Five Folk Songs You Don’t Want to Know

Caitlin McLaren - 4B Chemical
Posted on: March 11, 2017

As L.P. Hartley once said, “The past is a foreign country”. Our ancestors lived completely different lives from the ones we do, and that led to some very different attitudes. We look back at some of their ideas and laugh or shudder, and for the most part the crazier ideas don’t have much traction any more.

However, sometimes old songs are just so catchy or poetic that they survive to the present day, with people even continuing to sing them. When you examine the words, though, folk songs can be disturbing.

Waltzing Matilda: Desperation, arson, and police brutality

Quite possibly you know “Waltzing Matilda”, the famous Australian folk song. It’s considered to be Australia’s unofficial national anthem, and it is one of the many, many pieces of evidence that Australians really give no f***s.

“Waltzing Matilda” is about a homeless man who finds a sheep wandering around. Since he’s hungry, he eats the sheep, only to be chased down by the farmer and a bunch of policemen. Rather than be captured, the hobo kills himself and haunts the place forever.

Sadly, the song is based on a true story: in 1891,a strike turned so violent that it almost caused an out-and-out war. When some strikers burned down a barn full of sheep, the troopers chased down one man, Samuel Hoffmeister, who shot himself rather than face the angry police.

Stenka Razin: Reasonable reaction?

“Stenka Razin” is a Russian folk song about the eponymous Cossack leader, who was a real person. Fortunately, the events of the song are not real.

The song begins with Stenka Razin marrying a princess. The wedding was celebrated on a big boat on the Volga river, with everybody partying and having a good time. Since most of his men were plastered (some things are universal), tongues became loose and one guy thought it would be a good idea to make fun of his boss. He started shouting about how Stenka Razin had turned into a woman since his wedding, because he was spending all his time partying with his new bride instead of fighting. Which is what women do? Apparently?

You’d expect, based on stereotypes of ancient warriors, that Stenka Razin would prove this idiot wrong by challenging him to single combat or something. Unfortunately, that would be way too reasonable for a Cossack warlord. Instead, Stenka Razin threw his bride into the river, drowning her. He then ordered his men to go on partying, leading them in singing and dancing. In this way, he proved once and for all that he was not a sissy. The song treats Stenka Razin as a tragic hero who puts his honour and his people ahead of his own happiness as opposed to a complete lunatic, because the past was like that sometimes.

Aztec Songs: Because subtlety is for the weak

It’s been a while since we’ve had an Aztec entry in this column, which is a shame, because the ancient Aztecs were quite something. These were the guys who did all the human sacrifices in unpleasant ways, mostly by ripping people’s hearts out. They were big fans of blood and war and death in general, which is not unusual for old or even modern songs. However, while in most times or places war would be glorified as heroic, with the actual bloody reality being sanitized for propaganda purposes, the Aztecs get straight to the point. Here is an example of Aztec war poetry:

 

Heart, have no fright.

There on the battlefield

I cannot wait to die

by the blade of sharp obsidian.

Our hearts want nothing but a war death.

You who are in the struggle:

I am anxious for a death

from sharp obsidian.

Our hearts want nothing but a war death.

 

Points for honesty! However, the Aztecs weren’t only about war – they did existentialism too! Of course, their existentialism could also be needlessly graphic:

 

Filled are the bowels of the earth

with pestilential dust once flesh and bone,

once animate bodies of man who sat upon thrones…

Vanished are these glories,

just as the fearful smoke vanishes

that belches forth from the infernal fires of Popocatepetl.

 

Murder Ballads: Exactly what they sound like

Britain and Ireland have a rich tradition of ballads (i.e. songs that tell a story). That’s all very well, and most are about love or history or fairy tales or something. However, a sizeable genre of ballad is the “murder ballad”, which is simply a graphic description of a murder, with rhymes and set to a catchy tune. Here is an example of one of the most famous, “Weile Waile”:

 

She had a baby three months old, weile weile waile.

She had a baby three months old, down by the river Saile.

She had a penknife, long and sharp, weile weile waile.

She had a penknife, long and sharp, down by the river Saile.

She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart, weile weile waile.

She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart, down by the river Saile.

 

Just so we are clear on this, this is a children’s song. Yay!

 

Song of St. Nicholas: The Irish have nothing on the French

 A song about Santa Claus! What could possibly be disturbing about that? Well… everything.

The song begins with three small children looking for shelter on a stormy night – why they need it is probably disturbing too, but that’s a minor issue. A butcher seems like a nice guy and lets them in, but once they are inside he kills them. Why? To turn them into salt “pork”, Sweeney Todd-style. He puts them in barrels in the basement and just forgets about them, which puts his profit motive into question.

Seven years later, Santa Claus shows up at his house and asks the butcher for something to eat. The butcher offers him all kinds of meat, but Santa insists on having the salt pork in the basement. (Cannibalism aside, eating seven-year-old meat? Ewwww.) When the butcher brings the barrels up, Santa miraculously brings the kids back to life, so at least we get a happy ending. What happens to the butcher is unclear, but we can assume Santa sicced Krampus onto him or something. What a lovely Christmas carol, everyone!