Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts

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Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts

Updated on May 20, 2020

Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts
Linda Crampton


Linda Crampton has loved music since childhood. She plays the piano and recorder, sings, and listens to classical, folk, and early music.

Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts
Traditional folk songs were often sung unaccompanied, but sometimes a fiddle or other instrument provided an accompaniment. | Source

Traditional Folk Songs

Folk songs are an important part of our culture. They are often very enjoyable to hear and can transmit facts and ideas to listeners. Traditional folk songs generally come from a culture that no longer exists, but they are still interesting. They allow us to glimpse a time that has passed but that may still influence us. The traditional songs that I’ve chosen for this article are four of my personal favourites.

The definition of “folk song” is somewhat nebulous. It’s generally agreed that it’s one enjoyed and sung by the common people, or the folk, that live in a particular area. Folk songs of the past were generally transmitted orally. Singers often modified a song after they discovered it, either deliberately or accidentally. This is why different variations of the lyrics exist today.

I’ve included the probable history of each of the songs described below where possible. As with any piece of music that originated long ago, however, the facts about a song’s history, place of origin, or meaning are often uncertain or conflicting.

Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts
The riddle song explains how a cherry can have no stone. | Source

I Gave My Love a Cherry

This gentle song is believed to have been a lullaby for most of its history, although it may have been a love song as well. I’ve always known it as “I Gave My Love a Cherry”, but it’s sometimes called “The Riddle Song”.

The song sung today is thought to be based on a medieval riddle song dating from fifteenth century England. (The lyrics can be seen by following the link in the Reference section below.) The song was carried to the Appalachians in the eighteenth century by English or Scots-Irish settlers. Today it’s described as both a traditional English song and a traditional American one, depending on the writer’s point of view.

The first verse presents four seemingly impossible situations or riddles. The second asks for the answers to the riddles. The third gives the answers. Different variations of the song exist. Two versions of the third riddle have survived, for example, as shown below.

I gave my love a cherry that has no stone

I gave my love a chicken that has no bone

I told my love a story that has no end (I gave my love a ring that has no end)

I gave my love a baby with no crying

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

Answers to the Riddles

According to the song, the answers to the riddles are as follows:

  • Cherry blossom doesn’t have stones.
  • A chicken has no bone—or isn’t eaten—when it’s pipping (starting to break through the eggshell as it hatches).
  • The story of our love has no end. (When a ring is rolling it has no end.)
  • A baby doesn’t cry while it’s sleeping.

Nana Mouskouri is a popular singer from Greece. Though she officially retired in 2008, she has come out of retirement. She is still performing in her eighties.

What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?

“What Shall We Do With the (a) Drunken Sailor” is a sea shanty. Shanties were originally sung by sailors as they worked at sea. The tunes often have a lively beat and in earlier times were helpful for the completion of brisk tasks on board ships. Today they are appreciated as songs in their own right.

The age of the Drunken Sailor shanty is uncertain. The earliest known mentions of the song appear in the first half of the 1800s. The song gives suggestions for punishing a drunken soldier, generally without causing him lasting harm. Like most folk songs, though, the suggestions vary in different versions of the song. Common ideas include:

  • Put him in the longboat until he’s sober.
  • Put him in the scuppers with a hosepipe on him.
  • Shave his belly with a rusty razor.
  • Give him a dose of salt and water.
  • Put on his back a mustard plaster.
  • Put him in bed with the captain’s daughter. (“Captain’s daughter” was a nickname for the cat o’ nine tails. This was a multi-tailed whip used in corporal punishment.)

Most members of The Irish Rovers have Irish ancestry, but the group was established in Canada. Today, the word “Early” in the Drunken Sailor phrase “Early in the morning” is generally pronounced er-lie, as in the performance above. This may not have been the original custom.

Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts
A simple musical score for What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? | Source

The Possible Influence of an Irish Folk Song

The traditional Irish song “Óró Sé do Bheatha Bhaile” (Irish Gaelic language) is believed to have been created in the eighteenth century before the creation of the Drunken Sailor sea shanty. The refrain in the Irish song sounds very much like the one in the Drunken Sailor, as shown in the video below. The sailor song may have been partially derived from the Irish one.

According to various sources, the word “Óró” in the title of the Irish song is a cheer. The rest of the title means “You Are Welcome Home”. As is the case for English folk songs, there is some uncertainty about the history of the Irish one.

The Dubliners was a popular group of Irish musicians that was founded in 1962 and officially retired in 2012. The surviving members of the group formed “The Dublin Legends”, which still exists today.

Green Grow the Rushes, O

“Green Grow the Rushes, O (Oh, Ho)” is an interesting song that contains biblical, astronomical, and possibly pagan references. The song is cumulative, getting longer and longer with each verse. The video below shows how this process works. The history of the song is very uncertain, but a version without the “Green Grow the Rushes, O” refrain was being sung in the early 1800s.

The quote above the video shows the first verse of the song. The quote under the video shows how the song has progressed by the time the fourth verse is reached. There are twelve verses in total.

I’ll sing you one, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What is your one, O?

One is one and all alone

And evermore shall be so.

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

The entertaining performers in the video above are (from left to right) Cerian Cantwr and John Inchingham. Both are members of the modern bardic community. Bards were singers and poets in the time of the early Celts.

I’ll sing you four, O

Green grow the rushes, O

What is your four, O?

Four for the Gospel makers,

Three, three, the rivals,

Two, two, the lily-white boys,

Clothed all in green, O,

One is one and all alone

And evermore shall be so.

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

Biblical References in the Song

Although it seems to be accepted that the references in “Green Grows the Rushes, O” are symbolic, there is often disagreement about what they mean. The meaning of some of them seems obvious, but others are more obscure. They may have been corrupted over time.

The known biblical references are given below. The remaining references in the song are controversial.

  • Twelve for the Twelve Apostles: the Apostles of Jesus
  • Eleven for the eleven who went to heaven: the Apostles minus Judas Iscariot
  • Ten for the Ten Commandments: the commandments given to Moses by God
  • Four for the Gospel makers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
  • One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so: probably a reference to God
Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts
The Aurora Borealis often looks like a green curtain or drape that covers stars. It’s best seen in the Arctic but is sometimes visible at lower latitudes. | Source

Puzzling References

Verse two adds a reference to lily-white boys clothed in green. The identity of these boys is one of the controversies in the song. Two suggestions that have been proposed are described below.

  • The two brightest stars in the Gemini constellation are Castor and Pollux. The names represents twin brothers in Greek and Roman mythology. Zeus transformed the bothers into the Gemini constellation. In winter, the constellation is high in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere and is sometimes covered by the green light of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.
  • According to the gospels, Jesus climbed to the top of a mountain accompanied by Peter, James, and John. Here Jesus was transfigured and developed a white and glowing appearance. Moses and Elijah then appeared beside him. Peter suggested that a shelter of branches be created for each man, which would have produced green “clothing”.

There are multiple possibilities for the meaning of some of the other references in the song as well, including the identity of the rivals that are added in the third verse. Without further evidence, we can’t reach a final decision about what the symbols mean. The song is fun to sing even though we don’t know the intent of some of the phrases that we’re singing.

Four Traditional English Folk Songs: Music and Facts
An ancient cross on Dartmoor | Source

Widecombe Fair

“Widecombe Fair” is a popular narrative tale from Devon. Fairs in the time of the song were places to sell livestock and wares. The Widecombe Fair still exists, although today it offers entertainment as well as agricultural events. The full name of the village where the fair operates is Widecombe-in-the-Moor. The “moor” in the name is Dartmoor. Some people spell Widdecombe with a double d, but a single d is generally considered to be the standard spelling today.

The song tells the story of a man who borrows a grey mare to get to and from the fair. He is accompanied on his journey by some friends. Unfortunately, the mare dies during the trip. She is transformed into a ghost that haunts the moor.

The song is not only popular as a ghost story. Each verse contains the same list of people, giving the tale a humorous aspect for many people who hear it. Interestingly, according to research carried out by the Widecombe and District Local History Group, the people named in the song may really have existed. The first verse of the song is shown below.

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.

All along, down along, out along lea.

For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,

With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,

Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

— Traditional Lyrics (Unknown Author)

The King’s Singers is a group of six men that sing a capella (without accompaniment). The group was started in 1968 by men who had recently graduated from King’s College, Cambridge.

History of the Song

“Widecombe Fair” was published around 1890 in a book entitled Songs and Ballads of the West. The collector of the songs in the book was Sabine Baring-Gould, a clergyman who was interested in English folk music. His work is a valuable contribution to our present knowledge.

The song about Tom Pearce’s mare likely originated in the early to mid 1800s. Since it told a story about a real fair, a real moor, and possibly real people, it’s easy to imagine that it held the interest of the people in the area.

Folk songs discuss matters of concern for everyday people—in other words, for most of us. Old songs that have survived allow us to look at the interests and values of people in history. Perhaps the folk songs that are being created today will serve the same purpose for people in the future.


  • The lyrics of a medieval riddle song from (The song may have influenced “I Gave My Love a Cherry”.)
  • Facts about the drunken sailor song from Songfacts
  • Information about the Green Grow the Rushes, O (or Oh) song from Hymns and Carols of Christmas
  • Uncle Tom Cobley and all may have been real people (from the BBC)

© 2016 Linda Crampton