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Traditional Songs Recorded by Modern Artists

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published January 9th 2022
Old music doesn't have to stay old
A traditional song is one that dates back before music was readily recorded and has no known or definitive author or songwriter. Some songs are considered traditional by some people even though we know the songwriter (e.g. 'Auld Lang Syne' written by Robert Burns), but, really, traditional songs are those which pre-date such niceties.

So, while doing research for another column, I found some songs that were just attributed to "traditional" and this got me thinking – how many recent or modern artists have taken those old traditional tunes of generations past and made them into their own, adopting the stylings and music of their own genre and time? Surprisingly, heaps!

So, I went through and found my favourite 15 out of my own collection. However, I did set myself some ground rules for what songs would be allowed – the song has to be by traditional, yes, but extra lyrics can be added to make a song a reasonable length, or a song can be translated into English, or a song can be made instrumental. I've even allowed when we know who wrote the lyrics, but not the tune. However, it must still be recognisably the traditional song. Some songs I thought were based on traditional songs (e.g. 'Buffalo Gals' by Malcolm McLaren) actually have authors that we know. It did make for a lot of searching on the music sites I use. And a lot of listening to cool songs.

Anyway, here are a bunch of traditional songs recorded by modern (post rock'n'roll era) artists. One song per artist, one version of each song (not easy in some cases here!), and I need to like the song.

So… traditional songs!

'La Bamba' by Ritchie Valens (1958)

First, what does the title mean? Well, I didn't know, and it doesn't seem to come from classical roots, so I went looking. It means nothing! It's just the name of a dance, like the Rhumba or the Samba! So, Valens took this Mexican folk song and turned it into a rock and roll classic, subsequently covered to great effect by Los Lobos.

'Cripple Creek' by Duane Eddy (1960)

While the lyrics come from the early twentieth century, the tune itself is much older, and this is what Duane Eddy, with his trademark twangy guitar sound (on an acoustic!), took on, resulting in an amazing rock version of the bluegrass classic.

'Miserlou' by Dick Dale and The Del-Tones (1962)

Later appropriated by The Black Eyed Peas, this track is an Eastern Mediterranean folk song that Dick Dale turned into an iconic surfing music track, using the tune and his playing to mimic the sound of being in a wave. No matter what, great tune.

'The Midnight Special' by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Whether the train is one used by jumpers or the one used to take prisoners to prison or the one heard by prisoners in their cells is debated, but there is no denying that when put in the hands of Creedence Clearwater Revival, this great tune just became greater.

'God Save The Queen' by Queen (1975)

When there is a male monarch, the song becomes 'God Save The King', showing its versatility, but that does not matter when Brian May plays it on the electric guitar in a very straightforward but amazing instrumental version.

'Portsmouth' by Mike Oldfield (1976)

A traditional English dancing tune, Mike Oldfield retooled it for rock instrumentation (he played all the instruments on the piece) and it ended up being one of his very few charting singles. He does a very good job, for what it's worth.

'Carrickfergus' by Bryan Ferry (1978)

This is one of those songs where the lyrics are not as old, even if disputed as to authorship, but the tune dates back as far as the eighteenth century, if not further. But in the hands of Bryan Ferry, with his smooth voice, it is sublime.

'The Wild Colonial Boy' by Dr Hook (1981)

A more recent folk song, Irish-Australian in origin, but not only is the writer traditional, but also the identity of the titular bushranger is up for debate; this version uses 'Jack Doolan', but we learnt a version in the 1970s that called him 'Jack Duggan'. Still, Dr Hook does such a good version of this song.

'Battle Hymn Of The Republic' by Stryper (1985)

Yes, the lyrics were written by Julia Ward Howe; that is well-known. And that she based it on the tune 'John Brown's Body' is also known. And many different versions of the lyrics have been written, considering it was possibly quite ribald when first played. However, who wrote the actual tune and music is not clear, and it has gone down as a traditional musical piece. And for a song like this, who better than Christian heavy metal band Stryper? (Yes, Christian heavy metal. It's a thing.)

'South Australia' by The Pogues (1988)

I first heard this song by The Seekers (my father had it on a double LP set), but it's the version by The Pogues that I like most, mainly because of Shane MacGowan's rough voice. It's a sea shanty, and you hear it in folk clubs all the time; it never seems to go away.

'Cotton Eye Joe' by Rednex (1994)

This is the traditional tune 'Cotton-Eyed Joe' with extra lyrics to extend run time, and it was a smash hit around the world (and I guess a one-hit-wonder in most countries). What makes this even weirder is that Rednex are from Sweden… and if you have a spare couple of million euros lying around, the band and its intellectual properties are for sale. Just saying.

'All Around My Hat' by Status Quo with Maddy Prior (1996)

I do know this traditional English tune was made popular by Steeleye Span, but I do prefer the Status Quo version, especially with Maddy Prior's vocals (yes, she was in Steeleye Span, I know). It just rocks a little bit more.

'Itsy Bitsy Spider' by Black Rattle (2009)

Yes, the nursery rhyme… done in the best possible way – as a death metal extravaganza! Black Rattle is the brainchild of Greg Behrendt, a US comedian, but this is just an amazingly done piece of dark metal. My son loved this as a kid, by the way.

'The Irish Rover' by Dropkick Murphys (2011)

A song about a ship, exaggerated in all aspects, and done by so many artists, but the Dropkick Murphys really rock it up and it becomes almost a heavy metal-folk song. This is great.

'Wayfaring Stranger' by Jared Halley (2017)

'The Wayfaring Stranger' is a song that has come to the fore in recent times because of its use in several films and TV shows. But go back to only 2017 and Jared Halley did this epic one-man a capella version which is just the perfect way to close out this list.

And there we are, an eclectic mix of music and songs and artists and styles to show that the word "traditional" does not mean old and stodgy – traditional music, folk music is a living, breathing musical form that can be adapted and adopted by whoever wants to give it a go.

I hope you enjoyed this list.


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