Update a Song in the Folk Form

I recently got this question from a songwriter who’s just starting out.

Q: Is it okay if my song is a string of verses, with no chorus or bridge? It’s short, too. Can it still be a good song?

A: If a song is a series of verses, it’s in a form that’s been successful for hundreds of years – the folk song form. You can certainly write good songs in that style. These songs often feature a storyline, such as a lost lover, a historical event, or travel to a distant land, but they don’t have to. Good examples of the folk song form are “Scarborough Fair,” “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” 

Write a strong refrain

Most folk songs include a refrain line, a line that’s repeated at the beginning or end of each verse. In “Scarborough Fair” the refrain line is “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” and it’s the second line in each verse. Here are the lyrics. In some songs the refrain is a whole section that’s repeated throughout the song, in others it’s a single line that’s repeated once or twice every couple of verses.

This is the line or song section that listeners will remember so give it some extra thought. Try to sum up the emotional feel of your song. Is it a haunted love ballad? Try ghostly images of a dream lover. Or is it a song about adventure and  risks? Use action words like “run” and “fly” or images like “boots” and “old ragged coat.” Images and action words make a stronger impression on the listener than just telling them what’s happening.

If you want to give your folk song an authentic, traditional flavor, use language that feels rural or old fashioned. The hit song “Let Her Go” by Passenger is a great example. (Read the lyrics here.) Notice how organic and simple the language is. There’s nothing urban or slangy here.

Give it a contemporary feel

If you’d like to update this song form and give it a modern edge, try going to a new section after two verses, maybe a bridge. Then come back for another verse or two, then repeat the bridge. This will add length to your song and give it more variety, keeping it more interesting for listeners. This is often referred to as the AABA form or Verse / Verse / Bridge / Verse form. There are many great examples of this form. “I Saw Her Standing There” by the Beatles, “Somebody Like You” by Keith Urban, “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas and Papas, and “Every Breath You Take” by the Police are just a few.

Here’s an idea: Check out a song like “Iris” by the GooGoo Dolls or “If I Were a Boy” by Beyonce. These songs use the same melody in every section but raise it up an octave after a couple of verses to create a chorus with energy and emotion. A simple trick, but a good one!

Use a folk song melody

Many folks songs are in the public domain, meaning they are no longer protected by copyright. You can use the melodies of these songs to write a new song of your own. To be safe, look for songs that were written before 1900. Songs by Stephen Foster, traditional English ballads, and many hymns are in the public domain. You can find out more about public domain songs and see an extensive list at the Public Domain Information Project.

by Robin Frederick

Robin's books This post is based on my songwriting books. Find out more about all of my print and eBooks on my Author page at Amazon. In each book you’ll find dozens of useful, real-world shortcuts that will show you how to craft songs that work for today’s music market, plus dozens of hands-on exercises to get your creative ideas flowing.

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Author: Robin Frederick

Robin Frederick is the author of Shortcuts to Hit Songwriting and Shortcuts to Songwriting for Film & TV. She has written and produced more than 500 songs for television, records, theater, and audio products. She is a former Director of A&R for Rhino Records and Executive Producer of 60 albums. Visit Robin's websites for more songwriting tips and inspiration: www.RobinFrederick.com and www.MySongCoach.com.