road to perform in theatres. The early version of the song however was never copyrighted and in 1902 when the song published it was credited to T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton.

The song has become an American folk classic with renowned Poet Carl Sandburg calling the song “the greatest ballad ever written”. This version of “The Ballad of Casey Jones” is performed by Jerry Garcia and David Grisman from their album Shady Grove. Not to be confused with the Grateful Dead song ‘Casey Jones’ which is a completely different song, albeit about the same thing.

12. Danny Boy – Sinead O’Connor

'Danny Boy' is an old traditional Irish folk song which possibly dates back to the 17th century. The song is one of over a hundred songs set to the same tune, that of Londonderry Air. The words to ‘Danny Boy’ were written by an English Lawyer and Lyricist by the name of Frederic Weatherly in 1910. Weatherly had originally written the words for another tune, however could not find a satisfactory tune to pair with the words until his sister in law sent him a recording of Londonderry Air.

The first recording of the song was made in 1915 when Weatherly gave the song to singer Elsie Griffin and the song went on to become one of the most popular Irish folk songs over the past century. ‘Danny Boy’ has been covered from hundreds of artists from Elvis Presley to the Pogues to Eric Clapton.

This beautiful version of ‘Danny Boy’ is performed by Sinead O’Connor as a solo A capella.

11. Where did you sleep last Night - Nirvana

‘Where did you sleep last Night’ more commonly known as "In the Pines" is a traditional American folk song which dates back to at least the 1870s. The first printed version of the song was published in 1917 by Cecil Sharp which comprised of just one verse; this version of the song was known as ‘Black Girl’. The songs original author is unknown; however it has been recorded by numerous artists and in many different genres since the turn of the 20th century. Up until 1993 the most widely known version of the song was performed by Lead Belly who recorded several versions of the song in the 1940s. Then in 1993, Nirvana covered the song as part of their MTV unplugged show and the song reached a massive new audience. The Nirvana version of the song is most likely based upon Lead Belly’s 1944 version of the song and it received critical acclaim when the Unplugged album was posthumously released following the death of Curt Kobain.

This is ‘Where did you sleep last Night’ from Nirvana Unplugged.


Submit a Comment

  • Theeyeballkid profile image

    Theeyeballkid 5 years ago

    Thanks for reading! I am not so much a Sinead O'Connor fan but I agree she really does nail that version of Danny Boy.

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Great Hub!

    Nirvana"s "Where Did You Sleep Last Night", stills give me goosebumps every time I hear it. Thanks for including Sinead performing Danny Boy. That was the first I heard it. It was a thing of beauty.