So You Want to Sing Folk Music: A Guide for Performers


Chapter 1 Resources  Chapter 2 Resources  Chapter 3 Resources  Chapter 4 Resources   

Chapter 5 Resources Chapters 6, 7 & 8 Resources  Additional Resources  

Chapter 1 – You Know It When You Hear It

Examples of Singers Past and Present Who Can Be Described as “Folk” or “Folk-Based”:                  

In addition, many “folk” singers contributed their thoughts and experiences to this book via interviews. For more information about them, and for examples of their fine music, please go to the end of this resources listing or search for the specific singer you want to know more about.

Examples of Older American Ballad Singers:

Examples of Contemporary American Ballad Singers:

A Musical Presentation About Ballad-Collector Cecil Sharp’s Journeys to America:

Examples of Various Religion-Based American Folk Styles:

Excerpts of Songs Recorded in the 1927–1928 Bristol Sessions:

Examples of Early Close Harmony:

Examples from the Folk Revival of the Mid-Twentieth Century:

Tradition-Based Singers of the Folk Revival:

“Tom Dooley” through Various Musical Lenses:

Additional Online Resources:

Chapter 2 – Vocal Nitty-Gritty

“Hiss Breath” Exercise:

This exercise involves taking in an easy breath to a count of, say, four, filling but not overfilling your lungs, all the while maintaining good singing posture—relaxed, open ribs and lifted chest. Then exhale lightly and steadily on a hiss—forming an “sss” or “th”—to a count of, say, eight at the start and then working your way up to sixteen and beyond if that feels comfortable. If you put the palm of your hand in front of your mouth as you do this you should be able to feel your breath in a steady stream, enough to keep an imaginary candle flame fluttering lightly. You should feel your abdomen engage and slowly tuck in as you exhale. Check that you’re not leaking air before you begin (you should feel no air before the onset of the hiss). Don’t push the hiss beyond your natural capacity—this isn’t an endurance exercise. You should be able to take your next breath in a relaxed fashion without gasping. This exercise will naturally extend the length of time you can maintain a steady hiss, without forcing it. Remember that folk singing typically uses speech-like phrasing and rarely involves dramatic holding of notes, but will benefit mightily from good breath control.

Phrasing (Examples of Two Styles):

The first example emphasizes words for rhythmic rather than textual importance, as you hear in bluegrass. The second example uses a straight meter within a phrase, and breaking the meter between phrases as is sometimes heard in unaccompanied ballad singing.

Ornaments in Action:

Singers rarely use only one type of ornament, and how singers use ornaments is as individual as the singers themselves. In the following examples you can hear variously scoops, slides, three-note cascades, feathering or yipping at the ends of lines, and more.

Word Yodels:

Word yodels involve exploiting the “crack” between chest and head registers, as with yodeling in general. Besides being fun to do, they can be used (sparingly) as a way to evoke emotion. Hank Williams was a master of word yodels. 

Celtic Ornaments:

Celtic ornaments evoke the rolls and turns found in Celtic fiddling and piping. Many Irish and Scottish singers sing in their head register, and thus their ornaments have a light, airy quality.

Deadpan Singing:

“Deadpan” singing consists of minimal face or mouth motion but still involves a lot of resonance.

Chapter 3 – Sweet Harmony

Steps to Developing a Parallel Harmony:

Different Stacks for the Song “Pathway of Teardrops”:

Examples of Harmony Variations:

Examples of Folk Duets in the 21st Century:

Chapter 4 – Working Up a Song

A Traditional Singer Approaches a Song:

A Singer Talks about Developing Guitar Skills:

“Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still”:

“Twilight Is Stealing”:

Examples of Tradition-Based Songwriting:

Examples from the Songwriters Interviewed in This Chapter:

Chapter 5 – Putting It Out There

Three No-Fail Jam Songs to Pull Out at Any Gathering with a “Southern” Flavor:

Three Songs for Pub Sings and Sessions That Feature “Northern” Music:

Public Relations (PR) Companies:

When choosing a PR company, the best strategy is to seek the advice of musicians you know who use them. More companies are springing up all the time. In So You Want to Sing Folk Music, we interviewed Sabra Guzmán. Her PR agency is Bird’s Word PR. Also check out Hearth Music PR.


Showcasing is a way to show the world and the people who book series (including, increasingly, house concert series) and clubs and colleges what you can do. There are many, but Folk Alliance International is a place to start. The regional organizations are also important:

See also:

College Programs for Old-Time, Bluegrass, and Appalachian Music:

 More and more music departments are including bluegrass and old-time music in their music curriculum. However, prospective students with an interest in the vocal side of folk music should check out what exactly is available. Often the focus of the program or ensemble is on instrumental proficiency with very little attention paid to singing. And sometimes, because websites aren’t updated frequently, what’s listed online doesn’t match what’s currently offered. Here are a few programs that offer either degree courses—major or minor, or undergraduate or graduate—or performing ensembles:

In addition the IBMA website includes a listing of schools and colleges that feature bluegrass-specific programs.

Folk Music Camps:

There are scores of adult-oriented folk music camps in this country where participants spend an intense few days working with instructors on some aspect of music. Some, such as Voice Works, Augusta Heritage Center’s Vocal Week, and the Swannanoa Gathering’s Traditional Song Week, are dedicated to singing. Others, such the Ashokan Music and Dance Camps and the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop, are focused more generically and feature a variety of different classes, many instrumental but typically some focused on singing. These camps can prove useful for singers needing to hone their instrumental as well as their vocal skills. The Village Harmony camps are choral in nature, focusing on American shape-note music and diverse world music genres. 

Folk Festivals:

In addition, there are many, many folk festivals across the country and around the world that shine a light on singers new and old. Here are a few to check out. Some are massive, while others are quite small.

Chapter 6 – Singing and Voice Science (Scott McCoy)

Chapter 7 – Vocal Health and the Singer of Folk Music (Wendy LeBorgne)

Chapter 8 – Using Audio Enhancement Technology (Matthew Edwards)

Equipment Manufacturers:

Recommended Equipment:

Comparisons of Singers (on and off mic):


Trade Publications:

Additional Resources – Book Interviewees

Personal Websites and Web Pages:

Live and Recorded Performances:

Also Check Out: