Well-Known Folk Melodies You Can Play

Folk songs are by definition songs that have been passed on from generation to generation, which is why they're so deeply embedded in your consciousness. They're songs you've heard ever since you were a child, and songs that you'll probably sing to your own children. Elegant in their simplicity, folk songs employ few tricks or devices to get their point across, but rather communicate their well-worn messages of suffering and hope with simple, memorable melodies.

Here are five classic folk melodies to build your repertoire of major-key songs played in first position.

The first melody, “Simple Gifts,” is an old Shaker hymn that expresses humility, faith, and satisfaction with life — all positive emotions.

FIGURE 9-1: “Simple Gifts”


The second melody, “Tom Dooley,” is an American folk song describing the imminent hanging of a man convicted of murdering his fiancé, so the mood is somber and resigned.

FIGURE 9-2: “Tom Dooley”


The third melody, “Frankie and Johnnie,” is another American folk song that deals with a man cheating on his lover and her consequently shooting and killing him, so it also expresses sadness and inevitability.

FIGURE 9-3: “Frankie and Johnnie”


The fourth melody, “On Top of Old Smokey,” is another classic American folk song. Although it's generally sung with mirth by children (“On Top of Spaghetti”), the song is actually about the heartbreak of losing a once trusted but now apparently false-hearted love interest, so the light-sounding melody carries a twinge of loss and anger.

FIGURE 9-4: “On Top of Old Smokey”


Finally, our fifth melody, “Bill Bailey,” is yet another American folk song that speaks of a lover gone away, but in this case the mood is almost comical, so the feel is light and humorous.

FIGURE 9-5: “Bill Bailey”


Often you will find that a single note can be replaced by a chord or an octave to add depth, as on a song like “Simple Gifts” (Track 31). Once you can play these melodies with clean single notes, try playing them with chord melodies or using occasional octave notes played at the same time, and see how they sound.

The country scale is a variation of the major scale that's often used in country and folk music for its natural bouncy rhythm. It's played by selecting the first, second, third, fifth, sixth, and eighth (octave) notes of the major scale. The scale is also known as a major pentatonic scale.

Chord melodies are created by playing the notes above and below the main melody note to create the chords, and they sound like a three-part harmony.

Dropping chords and octaves into your single-note melodies feels natural when you hear it, but it can be a little tricky to decide exactly where to use these effects. This is always the case when beginning to play, but it becomes second nature after just a little practice. Start by playing the whole song through twice, first using only single notes and then using chords and octaves to create a dramatic build.

  1. Home
  2. Harmonica
  3. Songs You Can Play in First Position
  4. Well-Known Folk Melodies You Can Play
Visit other About.com sites: