Folk Songwriting 101


I bet you’re dying to become a songwriter. Come on, man, everyone is. I grew up in a town where every person waiting your table, washing your car, or making your latte is forming a band, learning to play the guitar, and/or has written a few songs of their own. If you are this person, chances are those “few songs of your own” have not yet landed you in the Big Leauges. Allow me to step in with some tips as a songwriter/musician by association.

Folk music is a great way to start off your journey to wild musical success. I am going to leave the music itself, as well as the instrumentation, up to you. I offer here some of the necessary elements for writing a successful ballad for “the folk”. Feel free to add any suggestions you may have, as this is by no means an exhaustive list.

To get started, here are a few good elements for the backdrop/setting of your song. 

  • Wandering around– Wandering is a very important element in folk music. It is good to not exactly know any of the following details: where you’re going, where you come from, where you are at present; for a little variation, you could be lost. But if you decide that, it’s more effective to have been in this state for a rather long time.
  • Traveling in general– It is fine to have a destination in mind, but it is better for folk songs if you are in transit and only mention specific destinations in connection with either memories or things to come. If you must have a destination, it is reccommended that it be somwhere south of the Mason-Dixon line, preferably in Tennessee, Georgia, or one of the Carolinas.
  • Trains and related locations– It is good to have a train, train tracks, or a train station somewhere in your song. And it is understood that this train is an old timey, locomotive style train. We’re not talking about a subway or what you ride when you are touring Europe. We’re talkin’ choo choo.
  • Boats/rivers– Boats are a less common mode of transport in folk songs, but it couldn’t hurt if you are looking to be innovative. The river, however is much more common. Many things in folk songs take place “down by the river” or otherwise use rivers as reference points. If you’re trying to think of a good river to use in your song, the Mississippi is always a safe bet.
  • The woods/forest– Wandering/traveling/journeying through your folk song would not be the same unless the traveler is surrounded by trees and foliage.
  • The Moon(light)- Night time and the moon are great to bring up when writing a folk song. Not only is it aligned with the outdoors/woods mentioned a moment ago ( it makes the scene even more picturesque), it also is good for doing certain deeds under cover of darkness that often come up in folk songs.

Those “certain deeds {done} under cover of darkness that often come up in folk songs” may or may not include at least one of the following elements:

  • Murder– Folk songs are not usually very happy. Someone is going/has gone down and it was not/is not going to be pretty. It is preffered that you shoot someone if you are going to murder them in the lyrics of a folk song.
  • Infidelity– This is usually because of all that wandering around; for the weak-willed folk song hero, the eyes may wander, too.
  • Making moonshine– This occurs or is referenced in almost every folk song you will ever hear. “The still” is another important backdrop that I neglected to mention earlier. If you are going to include any other kinds of alcohol, it should be whiskey or some other liquor. Folk song heroes do not drink Smirnoff Ice.
  • Gambling– Usually poker, gambling is a standard “folk” practice.

As a result of such activities, folk song heroes often end up spending a little time in the county jail or prison, another backdrop available for those of you who don’t really like writing songs about the woods.

Besides the hero (the central character who  telling their story, or the main person you are singing about), there are a few others who need to be included in a good folk song.

  • Momma/Daddy– When writing a folk song, it is necessary to include what was or was not taught by these two very important people.
  • Man/Woman– The proper title for a love interest is not a pet name. We state the obvious. “My man left me” and “My woman done me wrong” are two examples of proper uses for these terms of endearment.
  • Jesus– Often solicited to provide rest to weary, wandering folk song heroes.
  • The Devil– He is a longtime veteran in folk music. He is often the one the hero is drinking with, gambling with, or meeting with…and there are extra folk points up for grabs if you are on a train driven by the Devil.

This are just some foundational tips for writing a winning folk song. Although it may sound similar, folk music is not necessarily cowboy/Western or country music  (Although many times, there is a lot of overlap, and some people consider them the same).

You may be wondering what’s next after writing the perfect folk song. I am not exactly certain, but something tells me picking up a harmonica is a step in the right direction. And guys, don’t worry about those razors, totally unnecessary for wandering men like yourselves.

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