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So You Want To / Write a Folk Song

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Wait a minute, aren't folk songs traditionally written anonymously?

Well, yeah, but someone had to think them up. This is a tongue-in-cheek guide to some of the most common tropes and concepts.

Necessary Tropes

  • Unless it's a comedic song, and sometimes even then, someone has to die.
  • It should involve strong drink. Especially if it's Irish.
  • The protagonist should have a dangerous, physically strenuous, and poorly-paid profession.
  • Romance is always good, but is commonly played with — the lover is missing, dead, or disguised.
  • Criminal actions are common, in which the protagonist is a rebel, smuggler or highwayman.
  • The chorus should either repeat half the words of the previous verse, or consist of lilting ("toorali-oorali-oorali-ay"), or both together.
  • The song should begin with one of the following lines:
    • "It was in eighteen-hundred and (insert date here)."
    • "Come all you bold (whatevers) and list to my song."
    • "As I was a-walking down by (wherever)."
    • "My name is (whatever), I'm a (profession)."
  • With regards to time periods, it should begin one morning in May, though June and bleak December are okay in a pinch.

Choices, Choices

  • How will someone die in your song? Murder is the most common option, but other possibilities include execution, suicide, drowning, fighting the law and undescribed illness (this last is especially good for spurned lovers).
  • What does your protagonist do for a living? He might be a soldier, sailor (especially a whaler), logger, miner, homesteader, outlaw, moonshiner, or rebel against the perfidious English.
  • Where does the story take place? The ocean is always popular, as are pretty much any fair, town, valley or mountain in Ireland, Scotland or the American West. Common specific locations include Botany Bay, Carrickfergus and Dublin.
  • How are women portrayed — do they wait for their lover to return from his adventures, or does absence make the heart go yonder? Do they betray their lover, or murder their baby? Are they disguised?


  • The song should not be set in:
    • The White House.
    • Paris.
    • A private jet or yacht.

  • Job categories not found in folksong:
    • Insurance.
    • Government (except for prison guards).
    • Banking (unless robbery is involved).
    • White-collar crime.

Potential Subversions

Writers' Lounge

Suggested Themes and Aesops

  • Honor Before Reason is a good one, especially in rebel and outlaw songs. The protagonist does not surrender against overwhelming odds — he would rather die than give up his freedom.
  • Lost love, in which one partner is murdered by the other or they are trying to find each other. There must be regret if murder occurs.

Potential Motifs

Suggested Plots


Set Designer / Location Scout

  • Good places to set a folksong:
    • On the sea.
    • Any seaport.
    • Dublin, Belfast, Carrickfergus, Glencoe.
    • If Australian, Gundagai. For travel songs, a long string of sheep-stations and river crossings is necessary.
    • The mountains of Mourne or Wicklow.
    • A well-known European battlefield, such as the Somme or Waterloo.
    • A less-known European battlefield, such as St. Valery or Valenciennes.

Props Department

  • A broken token such as a ring or badge, perhaps separated beforehand to give lovers something to remember each other by. At the end, they present their matching tokens to recognize each other.
  • There are a range of firearms, depending on period and location. Flintlocks for 18th-century highwaymen, revolvers for 19th-century outlaws, Armalites, Thompson and Sten guns for 20th-century Irish rebels.
  • Hand weapons are typically knives (for murdering false loves) or pikes (for fighting in the 1798 Irish Rising).

Costume Designer

  • Appropriate uniforms (for the ladies) or dresses (for the men) are common.
  • If the song is Irish, a patriotic token is often necessary - a ribbon, a shamrock, or badge. A flag may be wrapped around the protagonist.
  • The woman in a love song may wear a green or yellow ribbon to remember her love by.
  • Plaides, especially in songs about Scottish regiments.

Casting Director

Stunt Department

Extra Credit

The Greats

The Epic Fails