SONGSTUFF by Cary Ginell: Ransacking the Public Domain, Part 4 Folk Songs on the Charts

Elvis - shutterstockLast time we focused on Elvis Presley’s use of traditional material in crafting some of the best-selling hits of his career. Today we look at how folk music has been a constant source for other popular performers to draw from, especially songs that told stories.

Folk music has been used in popular music for as long as records have been made. From early renditions of Stephen Foster songs and spirituals on cylinders to today, the timelessness of familiar melodies have always been a surefire recipe for success, especially when you add in the fact that with public domain songs, there are no royalties to pay. Folk music has produced hits in a variety of genres, including swing (Glenn Miller’s “Song of the Volga Boatmen”), urban folk (The Weavers’ “On Top of Old Smoky”), and even jazz (Miles Davis’ “Billy Boy”). The hits were not restricted to the U.S. either. In 1958, a thirteen-year-old English grammar school student named Laurie London scored a worldwide hit with his version of the spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

In 1958, folk songs that told stories started becoming popular in coffee houses across America, as part of the so-called “folk music revival.” The revival actually got its start before World War II, when Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger formed the Almanac Singers, a group that took folk melodies and attached new lyrics to them to promote the organizing of labor unions and to build moral against the war in Germany.

Folk music was on the rise in the fifties, and in 1958, a trio of San Francisco musicians calling themselves the Kingston Trio had a No. 1 record with “Tom Dooley,” based on an old North Carolina folk song about a murder in 1866. This set off a series of historically-based tunes that dominated the charts until the Beatles’ arrival on the scene in late 1963.

Arkansas native James Morris, using the pseudonym “Jimmie Driftwood,” adapted an old fiddle tune called “The 8th of January,” adding lyrics describing Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British during the War of 1812. The new song, titled “The Battle of New Orleans,” became a No. 1 hit for country singer Johnny Horton in 1959. Louisiana-born Lloyd Price, a popular R&B singer, reached No. 1 that year as well with “Stagger Lee,” another American murder ballad that dated back to 1895.

The British Invasion, which virtually stopped the folk music movement in its tracks in 1964, didn’t completely kill off folk songs. In 1964, Eric Burdon and the Animals, a quintet from Newcastle upon Tyne, had an unlikely hit with their version of an American folk song about a New Orleans brothel called “The House of the Rising Sun.” Burdon wasn’t the first to record the song; Appalachian musicians Clarence Ashley and Gwen Foster were the first to record it in 1934 and numerous versions had been cut since then by such artists as Josh White, Glenn Yarbrough, and even Bob Dylan. Ironically, the song got its start in 18th century Britain as “The Unfortunate Rake,” but the lyrics were changed once the song migrated to the United States. Thus, Burdon brought it full circle when he heard the American adaptation performed in a Newcastle folk club. Burdon’s unusual triple-meter rock rendering became a No. 1 song in five countries. Some historians call it the first example of folk-rock, the adaptation of folk music elements into rock ’n’ roll. Regardless of what you call it, “The House of the Rising Sun” proved the durability of folk music could translate into any musical genre.

Next time, the story of a jazz bass player who headed “The Biggest Little Band in the Land,” a group that had a succession of sophisticated small jazz hits in the 1940s, most of which were based on traditional folk and classical melodies.

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