I need your help.
I have a sabbatical coming up and am in the process of figuring out what I can do to add value to my ministry. I am looking for places where my own interests intersect with those of the church. I am also looking for projects that will be fun to do. This quest naturally led to folk music.
Music in general is one of the things that brings Eliot Church together. We love singing hymns, listening to the "special music" provided by our music director and soloists. We enjoy participating in and hearing the choir. Then, of course, there is the Ukestra which has its own spot on this webpage and provides numerous opportunities to play and sing.
What I would like to do for my sabbatical (I have other plans as well) is to learn to play at least 20 folksongs without recourse to written lyrics, chord sheets, or notation. Part of the reason for my wanting to do this simply comes from the social awkwardness of people learning that I play the ukulele/mandolin/guitar, shoving an instrument into my hands, and asking me to play something. It is awkward. The fact is I only know a few songs where I don't need some form of assistance. However, that is not the only reason. I am also on a quest to accumulate songs for the Ukestra and for worship in general. Folk music is a good place to start.
There are reasons for this (some of them obvious) and I am sure that I will unpack that more over time. Right now, though, I would like to accumulate a list of songs that you my loyal colleagues, readers, and fellow Eliot members think I should learn. Since "folk" is a word with many meanings, I have some guidelines for us to think about...
WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR
1) Actual Folk Songs:
As a marketing term, Folk Music can mean a lot of things. Here, however I have a rather restricted vision. Which is to say, I mean actual folksongs. Not semi-acoustic "folky" songs like we hear a Newport. I am not interested in contemporary singer-songwriters from the 1960s to the present. The idea is to find music that is shared (or can be shared) over a broad group of people. In fact, what I am most interested in are songs that we find ourselves singing but are (at first at least) unsure of the author. "Drunken Sailor" or "This Land is Your Land" spring to mind. They are simple and in some sense eternal.
I am not interested in fancy guitar work or introspective ballads. I love Frank Turner. I enjoy Jason Isbell. They and their ilk are great artists but I am looking for songs that identify with a people rather than a person.
Folksongs are meant to be sung and played by actual folks. This means that they are usually structured in a simple, easy to remember way. Repeated lines, only one or two "parts" (verse and chorus), and simple tunes make it possible for a large group of people to know a song, perform it, and enjoy it. To that end, I am looking for songs with from one to five chords and no "bridges". Any more than three chords is probably showing off. It is worth remembering, in fact, that many folksongs (work songs in particular) didn't have any accompaniment to start.
3) "Traditional" or "Anonymous" :
There are many exceptions to this rule, however in general I am interested in traditional songs. Sometimes there won't be an author. Sometimes the tune has been used before or at least echoes other songs.
Certainly some actual folksongs do have authors. Woody Guthrie, Elizabeth Cotton, Charlie Poole, and Robert Johnson are among just a few of the songwriters whose work has transcended their own performance and entered into our cultural consciousness. These are all great choices or suggestions.
A great many commercial acts in the "Americana" vein will throw a couple covers onto their albums. Some of them are obvious and well-known songs. Some of them are not but could be. This is a good place to look. All of them are fair game for us to learn.
Finally, I would like to reiterate that the songs be the sort that people enjoy singing together. Yes, sometimes that means a hymn or spiritual. Yet sometimes it could mean a drinking song, patriotic song, or murder ballad. It just needs to have strong lyrics a steady beat and a simple tune.
WHAT I WILL DO
Once I have a collection of, say, 20 songs that fit the guidelines, I will select 10 that seem interesting and get started. My plan is to research the history of each song, learn to play it, and then record a simple version to place on this webpage. I will throw the chord progressions in there as well.
Ultimately, I will either keep these posts under a separate heading in Burbania Posts or create a "Burbania Folk" page. That will depend on volume, I think.
If anyone (colleagues, bandmates, and congregants in particular) would like to be on the recordings please let me know that as well. I think the videos will get pretty boring without guest performers. Besides--as I said--I envision this project as being a participatory one! Ukestra members of course may very well see some of the songs again... In a good way.
So anyway, what are your thoughts? Are there folksongs that you would like to hear in church? Ones that you would like to learn yourself? Ones that you would like me to learn because you think it would be funny? Let me know! I have some ideas but I am very interested in others.