What is folk music? Some definitions say that it is music from a particular region passed down from generation to generation. Other definitions emphasize that the origin of a folk song is typically unknown and that it is usually played with non-electric instruments. Still, different definitions highlight the storytelling quality of folk music.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Sad Folk Songs About Death
- Irish Folk Songs About Death
- Folk-Rock or Folk Indie Songs About Death
- Folk Songs About Death for a Funeral
While all of these descriptors ring true, the theme or topic of folk songs can range from heartbreak to childhood imagination and from peace to shipwrecks. Of course, in this article, we will focus on folk songs about death and grief.
We have broken up our list of folk songs into the following categories: sad, Irish, folk-rock (or folk indie), and those that are appropriate for a funeral.
Sad Folk Songs About Death
There are plenty of songs that make light of death and dying. However, here’s a list of sad songs about death typically classified as folk.
There’s a Spotify playlist for every mood. We would like to highlight some of the songs on a list called “Folk Songs About Death.”
1. “Rana the Fortunate” by Joshua Burnside and Laura Quirke
This song was inspired by a story the songwriter read about a woman sniper who fought during World War I. She was eventually killed, but her body was found with 50 ID tags of soldiers she may have killed.
The song emphasizes the loneliness this woman may have felt with her unique position.
2. “Song for Dennis Brown” by The Mountain Goats
When you listen to this song about death, you will quickly hear why it is categorized as “folk,” as a simple acoustic guitar accompanies one singer’s voice.
However, the song is about Dennis Brown – a reggae singer who died from a collapsed lung caused by a drug habit.
3. “The Sun Is Burning” by Simon and Garfunkel
This song begins with a description of an idyllic day. However, since the Cuban Missile Crisis inspired this song, the writers describe how quickly that world could disappear. It includes the stanza:
“Now the sun has come to earth
Shrouded in a mushroom cloud of death
Death comes in a blinding flash
Of hellish heat and leaves a smear of ash
And the sun has come to earth.”
4. “Oh Death” by Lloyd Chandler
The Wikipedia page for this song says that “Oh Death” is typically attributed to Lloyd Chandler but may have been adapted from an Appalachian folk song. The speaker in this dark song is speaking to death and asking for death to pass him over – at least for now.
It includes this dark stanza:
“Oh death please consider my age
Please don’t take me at this stage
My wealth is all at your command
If you will move your icy hands.”
5. “Tom Dooley” by Thomas Land
You may have sung the song “Tom Dooley” as a kid. But, chillingly, the song is reportedly about the real-life murder of a woman named Laura Foster, who was killed in 1866 by a man named Tom Dula.
The song’s chorus instructs Tom Dooley to “hang down your head and cry.”
Besides being a “folk song about death,” Tom Dooley can be further categorized as a “murder ballad.”
6. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot
This song came out in the late 1970s, and it tells the real-life story of a shipwreck on one of the Great Lakes. This song is an example of a ballad.
Irish Folk Songs About Death
Some people select Irish funeral songs because they are proud of their Irish roots. Others appreciate the music’s simplicity and how it showcases the human voice.
Here are some Irish folk songs that are about death. Some could be appropriate choices for your loved one’s funeral.
7. “Danny Boy” by Frederick Weatherly
You are probably familiar with the song “Danny Boy” since it has been used in popular culture. However, you may not have taken the time to consider the lyrics. The song seems to be about a parent sending a son off to war. However, the speaker in the song warns that they may be dead by the time Danny returns:
“But when ye come, and all the flowers are dying,
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying,
And kneel and say an Avé there for me.
And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me,
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be,
For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me!”
8. “The Curragh of Kildare” or “The Winter It Is Past” by Robert Burns
The history of this song/poem is complicated. However, this popular Irish folk song begins with the following lines:
“The winter it is passed, and the summer’s come at last,
And the small birds are singing in the trees
And their little hearts are glad, ah, but mine is very sad,
Since my true love is far away from me.”
9. “Carrickfergus” by Dominic Behan
The speaker in this song longs for Carrickfergus, a town in Northern Ireland. It has been recorded many times and is often used as a funeral song.
The song ends with the following stanza:
"I'll spend my days in endless roaming
Soft is the grass, my bed is free
But I am sick now, and my days are numbered
Come all you young men and lay me down."
10. “The Rare Ould Times” by Pete St. John
This song celebrates Dublin of old. It is an excellent “sing-along” piece for those from the region and is sometimes used at Irish wakes.
11. “You Raise Me Up” by Rolf Løvland
We were surprised to discover that a Norwegian composer wrote this song made famous by Josh Groban. We were further surprised to uncover that the song is relatively modern – as it was written during this century.
Folk-Rock or Folk Indie Songs About Death
The folk rock and folk indie genre may be a bit tricky to define, so please give us some wiggle room as we attempt to list songs that belong in this category.
Some of these songs may remind you of your loved one who passed, but you may not think them appropriate to play at a funeral. Instead, consider using the song as background music for a funeral slideshow if that’s the case.
12. “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan
You may associate “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” with other artists. However, Bob Dylan wrote this song for a western movie in 1973. It describes death in this way:
“Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it anymore
It’s gettin’ dark, too dark to see
I feel like I’m knockin’ on heaven’s door.”
13. “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry
It seems as if the story behind this song remains a mystery. While this song isn’t typically a funeral song, it does describe the mysterious death of a person who is said to have jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
14. “The Last Carnival” by Bruce Springstein
Bruce Springsteen sings about the death of a fellow musician in “The Last Carnival.” It includes these wistful lyrics:
“We won’t be dancing together on the high wire
Facing the lions with you at my side anymore
We won’t be breathing the smoke in the fire
On a midway.”
Folk Songs About Death for a Funeral
Some of you are looking for songs about death because you wish to listen to sad songs when thinking about a loved one who died. However, not every song about death is appropriate for a funeral.
Consider the lyrics when choosing music for your mother’s funeral services. Make sure the tone and the lyrics fit the situation.
15. “I’ll Fly Away” by Albert E. Brumley
Although some would classify this song as a hymn, it has the sound of a folk or bluegrass tune. Regardless of its classification, it is one of the most popular funeral songs of all time. It describes death as a release from life’s troubles and pain.
16. “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder” by James Milton Black
Some would classify this more as a gospel song. Regardless, it’s a popular piece that many artists, including folk musicians, have recorded.
The song begins:
“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more
And the morning breaks eternal bright and fair
When the saved diverse shall gather over on the other shore
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”
17. “Amazing Grace” by John Newton
One of the most popular funeral songs is “Amazing Grace,” and it has been referred to as a “Christian folk hymn.”
This song was famously written by a person who worked in the slave trade. Through a series of events, he saw the error of his ways, converted to Christianity, and wrote this song.
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.”
18. “You Can Close Your Eyes” by James Taylor
This song is not specifically about death. However, it is about being separated from someone you love. James Taylor recorded this song with both Carley Simon and Joni Mitchell.
It includes the line, “You can sing this song when I’m gone.”
What Songs Did We Leave Off Our List?
As you can tell by the wide variety of artists on our lists, folk music is sometimes challenging to define. So what favorite folk songs did we leave off our list?
Perhaps you prefer the anti-war ballads associated with Peter, Paul, and Mary or those sung by Woody Guthrie.