My business card states that I am a "troubadour." It gets people asking me just what that means. Why don't I call myself a "folk singer"? Probably because that term has been given a "bad rap." I mean, how does one define a "folk singer," or, more specifically, a "folk song"? Well, volumes have been written on this and I am hardly the one to take on the challenge of addressing this here, in this forum. A friend of mine adopted the phrase "heart-felt songs" instead of "folk songs," because he feels it is more descriptive. Does that mean that the song, sung from the heart of the rap singer, qualifies? You see the problem. I like the phrase "music by and for folks" - i.e., the "man/woman on the street." That, too, makes the song one that can be written anonymously or copyrighted by a particular composer; after all, isn't the lyricist a "folk"? So let us just say, for our purposes here, that folk songs are those songs that "belong to the people," meaning that they are subject to the interpretations and variations the singers choose to apply. And that they have "staying power": they have a tendency to endure, even long after the topic or the philosophy has been forgotten (Ives, p. iii).
All that being said, here I will address the subject of the "folk process." If we consider a folk song being one that is sung by and for people, it stands to reason that it will be adjusted as the singer and audience dictate (Bohlman, p. 73). Sometimes certain events crop up that cause a singer/songwriter to develop a new song, based on the premise of a prior piece, to accommodate the needs of his/her audience. Such was the case of "The M.T.A. Song," made famous by the Kingston Trio in the mid-1950s. It dealt with a fare increase on the Massachusetts Transit Authority in Boston, requiring that the passenger pay both when entering and leaving the train. Written by Bess Hawes and Jacqueline Steiner Sharpe in 1948, it addressed an immediate concern of the voters, supporters of Walter O'Brien (Seeger, p. 186). The politician's name was changed to George O'Brien for the Kingston Trio's version, making it more marketable and giving it "staying power," another example of a song being altered to "fit the need." Then, in more recent years, the M.T.A. has developed a pass, allowing passengers to avoid the entire problem of having change to ride the T, called the "Charlie Pass," after the protagonist in the song, Charlie, "who never returned" for lack of a nickel (Wikipedia, "M.T.A.").
But the entire song is an example of this "folk process" - the changing of lyrics to meet the need: it was written to the tune of "The Ship that Never Returned," by Henry Clay Work (of "Grandfather's Clock" fame) in 1865. Using the same premise as the Work song - a fate that would forever be unknown - "The M.T.A. Song" just adjusted circumstances and setting and, voilà, a "new" song is born (Wikipedia, "The Ship that Never Returned"). Chronologically, between the two compositions, a song was written about a railroad tragedy called "The Wreck of the Old 97," which occurred in 1903. While the original song of the ship dealt with a fictional event and the 1940s song of the commuter dealt with a real fare hike but housed in a fictional event, the 1903 train wreck was very real and a disaster, to be sure. The tune carried the story that needed to be both told and remembered (for some reason, if a historical event is put to music, it seems that more people will become aware of it and maybe even remember it; the reason why I have always thought American History should be taught via songs). Here is the story, penned in 1924, by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, of an over-zealous engineer, faced with a deadline (which became more literal in the end). But rather than not knowing the fate, as with the two other songs to this tune, the emphasis is on "he will never return" ("The Wreck of the Old 97"). The "never return" line appears in all three of these compositions.
So there is a brief look at the folk process as it applies to a tune and how the music and basic premises and tag lines are used to carry completely different stories. But we also see the folk process at work on a less dramatic scale. In other articles, I have addressed the issue of a song that has lyrics remembered differently by people in the same family. These were just slight alterations (whether a monkey ran around a cobbler's bench or a mulberry tree), but some songs have undergone such transformations that only the basic premise lets the audience know that they are telling the same story. Sometimes the music for the different versions of the same song has also undergone a complete alteration as well.
When I was a child, my father would sing me the song "A Frog, He Would A-Wooing Go." Now, I did not know what "wooing" was, but the lyrics should have made it fairly clear. In this version, the frog dresses "himself from top to toe" before heading out to Miss Mousie's house, where he courts, proposes, and shortly marries her, with the agreement of her Uncle Rat. The rest of the song describes the wedding celebration and all the unusual guests from the animal and insect kingdoms, culminating in the actions of "the old tom-cat" who devours most of the wedding party. The final verse is a typical one, found at the end of many lengthy folksongs: "Saddle and bridle on the shelf, hmm-hmm . . . If you want any more you can sing it yourself, hmm-hmm." Eleven verses sum up this event (Wessells, pp. 34-35).
As I grew up and began my own collection of folk music (recorded and in print), I discovered that the version of "Froggie" I had grown up with was completely different from the ones my friends were singing. One rendition, entitled "King Kong Kitchie," had a completely different "tag line": "King, Kong, kitchie kitchie ki-me-o," and included a chorus "Ki-mo, ke-mo, ki-mo, kee, Way down yonder in a hollow tree, An owl, and a bat, and a bumble bee, King Kong kitchie, kitchie ki-me-o." Do not ask me how it was decided where the punctuation goes or if the "King Kong" part has anything to do with the giant gorilla of the same name (and, yes, it is capitalized in the song, just as you see it here). In this version, the frog shows up at Miss Mousie's door with a sword and pistol by his side. Unusual attire for courting (though, if the frog in the previous version had been so outfitted, perhaps the tom-cat would have been less inclined to dine on the wedding guests). Anyway, our frog and mouse live happily ever after in a hollow tree, where they raised a family (and don't ask me what the products of that union looked like; I shudder to imagine). Eight verses comprise this version (Asch, p. 60).
Time passed and my love and study of folk music progressed. And the folk process continued. I was introduced to a version of our frog and mouse couple that is called "Here's to Cheshire" (which, from my limited vantage point at the time, seemed to point to more cat involvement). Again there is a "tag line" or refrain, but it is quite different and actually makes some sense: "Ding, Dang, Dong go the wedding bells." I could relate to that. And the chorus for this one is "Here's to Cheshire here's to the cheese, Here's to the pears and the apple trees/ And here's to the red, ripe strawberries. Ding Dang Dong go the wedding bells." In this extremely long version, adapted by Leslie Haworth, the frog has no specific attire, as he had in the previous versions. Uncle Rat is still in the picture and, in this rendition, the cat appears about half-way through the story. The cat ends up breaking the mouse bride's back while the cowardly frog (without any weapons mentioned) retreats to the nearby lake and is swallowed by a duck. The last verse states "This was the end of him and her . . . There won't be no tadpoles covered in fur." It takes fifteen verses to tell the story (Seeger, pp. 222-224).
The most common version of the frog and mouse experience is told in another fifteen-verse epic entitled "Froggie Went a-Courtin'." Again, our frog hero puts on the sword and pistol before heading into the world to court the love of his life. And, again, the cat shows up to put a damper on everything by consuming the frog, mouse, and rat. But it does not end there, oh, no. A "big old snake" then appears and chases whoever is still left into the lake. There is no chorus, but the refrain is more of an "a-huh" than the aforementioned "hmm-hmm" (Blood-Patterson, p. 168).
Some historians believe that this song is an "animated" version of the courtship of Elizabeth I of England by François, Duke of Anjou. This would certainly explain the donning of "sword and pistol" as well as the unusual pairing of a frog (this is as politically incorrect as I will get) and a mouse. Obviously, if the song dates back to the Sixteenth Century, then it is not surprising that so many other renditions have sprung up over the time between then and now (Wikipedia, "Frog Went a-Courting"). But, in all cases it seems, the couple remains amphibian and rodent, male and female, respectively.
Burl Ives says that folk songs have "lasting power." He also believes they must be meaningful (this being a relative term, of course). These are songs that rise out of situations and are retained because they continue to have relevance (Ives, p. iii). Yet these songs change, perhaps as their relevance alters, as social and psychological changes take place in the singers and/or the audience. This is particularly true in the pre-recording eras when songs were perpetuated by the oral tradition (Lomax, p. xx). This explains one reason why my version of a song might be completely different from yours. Instead of arguing about which version is correct, we should examine the differences and appreciate the metamorphosis that is the folk process. Folk music itself is a process, not a static existence (Seeger, p. 145). I'd love to find out what frog/mouse song version you learned.
Asch, Moses, Compiler, 104 Folk Songs as Recorded on Folkways Records by Famous Folk Song Singers, New York: Robbins Music Corp., 1964.
Blood-Patterson, Peter, Ed., Rise Up Singing, Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Corp., 1988.
Bohlman, Philip V., The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World, Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1988.
Ives, Burl, Burl Ives Song Book, New York: Ballantine Books, 1953.
Lomax, Alan, Folk Songs of North America, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, Inc., 1960.
Seeger, Pete, The Incompleat Folksinger, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.
Wessells, Katharine Tyler, Golden Songbook: 60 Favorite Songs and Singing Games, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.
Wikipedia, "Frog Went A-Courting," 28 September 2010, retrieved 5 November 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frog_Went_A-Courting.
Wikipedia, "M.T.A.," 21 September 2010, retrieved 5 November 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_on_the_MTA.
Wikipedia, "The Ship that Never Returned," 23 October 2010, retrieved 5 November 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_on_the_MTA.
"Wreck of the Old 97, The," Blue Ridge Institute & Museum: Online Exhibit, retrieved 5 November 2010, from http://www.blueridgeinstitute.org/ballads/old97.html.