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[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

Folklife: Folk Songs

Folk songs are songs that originate from ordinary people, rather than trained musicians. Especially in our country’s earlier years, they were passed from person to person orally, rather than being written down.  Often, many different sets of lyrics would be written for a popular melody. Both Civil War songs below were recalled by former slaves interviewed by the FWP; both were sung to Irish melodies:

Jeff Davis is our President
And Lincoln is a fool;
Jeff Davis rides a fine white horse
While Lincoln rides a mule.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights,
Hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a Single Star!

From “[Interview with Word, Sam],” image 235. This song was sung to the tune “Bonnie Blue Flag,” which was based on an Irish melody, “The Irish Jaunting Car.”

In eighteen hundred and sixty-one
Football (?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-one
That’s the year the war begun
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-two
Football (?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-two
That’s the year we put ‘em through
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-three
Football (?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-three
That’s the year we didn’t agree
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-four
Football(?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-four
We’ll all go home and fight no more
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-five
Football (?) sez I;
in eighteen hundred and sixty-five
We’ll have the Rebels dead or alive
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.

From “Songs of Civil War Days,” image 186. This song was sung to an Irish drinking melody, “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl,” which was also the tune used for the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Where the interviewer has written “Football (?)”  the correct wording was probably “For bowls,” a toast from the original drinking song.

  • Which song above was pro-Confederacy? How can you tell? Which was pro-Union? How can you tell?  What functions do you think partisan folk songs serve in wartime?
  • Why did the transcriber suspect that the word “football” was incorrect in the song?  What do you think bowls meant in the original song?
  • Find another version of one of the songs above. Why do you think there are often many different versions of the same folk song? How important is this aspect of folk music?

Why do you think people who create folk songs use already-existing melodies?  What advantages would this have? What disadvantages?

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