I like singing folk songs because they are inclusive. They are easy to learn because they contain a lot of repetition and rhyme and predictable patterns in lyrics and tunes. They make sense and are very direct and clear in their meaning. They are passed around orally for a long time, so by the time they come to me, the ones that aren’t so good have fallen out of common usage, and the best ones remain. They work well unaccompanied, as the tunes carry their own structure in the melody. They are songs that can be sung by regular people.
Many folk songs are very old, without known authors, and are commonly called traditional. Examples include Farewell to Nova Scotia, I’s the B’y and the Wild Mountain Thyme. But not all folk songs fall into this category, in my definition. These days we can keep track of authorship better than we did in centuries past, so there are many songs by known authors that I would call folk songs. Some are typically called folk songs, while some are labeled country, blues or gospel in the stylistic categories, but functionally, they work as folk songs in that they are easy to learn, have been passed around orally and work well with group singing. Examples include Four Strong Winds by Ian Tyson, Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotton and I Saw the Light by Hank Williams.
On the other hand, many songs labeled folk in the stylistic sense do not work, functionally, as folk songs. When regular people start singing them in a group, they often stumble over tricky tunes and people have difficulty remembering all the words. The poetry is obscure in meaning and there is no repetition or predictability. Many of Bob Dylan’s songs are like this, as are most songs by Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn and hundreds of other singer-songwriters playing the folk festival circuit today. I am not criticizing these artists for doing what they do. I love listening to many of these songs and have learned quite a few of them. I have just noticed that they are not as easy as folk songs for group singing.
There are, of course, huge grey areas of inclusivity and accessibility. Lots of pop, art and singer-songwriter songs can work for group singing if there is a strong leader and instrumental accompaniment. Because we have heard the recorded versions often enough, it is often fun to sing pop, musical theatre and art songs, as long as there is someone who has taken the trouble to learn all the words and the tricky bits in the tunes.
But when I am going to lead group singing with people who do not sing often, I have learned that it works better to teach a folk song they don’t know than to lead a familiar pop song that they have never really learned. That is why I like singing folk songs.