Exploring Queer Themes in Traditional Folk Music

Exploring Queer Themes in Traditional Folk Music

Traditional folk music captures the stories, perspectives, and also experiences of the people across the history. When examining the lyrical content and subtexts of these songs closely, one can find many themes that relate to the queer identities and same-gender relationships. Folk music allows us a unique window into the lives and also social contexts of the marginalized groups throughout the ages.

In many early English folk ballads, we see many subtle and coded references to same-gender romantic relationships. For example, in traditional versions of "The Outlandish Knight," a young woman disguises herself as a man to trick an outlandish knight. Some interpretations of this ballad have viewed it as representing a lesbian relationship, with the woman’s cross-dressing symbolizing the gender fluidity. Other old English folk songs like “The Princess Royal” and “The Merchant’s Daughter” address the cross-dressing women falling for other women, suggesting fluid and also complex gender roles.

The history of American folk is also filled with queer allusions, sometimes kept hidden through the metaphorical language as explicit representation was socially unacceptable historically. The ballad “Ode to Billy Joe,” explores the complex relationship dynamics between Billie Joe and the unnamed narrator of the song which is open to queer analysis and interpretation despite the vagueness in the lyrics. Additionally, blues songs like “Prove It on My,” sung by artists like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, depict the open exploration of sexuality

Appalachian folk tales have been passed down through the generations via oral histories and contain some ambiguous analyses of the gender. Characters like “Bill” in the song “Bill Hicks,” may represent the feminine presenting males or perhaps even transgender identity. Other traditional Appalachian songs address the cross-dressing mermaids and shapeshifting witch women with fluid and non-binary gender presentations across the magical folk stories. This demonstrates how the gender and sexual fluidity manifests even subtly in the fantastical imaginings of the folk legends.

Indigenous North American traditions related to Two Spirit people signify the importance of the gender fluidity and sexual diversity to early First Nations cultures. While marginalized and erased through colonization, many tribes recognized Two Spirit members who embodied both the masculine and feminine traits and also capacities. This is reflected to some degree in the traditional songs, stories, and ceremonies honoring Two Spirit identity in the various tribes.

Additionally, coded folk narratives from the 1800-early 1900’s seem to imply or insinuate same-sex attraction even when not stated explicitly. From songs like “Down in the Willow Gardens” which explores the jealousy and murder between two men to “O Waly, Waly” regarding secret love that is heavily theorized to reference forbidden homosexual affairs, folk music exposes the social attitudes on sexuality through euphemistic storytelling.

Even lullabies and the children’s folk music contain traces of queer identities and relationships being acknowledged as part of the human experience. Songs like “Froggy Went A Courtin’” follows a frog courting a mouse without gender specifications, allowing for broad representation of all kinds of partnerships. The universality of the folk tales renders them applicable across the spectrum of the romantic experiences.

This is only a sampling of the examples where one can analyze and uncover the queer themes that manifest both subtly and overtly throughout the history of the folk music traditions across cultures. Folk music, at its core, represents the diverse and also complex realities of the human existence. By weaving the specificity of queer narratives into the collective musical stories, this genre demonstrates an early form of representation for marginalized identities. Folk music allows us to trace and uncover the early acknowledgment of fluid gender roles and also same-sex attraction even in cultures that condemned visible queerness. It proves an allegorical vessel where many marginalized groups first found the community and creative outlets to share their hidden experiences. Though the representation was limited and heavily coded, the queer traces that can be found dotted across the traditional folk music suggest these identities and relationships were not as taboo or unthinkable historically as dominant historical narratives led us to believe.

We at SHAVA are honored to share this article as a reflection of our deep commitment to celebrating the rich diversity within the transgender community. It is with heartfelt solidarity that we stand with transgender individuals of color, wholeheartedly advocating for an environment of acceptance and allyship. Through our efforts, we aim to uplift and honor the myriad of unique experiences that contribute to the beautiful tapestry of our community. Discover more about our initiatives at shava.co

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