“Folk Songs as Psychodrama: The Loglines,” By Paul Many

Mar 17th, 2021 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

When boiled to the bone, traditional folk songs skew toward the dark side. Below are loglines that summarize the plots of a representative selection of actual folk songs whose lyrics would harsh anyone’s mellow.


It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More

When a drought is near, a man plagued by obsessive, irrational thoughts becomes haunted by concerns as to how he’ll be able to wash his neck.

Home on the Range:

To blunt his feelings of alienation, a horseman fools himself into thinking that the dry place where he lives is better than many cities and even the stars, citing as evidence that prey freely plays there, no one says anything pessimistic and the skies are constantly clear.

She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain

Townspeople in the grip of mass hysteria believe that a woman driving six white horses is soon to appear around “the mountain,”; they slaughter a rooster for a welcoming feast and, since she will have poor sleeping accommodations, plan to cheer her by singing “Hallelujah.”

This Land is Your Land

A nomadic traveler suffering from pica wanders the lower 48 states fixated on the idea that all the land was made for you and him.

Michael Row Your Boat Ashore

A man hears voices commanding him to row his boat to the distant shore of a cold, deep river where he will find snacks.

The Times They Are a’Changing

A megalomaniac states that a number of anachronistic groups  should stand aside lest they get cut down since, he insists, cultural paradigms are radically shifting.

Oh! Susanna

A banjo player on a hallucinatory quest to find his girlfriend, perceives rain as dry and the sun as freezing, imagines he sees the girl eating a pancake, and finally vows he will die if he doesn’t find her, though he tells her not to cry given the state he comes from and his banjo.

500 Miles

Even though he’s ashamed that he’s penniless and half-naked, a man hops a train for a 500 mile trip home, suggesting that if he’s missed, the very loud whistle of his train will be able to be heard from a great distance anyway. 

Where Have all the Flowers Gone?

A depressive young woman comes to the slow but chilling realization that flowers she’s noticed are missing are now growing in the graveyards of the soldiers killed in battle who had originally received them.

If I had a Hammer

Delusions of grandeur plague a trio who claim that if they only had a particular kind of hammer, bell and song they would respectively swing it all day long, ring it, and sing it nationally and by so doing warn everyone of danger and bring about universal love.

Waltzing Matilda

The vengeful ghost of a swagman haunts the billabong where he’s drowned after being chased by a squatter for killing a jumbuck and shoving it into his tucker bag. 

I’ve Been Working on the Railroad

A hard-working railroad laborer is consumed with jealousy when he discovers a kitchen worker whom he loves is dallying with a banjo-playing rival and pleads with her to pay attention to the morning whistle and blow her horn.

On Top of Old Smoky

After he’s too slow to court a woman and loses her to another, a brooding misogynist concludes that 99 out of 100 women can’t be trusted and will lead you to the grave.

John Henry

When a narcissistic Luddite unwisely attempts to beat a machine at hammering steel rod into rock, he dies of a heart attack.

Scarborough Fair

Through an intermediary going to a fair, a man passively-aggressively asks a former love to complete a series of impossible tasks if she wants to be his lover again, while the former lover ironically counters with her own list of such tasks.

Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley

After bragging how he’s stabbed a girl to death, a psychopath is advised to grieve since he will definitely hang for it and this will kill him.

Goodnight Irene

Lamenting his divorce, a suicidal man contemplates drowning or a drug overdose should his ex-wife take up with anyone else.

Man of Constant Sorrow

Enmeshed in troubles and believing he’ll die on a train, a rambling fatalist bids farewell to his old lover, asks her to bury him in a deep valley, and love someone else, though he promises to meet her in heaven.

Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

A stalker compulsively dwells on his target’s attributes including her soft, fair face, pure eyes and gentle hands as well as her black hair, his psychosis only becoming apparent when he goes on to claim he loves the piece of ground she stands on.

The Erie Canal

A canal boat driver hauling cargo between New York towns as a result of bad career choices, sardonically praises his mule’s work ethic and friendliness as well as that of the locals while periodically ducking under bridges that have low clearance.

Oh, My Darling Clementine

A clumsy big-footed woman stumbles into a river, drowning when her lover alleges he cannot swim to save her; her distraught father joins her in death, but her lover then takes up with her little sister.

Skip to My Lou

A man otherwise occupied with chasing flies out of fermented milk, asks a woman to a dance, but warns that if he should lose her on the dance floor, he’ll find someone prettier.


Paul Many’s fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in publications such as The Hamilton Stone Review, Rockvale Review, and Carbon Culture Review. He has an MFA from Bowling Green State University. His poetry chapbook “Thick Times” is published by Finishing Line Press. His latest children’s picture book “Dinomorphosis” (Pelican, 2019) imagines Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” from the POV of a child who awakes one morning from feverish dreams to find he’s a man-sized T. rex.


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