Frequently Asked Questions 

What is the American Folk Song Collection?

The AFSC website was created by Anne Laskey and Gail Needleman in order to make the resources of the Holy Names University’s American Folk Songs for Teaching Collection available to the wider public. This collection of over 2,500 songs from both print and recorded sources was developed over 35 years by faculty and students at HNU’s Kodály Center. In 1984 the collection was recognized as an archive by the Library of Congress. 

The online collection provides a unique resource for teachers, as it includes field recordings from the Library of Congress (many of which are not available elsewhere) as well as transcriptions (music and text) of these recordings. The field recordings allow teachers and students to hear songs within their original context and connect more thoughtfully to the communities that were their source; the transcriptions make the music and text more accessible and facilitate musical analysis so that teachers can find songs by scale, tone set and other musical characteristics. 

Our research was inspired by the philosophy of Zoltán Kodály, the Hungarian composer and educator for whom the Center is named. Kodály recognized folk songs as the best material for teaching music—for their beauty, their relative simplicity, and their central role in transmitting culture and human values. “Just as proverbs condense centuries of popular wisdom and observation, so, in traditional songs, the emotions of centuries are immortalized in a form polished to perfection.“ (1941) 

In 2000, we received an award from the Parsons Fund for Ethnography to research historical field recordings in the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Culture. These field recordings document songs from throughout the United States, many of which no longer exist in the communities from which the songs arose. The recordings brought to life songs from the original collection and, along with newly discovered songs from the archive, they form the heart of the online collection. Created by noted arts website producer Larry Larson, the site was launched in 2004 with the support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. 

New songs and teaching resources are added to the collection on a regular basis, providing an ongoing resource for teachers, parents, and all those interested in introducing young people to the rich tradition of American folk music.

How do you define folk song?

While there are a number of ways to look at this question, we have chosen to follow the generally accepted view that a folk song is a song that has been passed down through oral tradition and shaped by the process of selection, variation and continuity. As a result of this oral process, where memory and creativity intersect, most traditional folk songs have many variants. 

The ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl defines the traditional view of folk music as music originating in rural cultures, transmitted orally by nonprofessionals who create variants that must satisfy in order to remain extant, although he also notes that modern scholars have expanded on this view in order to better include the folk music of non-Western cultures. Nettl cites the musicologist Walter Wiora to point out that folk music has a unifying function in a culture: “By ‘folk,’ we mean not only the totality of the basic strata of society, such as peasants, herdsmen, miners, folk musicians, etc. but also that which is truly and generally valid for an entire society.”

The key factor for Nettl is that folk music is transmitted orally, giving rise to multiple versions or variants through the process that the folk song collector Phillips Barry named communal re-creation. 

“Supposing you look for a song like ‘Lord Randall’ in a large printed collection; you are likely to find a number of different versions, all moderately similar, rather than one standard form. None of these versions, or variants, is the original. But all of them are descended from one or a few original versions which have been changed by all the persons who learned them or passed them on to others. . . We have, then, a continuous line of changes and additions which sometimes alter the original beyond recognition. Although only one person created the first product, all of the people who have learned and retaught it have shared in re-creating it in its present form. Communal re-creation, the making of variants, is perhaps the greatest distinguishing feature in folk music as opposed to cultivated music.”

It is sometimes said that if you know who composed a song, it isn’t a folk song; but this may only reflect our incomplete knowledge. However, it is definitely the case that the original song has been transformed in the process of transmission, which sets it apart from both art music and popular music. 

Some exceptions to the rule are generally accepted. For example, hymns are generally learned from print sources, and their composers in most cases are known (although many American hymns represent the use of folk melodies with new words). However, some hymns have been transmitted wholly or largely in the oral tradition; called “folk hymns,” they are considered part of the folk tradition.

Folk songs have had a great influence on both art and popular music and people today often use the term “folk song” colloquially, to refer to songs inspired by and/or composed in the “folk” style. In general, we have not included these songs on our site.

How are songs chosen for inclusion?

This collection contains folk songs representing most of the geographic and cultural populations of the United States. Each song has been selected for its beauty, suitability for teaching and musical versatility. Since our primary purpose is to provide songs for the classroom, we have given preference to songs with simple melody, unaccompanied by instruments, and performed as part of a living culture. This is in keeping with the views of Zoltán Kodály and many other educators regarding the pedagogical importance of simple song material and the central role of songs in transmitting culture and shared values. 

We research each folk song before choosing one or more variants that we believe are both typical and beautiful—the guidelines transmitted to us by the ethnomusicologist László Vikar. We evaluate songs for their suitability for children, including singability, musical form and appropriateness of content. We also investigate the origins, history and social context of each song. Preference is given to songs for which we can provide a field recording. Songs include lyrics, a musical score and song analysis showing how it can be used to develop children’s musical and cultural understanding. 

When selecting songs from print sources, we use primary sources, which contain information about when, where, and from whom the song was collected, rather than secondary sources, which are collections created by selecting songs from primary sources. Recordings, by definition, are primary sources.

How are songs analyzed?

All songs are analyzed for both general characteristics (e.g., origin, song type, subject) and musical characteristics (e.g., scale, meter, form). Songs are only analyzed pedagogically if they lend themselves to learning a particular melodic or rhythmic element. Pedagogical analysis involves identifying the most advanced melodic and/or rhythmic element of a song, based on the teaching sequence for introducing these elements. (This sequence is available within Resources). In some instances, we have identified a simpler element, even when more advanced ones occur, if it is particularly “interesting” and can be isolated easily. If a song has been analyzed for pedagogical use, icons that appear on the analysis page indicate whether the song is most useful for the preparation, practice, or “tuning up” of that element.

How do you recommend using the field recordings in my teaching?

We strongly recommend that teachers find ways of using the recordings in their teaching. In listening to a field recording, students have the opportunity to hear a song in its original context and picture the life of the communities who have cherished this music. To hear a small child imaginatively expressing a song learned from their family, or an elderly person describing how a game was played in their childhood, gives a sense of the true life of the song that cannot be found in books—or even in a polished performance by a contemporary singer.

Teachers may choose to share recordings with students either after students have learned the song or as a way of introducing it. Students can be encouraged to explore the recordings on the site on their own, and bring to the classroom what delighted or intrigued them. Conductors performing an arrangement of a folk song may also want their singers to hear one or more authentic field recordings of the song to inform their understanding and their expression of the song.

Some songs on the site are most suitable for listening only, songs such as “Another Man Done Gone,” “Farewell to the Warriors” or “Going Across the Mountain.” These are included for teachers who are interested in connecting more deeply with our cultural heritage through folk music.

Note: For anyone not accustomed to listening to field recordings from the early 20th century—recordings made in real life conditions, with the technologies of the time (wax cylinders, wire recorders)—the sound of these treasures from the past may be startling. It certainly was to us when we began this project! This is one of the reasons for the value of the transcriptions: to clarify frequently indecipherable text, as well as to show the “bones” of a melody behind a performer’s variations and improvisations. 

The website’s search function includes 17 categories, each of which has drop-down menus to help you find what you are looking for. Three categories (Subject, Game Type and Melodic Element) include subheadings. For example, the subjects “Nature,” “Historical” and “Occupations” have extensive subheadings. 

If a search returns too many songs, you can add additional search terms to narrow the number of songs to review. For example, if you search for “Singing Game,” you will find 118 songs; if you add “Third Grade,” there are 79 songs, and adding “Pentatonic” takes it down to 20.

If you are looking for a specific title, it is better to type it into the Search by Title bar, rather than scroll through the alphabetical list. The titles in the alphabetical list represent the title as it appears in the source from which it was taken, which sometimes is not the most well-known title of the song. We have added alternate titles within the database so that you can find these songs by their more familiar title.

While many teachers use the powerful search engine to find songs that meet specific needs, we also recommend browsing through the alphabetical list of songs and clicking on titles that catch your attention, particularly those that have recordings.

Are songs on the site in the public domain? 

The nature of the public domain is subject to a number of common misunderstandings, including the misperception that all folk songs are in the public domain. The following should clarify the status of the songs on this site.

Print Sources

As of 2020, only print sources published before 1925, or those published before 1965 for which the copyright was not renewed, are in the public domain. For this website, we have either sought written permission or followed fair use guidelines for any print sources which are not in the public domain.

Sound Recordings

In the United States, no sound recordings are in the public domain. We have followed the Library of Congress American Folklife Center’s protocol in obtaining permission to include recordings from their collections on our site, including researching and contacting informants or their descendants. In the case of other online collections and record companies, we have received written permission. 

Do I need permission to use these songs in my classroom or rehearsal?

Print

The online AFSC is intended to be a resource for teachers, conductors and parents. You are free to print out scores and share them in your classrooms, rehearsals and homes.

Recordings

You are also free to play the recordings for your students, but may not download or otherwise make copies of the recordings.

Anyone wishing to obtain a copy of a recording held at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center can visit https://www.loc.gov/folklife/recordering.html.

Do I need permission to perform these songs in my school concert, or to include them in a workshop for teachers?

We can only provide permission for items for which the AFSC is the primary source. This includes songs that we have transcribed (words and music) from recordings on our site, song analyses, and game directions and background information unless otherwise credited. The use of these items for non-commercial, educational purposes, such as concerts and workshops, is allowed, with appropriate attribution: American Folk Song Collection, Kodály Center, Holy Names University, Oakland, CA [http://kodaly.hnu.edu] and the date it was retrieved.

Do I need permission to publish an arrangement of a song from the website, or include a song from the website in another publication? 

As stated, we can only provide permission for items for which we are a primary source. Anyone wishing to use song transcriptions or other items (analyses, game directions and background information) for publication purposes (both print and online) must receive express written permission. Inquiries should be

sent to: kodaly@hnu.edu.