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Oscar Isaac sits in a car playing an acoustic guitar in a scene from Inside Llewyn Davis, playing one of many folk songs in movies.

It’s a Trad Trad Trad Trad World: Finding Folk Song in Films

Ahead of this Sunday's Oscars ceremony, film buffs Karl Sinfield and Matt Quinn pick out their favourite instances of traditional folk songs in movies.

Karl Sinfield: Throughout the last hundred years or so of movie-making, performances of traditional songs have been employed to create a nostalgic atmosphere in the story, showcase an actor’s vocal skills, or introduce into the narrative the idea of the communal spirit that is still a large part of any folk session today. As a traditional folk fan, I always get a little endorphin rush when I hear an old song I recognise being performed in a film. Maybe I should get out more. Anyway, it’s always best to avoid the temptation to shout out the Roud number when you know it, as the other cinema-goers have little interest in such things, or so I have learned. 

In my research for Sing Yonder, I have come across several examples of this movie-based balladry, and I was keen to find more. I consulted the inveterate movie-consumer-slash-folk-singer Matt Quinn who, unsurprisingly given his twin interests, had already compiled a huge list of wonderful examples. We pooled our knowledge and shared it last year with the now “resting” traditional song-sharing initiative TradSongTuesday on X (formerly Twitter). Here, just in time for the 96th Academy Awards on March 10th, are 12 of our favourites.

First, six from me…

1. Spanish Ladies

Roud number: 687
Sung by: Robert Shaw
Film: Jaws (1975)

Possibly the most notorious example of a folk song in a film, Robert Shaw’s gravelly rendition of ‘Spanish Ladies’, while battling the titular shark, adds greatly to the air of maritime foreboding and menace. And an interesting trivia fact – as shown in this clip – a much more fresh-faced Robert Shaw also gave a very different rendition of the song in the 1957 TV series, The Buccaneers.

2. Barbara Allen

Roud number: 54
Sung by: John Travolta
Film: A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004)

More famed for his disco moves, here is John Travolta doing a great job of Roud 54, in his role as an ailing retired professor of literature.

3. Green Sally Up

Roud number: 21738
Sung by: Mattie Garder, Mary Gardner, Jesse Lee Pratcher 
Film: Gone in 60 seconds (2000)

Not the natural place to find a traditional song, but electronic music pioneer Moby contributed his track ‘Flower’ to the introduction of this high-octane thriller, which contains a sample of this children’s playground song, recorded in 1959 by Alan Lomax while travelling through the Southern states of the USA.

4. The Death of Queen Jane

Roud number: 77
Sung by: Oscar Isaacs
Film: Inside LLewyn Davis (2013)

There have been several films made about folk singing. One of the most famous (see number six for a more obscure example) is Inside Llewyn Davis, the story of a fictional American folksinger trying to make it big in New York in the early 1960s. It contains a number of traditional songs, including this version of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’, beautifully performed by actor Oscar Isaacs. It’s worth watching to the end for the club promoter (played with deadpan brilliance by F. Murray Abrams), whose brutal assessment will resonate with many traditional folk practitioners.

5. Gently Johnny

Roud number: 5586
Sung by: Paul Giovanni and Magnet
Film: The Wicker Man (1973) (Director’s Cut)

While this iconic cult horror film has a thread of folk music running through it, the original 1973 theatrical version contains no traditional songs at all. All the songs were original compositions by Paul Giovanni, designed to sound like traditional songs, adding to the eerie atmosphere such music can sometimes evoke. However, in the director’s cut, there is a folk session scene including a bawdy version of the old travellers’ seduction song, ‘Gently Johnny’.

6. Pretty Saro

Roud number: 417
Sung by: Iris DeMent
Film: Songcatcher (2000)

I was delighted to find this film about folk song collecting in the Appalachian mountains. Songcatcher (2000) examines the life of a fictional song collector (loosely based on the life of Olive Dame Campbell, an American contemporary of Cecil Sharp), and her academic and romantic motivations. While it may not have come to a cinema near you, and is possibly more melodramatic than real-life folk song collecting, it is packed with outstanding performances of traditional songs in the Appalachian tradition.

And now for six of the best from Matt Quinn

7. Bonny George Campbell

Roud number: 338
Sung by: Billy Connolly
Film: Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Seeing this film in the cinema (at age 15) was the first time I actively thought, “Oh look, a folk song!” Expertly sung by Billy Connolly – not a bad autoharp player, either.

8. Wild Mountain Thyme

Roud number: 541
Sung by: Bill Nighy
Film: Their Finest (2016)

I knew Bill Nighy could sing. He did an excellent rendition of ‘The Fall Of Gil-Galad’ in the 1981 BBC Radio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings. For me, one of the nicest folk-song-in-film surprises was when he launched into ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ during a scene in Their Finest. A lovely moment and brilliantly sung in a very understated manner.

9. Blow The Man Down

Roud number: 2426
Sung by: Randy Newman
Film: The Three Amigos (1986)

1986’s The Three Amigos contains one of my all-time favourite comic inventions, The Singing Bush. It’s a bush and it sings… and it’s voiced by the great Randy Newman. The bush sits there and sings a relentless medley of well-known songs, all while Steve Martin asks “Are you the singing bush?”. Genius!

10. Spanish Ladies

Roud number: 687
Sung by: Various
Film: Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World (2003)

It’s a double top-10 entry for ‘Spanish Ladies’! Folk songs in movies can be a great way to demonstrate how close a group of people can be, in this case, sailors. Notable in this film is a very spirited rendition of ‘Spanish Ladies’, but there’s also a performance of the song ‘Don’t Forget Your Old Shipmate’ [Roud V23285].

11. The Outlandish Knight

Roud number: 21
Sung by: Hugh Williams
Film: David Copperfield (1935)

This one was a real surprise to find. An excellent adaptation of the Dickens novel, with a great cast including W. C. Fields and Basil Rathbone. In this scene, Hugh Williams plays the character of James Steerforth. Considering that Steerforth plans to marry and run away with Little Em’ly, this turns out to be a remarkably appropriate song for him to have in his repertoire.

12. Barabara Allen

Roud number: 54
Sung by: Various
Film: Scrooge (1951)

It’s that song again! Who doesn’t feel a bit teary after seeing Alastair Sim come to his senses and visit his nephew and niece-in-law at the end of 1951’s Scrooge? As he arrives at their house, you can hear them having a sing inside – and they’re singing ‘Barabra Allen’. Lovely, if not terribly festive.

If you want to see more great examples of folk songs in movies, they will be published as an addendum in the Sing Yonder newsletter. For more info and to sign up for free, visit singyonder.substack.com.