Hartnett, Carolyn G.
College of the Mainland

Carolyn G. Hartnett
College of the Mainland
2027 Bay Street
Texas City, Texas 77590


An overhead projector is requested.

Strand: Discourse in English

Title: Themes and Rhymes in Folk Songs

Peter Fries has reported a pattern of Themes and N-Rhemes in English prose ranging from history to advertising, even in sentence fragments. Is this pattern limited to written prose, or does it appear in oral texts, folk songs, and poetry? Do rhyme and rhythm challenge thematic structure and unmarked word order? Are rhyming words newsworthy? My study applies theories of word order and thematic structure of English sentences to a small sample of folk songs.

The sample includes only songs presented as authentic recordings of traditional folk music accompanied by printed texts. It includes all of the songs labeled "Traditional" on "Lazy Harry's Big Aussie Album" and comparable songs recorded in the U.S. at least 30 years ago: some with the same English and Irish background, some from different traditions (Sweden, West Africa, Alabaman children), and some in the British tradition dealing with romance. (Sorry, I couldn't get good Canadian songs.) For contrast, a similar set of literary poems was tabulated separately. The comparability was measured by tabulating the types of finite verbs in each set and establishing a statistical probability of 90% that the material was comparable.

Coding for Themes recorded whether the line began with filler, an expletive, circumstances, a Subject that was new or accessible or repeated, a pronoun, description, a Verb, or other marked or unmarked material. Ends of lines were coded for rhyme, marked word order and structures, newsworthiness, repetition, and evaluative meanings.

Results show that the folk songs usually observed conventional thematic structure. The variations seemed to reflect culture more than anything else. I will discuss some significant patterns that emerged.