What's your favorite old song to sing?
May 23, 2013 7:55 AM   Subscribe

I like to sing traditional-styled songs to myself during my day. It helps me feel happy. I'd like to learn some new ones. The catch is I'm attracted to a specific subset of songs that I can't quite classify, so I'm having trouble finding new ones that really hook me. I like the songs that are very... bittersweet? Like, they demonstrate profound hope or love, but at the same time seem to understand how awful the world can be sometimes. Songs like Long Time Traveler (or more properly "White"), The Parting Glass, Peggy Gordon, Down In The River To Pray, etc. Do you know any songs that strike this chord? (They don't have to be Irish or American; as long as I can learn the words I'm excited about everything.)
posted by ictow to Media & Arts (43 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend The Good Lovelies. Off the top of my head I don't know which songs in their catalogue feet the bittersweet motif you have in mind, but some assuredly do, and their melodies are beautiful and line up with the other examples you posted. Look them up on YouTube or iTunes.
posted by dry white toast at 8:07 AM on May 23, 2013

May I recommend that you explore the Eglish music hall tradition. Popular Irish folk like the Dubliners might yank your chain too.
posted by BenPens at 8:07 AM on May 23, 2013

I'll Fly Away. It's basically about someone looking forward to their death; they're looking at life as a prison.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:09 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

I immediately thought of The Drowned Lovers. Also Guld Coast Highway. I think it was originally by Emmylou Harris but I like the Kate Rusby version better. Speaking of Kate Rusby, I like The Moon and St. Christopher too.
posted by brilliantine at 8:15 AM on May 23, 2013

This almost seems too obvious, but Danny Boy.
posted by selfnoise at 8:17 AM on May 23, 2013

One of the awful side-effects of singing shape note music is that practitioners constantly have a shape note tune stuck in their heads. Recently, I've been incessantly humming the following tunes:
  • Sixty-five South, from the Shenandoah Harmony
  • Ten Thousand Charms, from the Shenandoah Harmony
  • Last Words of Copernicus, from the Sacred Harp (lyrics)
  • Canaan's Land, from the Sacred Harp

  • posted by The White Hat at 8:18 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Seconding I'll Fly Away.

    Just about anything the Kingston Trio has sung should suit you quite nicely.
    posted by phunniemee at 8:24 AM on May 23, 2013

    Your post made think of the movie The Songcatcher. You might look at the songs from it. And it's an excellent movie as well.
    posted by michellenoel at 8:28 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    From Bruce Springsteen's "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions":

    * "O, Mary Don't You Weep"
    * "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?"
    * "Mrs. McGrath"
    * "Erie Canal"
    * "John Henry"

    And a few from (the excellent) Crooked Still:
    * "Little Sadie"
    * "The Golden Vanity"
    * "Wind and Rain"
    * "Come on in My Kitchen"
    posted by MonkeyToes at 8:28 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Black Is The Colour
    posted by Jakey at 8:31 AM on May 23, 2013

    How Can I Keep From Singing? esp. the way Eva Cassidy sang it. I'm not even religious and it lifts me up every time even though everything sucks.
    posted by headnsouth at 8:31 AM on May 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

    I love Down in the Valley, although I learned it with a different 3rd verse than the wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_in_the_Valley_%28folk_song%29)

    I learned the 3rd verse as:

    Writing a letter
    containing three lines
    asking a question
    "Will you be mine?"
    Will you be mine, dear
    Will you be mine
    Asking a question
    Will you be mine?
    posted by RogueTech at 8:32 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen
    Poor Wayfaring Stranger
    posted by Liesl at 8:32 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Anything from The Panic Is On, by Anne Hills, particularly the title track, which is about the Great Depression. ("What this country's coming to/I sure would like to know;/If we don't do something by and by/The rich will live and the poor will die/Doggone, I mean the panic is on!")

    Many of the songs from Billy Bragg's acoustic compilation Back To Basics - almost all of them are very easy to sing tunefully, even for someone like me who is a mediocre singer, although I find "Between The Wars" and "To Have And Have Not", particularly singable. I also find that the Mermaid Avenue song "Eisler On The Go" is very singable.

    In general, songs from the Pogues' first two albums, but particularly "The Dark Streets of London", "I'm A Man You Don't Meet Every Day" (which is an actual folk song), "The Old Main Drag" and "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda".
    posted by Frowner at 8:33 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    I sing* Siuil a Ruin a lot because it's pretty and sad. I also really like Tricky Pixie's version of Tam Lin, which is sexy and vaguely threatening and a little sad even if it has a happy ending. Hangman is, of course, a classic.

    Lots of Irish, Scottish and English folks songs are good for this, and have fascinating histories as well. You might be interested in looking at the Child Ballads, finding some lyrics you like, and then going hunting for a version you can happily hum. Lots of folksingers cover them.

    *Note: I sing them badly.
    posted by WidgetAlley at 8:37 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    You might be interested in looking at the Child Ballads

    NPR just did this story on a duo that covers a few of them.
    posted by MonkeyToes at 8:41 AM on May 23, 2013

    Hard Times Come Again No More

    Will the Circle Be Unbroken

    These may be more spiritual than you're looking for, but they were the first two songs that came to mind when I read your question.
    posted by shesbookish at 8:52 AM on May 23, 2013

    I am a shape note singer as well, and the shape note tune I can't stop singing/listening to right now is Amboy (The Old Churchyard), from the above-linked Shenandoah Harmony.

    Good non-shape-note candidates:

    500 Miles (not to be confused with 'I would walk 500 miles.')
    The Water is Wide
    Bread and Roses

    If you can get your hands on a copy of Rise Up Singing I'd peruse that for ideas, paying particular attention to the 'gospel,' 'hard times and blues, 'struggle,' and spirituals' sections.
    posted by ActionPopulated at 9:00 AM on May 23, 2013

    There's a CD aimed at kids called "Wee Sing: Sing-along songs" that includes a range of types from campfire songs to spirituals, many of which are likely to be just what you're looking for. You might at least listen to samples (I found it on iTunes but not Amazon anymore) and see. (Their "silly songs" has some too, but with so much goofy stuff too, and I see there's one of Americana now, etc.)
    posted by acm at 9:05 AM on May 23, 2013

    Billy Bragg - Levi Stubbs' Tears

    Damien Rice - The Blower's Daughter

    not sure if that's what you're looking for but those two came to my mind
    posted by ZabeLeeZoo at 9:06 AM on May 23, 2013

    I'm sure most of the songs from these recordings of Vera Hall fit your criteria. And maybe you'll find some more in this audio archive. Edit: example, check this one out.
    posted by yoHighness at 9:11 AM on May 23, 2013

    The Unthanks have a lot of songs like this. Because He Was a Bonny Lad and Annachie Gordon are two of my favorites.

    I also like The Wind and the Rain, which I believe is both a Child ballad and on the Songcatcher soundtrack.
    posted by mskyle at 9:14 AM on May 23, 2013

    What'll I Do? especially as sung by The McGarrigle and Wainright family
    posted by readery at 9:23 AM on May 23, 2013

    Not terribly old, but definitely old-styled: If I Were A Carpenter. Lots of people have done versions of the song, and the songwriter, Tim Hardin, has done lots of slightly different versions as well but I really like the aching that his renditions inject.

    Also, Sheepcrook and Black Dog, first popularized in the early 1970s by Steeleye Span. It's lovely a capella and quite an easy melody if you can get the turns.
    posted by drlith at 9:23 AM on May 23, 2013

    I know the genre you mean, and I think I saw a term for it once but can't call it to mind. In singing sessions I usually call them end-of-the-night songs, when everyone's had a few and is feeling a bit maudlin. Anyway, look at Swan Arcade, who sang a fair bit of this kind of stuff (and much more besides) in beautiful harmony -- including a lovely version of Down in the Valley to Pray. See also: Wild Mountain Thyme.

    A lot of nautical songs have this quality: Old Maui as performed by Stan Rogers. In fact, lots of Stan Rogers' own creations have this quality. He had the rare and wonderful talent of creating new songs which feel as though they've been handed down for twenty generations.

    Mudcat is a good place to dig out lyrics and sometimes tunes for these (and many other) folk songs, though it's not very browseable. I suspect that if you posted this question on the forums there, you'd get some more good suggestions.

    Now if you'll excuse me I have to go and feel sad about Stan Rogers being dead.
    posted by pont at 9:24 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Well, it isn't exactly old, but The Crossing from Big River has the right sort of feeling. Several of the songs from Big River might suit your likes, including Waiting for the Light to Shine. Very singable stuff. I worked crew on a production of Big River 16 years ago and I still get the music floating through my head now and then.

    Also, early and mid Nina Simone. Especially Feeling Good and Come Ye. Four Women is the best "best of" of her work.
    posted by monopas at 9:35 AM on May 23, 2013

    Raglan Road by Luke Kelly
    posted by mani at 10:54 AM on May 23, 2013

    I love this version of Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, from Mermaid Avenue (Wilco + Billy Bragg) - and there are a lot of other great songs there.

    It's not particularly old, but I adore Richard Thompson's 1952 Vincent Black Lightning (Del McCoury's version is nice too - a little more um...upbeat?)

    Gillian Welch's Barroom Girls might also hit the spot.

    Neko Case's song Star Witness is wonderful, and I love this cover.

    And Darlin' Be Home Soon is always a nice one to warble - when I'm in a good mood, I sing it more like Maxine Brown.

    Maybe the Be Good Tanyas Littlest Birds (I like to try to pick out each part, and sing it a different way depending on how I feel.)
    posted by peagood at 11:07 AM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    I second "Hard Times Come Again No More." It is definitely bittersweet, a mix of sad and hopeful.

    There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
    With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
    Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
    Oh hard times come again no more.

    There's a compilation of Civil War songs by Kate and Anna McGarrigle that includes that song and a lot of other good ones. It might offend purists, but my favorite version was just recently done by those young two sisters from the TV show Nashville.

    Also Pete Seeger does a lot of olde timey songs. "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" comes to mind.

    It's not even close to being old but I've always felt that Fast Car by Tracy Chapman had the same feeling as these old songs.
    posted by PairofDucks at 11:40 AM on May 23, 2013

    The Foggy, Foggy Dew
    posted by tdismukes at 11:53 AM on May 23, 2013

    Oh man, my family is SO into these songs. I grew up on this stuff. My family has been part of a community that gathers every Sunday night to sing old American tunes since before my mother was born.

    My absolute #1 favorite, Song of Peace (Finlandia)

    Another dear favorite, Pull for the Shore

    Brighten the Corner Where You Are

    Redwing - this song is something I grew up with, and it's a great melody, but I think it's probably culturally insensitive and one should proceed cautiously

    We Shall Overcome - this is a Pete Seeger recording and it gives me the chills every. single. time. I hear it.

    When the Roll is Called Up Yonder (I didn't know there was a Johnny Cash version!)

    Andorra - another Pete Seeger song

    This Land is Your Land - Woody Guthrie

    Another truly wonderful piece of history: The Harvest Hymn. Make sure you read the words; it's an extraordinary piece. It's really a shapenote tune, but all I could find were recordings of a group singing it in classical style with a non-original harmony, and an instrumental version that also doesn't have the original harmony.

    I know dozens more old hymns and country tunes, but I don't know the names of a lot of them. I'll try to find out and get back to you.

    Also, when I was a young child I participated in a Revels production of Old English/Scottish music. Here are some of those songs:

    Country Life/I like to rise when the sun she rises - this is not a good recording (not terrible either) but you get the idea

    Wild Mountain Thyme

    Hey Ho to the Greenwood

    Those aren't even my favorites but I can't find recordings of most of the others!
    posted by Cygnet at 12:53 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Also, James Taylor and Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor did a really neat arrangement of Hard Times Come Again No More.
    posted by Cygnet at 12:56 PM on May 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

    Silver Dagger (Dolly Parton version)

    Sylvie (Sweet Honey in the Rock version)

    Tell Me Why The Sun Does Shine

    I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls (Enya version)

    I Ride An Old Paint

    Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie

    edited to add:

    The Wreck of the Old Number Nine (first taught to me long ago as "the saddest song in the world")
    posted by jfwlucy at 3:21 PM on May 23, 2013

    This Love with Carry - Dougie Maclean
    You Belong to Me - Kate Rusby's version
    Ae Fond Kiss - Eddie Reader's version
    Blues Run The Game: Jackson C. Frank

    You might also like some of Paul Giovani's arrangements of traditional tunes on the the soundtrack of The Wicker Man
    posted by rongorongo at 5:42 PM on May 23, 2013

    The whole (original) Carter Family songbook?

    Dylan in a lot (not all) of moods? Bootleg Vol. 1 is a good place to start ("Moonshiner"). Wait--I, too, go to some barroom and drink with my friends.
    posted by skbw at 5:42 PM on May 23, 2013

    These songs would really bum me out, if they weren't so much fun to sing along to:

    Steve Earle - Goodbye
    Steve Earle - Tecumseh Valley (cover of a Townes Van Zandt song)
    Jayhawks - Stick in the Mud
    Pogues - Dirty Old Town
    Bryan Ferry - Carrickfergus
    Nirvana - Where Did You Sleep Last Night
    posted by Bron at 6:34 PM on May 23, 2013

    Will I See Thee More? - lovely traditional-style song about parting in wartime.

    (Also seconding Wayfaring Stranger - the Neko Case version is really something.)
    posted by Otto the Magnificent at 6:46 AM on May 24, 2013

    Pretty Saro (Sung by Doc Watson here, and a lot of his work has a similar tone)
    posted by Nibbly Fang at 8:32 AM on May 24, 2013

    One more - The Blackest Crow is highly singable - about love, parting and death. Sad but beautiful.
    posted by Otto the Magnificent at 9:28 AM on May 24, 2013

    I'd check out Barbara Dane's album Anthology of American Folk Songs...a good number of those songs have this bittersweet feel. My favorites: When I Was a Young Girl, Girl of Constant Sorrow, I Know Where I'm Going, Don't Sing Love Songs.

    And I'll second Rise Up Singing as a great resource.
    posted by figgy_finicky at 11:22 AM on May 24, 2013

    Seconding the "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" sound track.
    You might also like some of the songs done by Roger Whittaker. Generally lovely lyrics and very singable, with (I think) an old-style feel.
    The Last Farewell
    River Lady
    Mon Pay Blu in French, but if you can do "Frère Jacques" you can probably learn this.
    posted by evilmomlady at 8:58 AM on May 25, 2013

    The Weepies - Somebody Loved
    posted by illenion at 8:01 PM on June 2, 2013

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