Most countries in the world have their own particular type of folk music but the English are possibly the best when it comes to bawdy humour. Discussing traditional folk music with a friend, I got to thinking about the music of my ancestors and which songs would make up a list of the best English Traditional folk songs of all time and I came up with the following list.

I suggest that the top 3 are:

  • Scarborough Fair

The first version of this song that I recall hearing was that of Simon and Garfunkle in the 1960’s during the revival of folk music during the era of the “flower children” or “hippies.” The beautiful haunting melody from the 19th century versions of the song still dominate current versions of the song. The author is unknown and literally hundreds of versions are reported in folk literature. The lyrics are about a moonstruck lover trying to capture the maiden he has fallen in love with, but alas – she is lost forever. The herbs mentioned in the refrain are related to the verse lyrics – parsley for comfort, sage for strength, rosemary for love and thyme for courage.

  • What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor

A list of best folk songs is not complete without a drinking song and this one has it all over the vast majority of drinking songs. The repetition of lyrics makes the song easy to remember and the topic of a drunken sailor and what to do with him, early in the morning,make the song interesting and memorable. The answers run from the practical to the entirely improbable. The memorable melody and the “sea shanty” roots of the song make it a popular sing-a-long song in seaport bars anywhere in the world. It served both as a song for work and a song for pleasure.

  • Maggie May

This song was revived in the 1960’s by English skiffle bands. The most famous modern day version is likely that of the Beatles whose early roots, as The Quarrymen, were deep in skiffle music. The lyrics of this song are about a prostitute who robs a sailor. The melody is upbeat and catchy – the stuff of pub sing-a-longs. The subject of the song, the catchy melody and the upbeat tempo will likely keep this song alive for years to come. As is the case with many traditional folk songs, the author is unknown.

Whether or not you agree with my picks, there can be no argument that these are some of the best English traditional folk songs of all time. If you like folk songs you might also like to check out Smokin’ Joe Wiseman He has covered traditional folk songs and writes his own. Click here to download a copy of his latest single for free.

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