You’d never take a lute and sing to impress your beloved, but stop for a moment and listen to these old folk songs about love. You might discover they’re more moving than you ever thought…

Have you ever wondered what makes folk songs, especially love songs, so durable? Is it because they are made and handed down by common people, singing about the issues important to them, or is it something else? Whatever the reason, often you just can’t resist jumping up and dancing every time you hear them at a wedding or another special occasion. There is something in these old songs, written centuries ago in English, Catalan, French and Slovak, which still touches your heart. They talk about romantic love, truth, happiness and sadness. Some of them are more than three hundred years old but they haven’t lost their power.

Folk songs were very popular during medieval times in Catalonia, especially in the Berguedà area, where this painting originates. | Photo: Public domain

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to do a lot of crazy stuff or complete a whole a set of conditions in order to be with the person you love? That is exactly what the English song “Scarborough Fair” is about. This is an old English riddle song, of which there are a countless variations. “Scarborough Fair” appears to derive from an older Scottish ballad, “The Elfin Knight”, which has been traced at least as far back as 1670 and may well be earlier.

As the song spread, it was adapted, modified, and rewritten to the point that dozens of versions existed by the end of the 18th century, although only a few are typically sung nowadays. Here’s the story: a young man sends a message to his old love, who lives in Scarborough. He asks her to perform five impossible tasks in order to win him back. It’s everything from sewing a shirt with no seams and washing it in a dry well to finding him some land between the sand and the sea.

The question is why he demands these obviously unachievable things. Does he still love her or does he just want to reject her? This part gives a possible answer:

If she tells me she can’t, I’ll reply

Parsley ,sage, rosemary and thyme,

Let me know that at least she will try

And then she’ll be a true love of mine

So, we can say he is still in love with her but afraid of rejection and that’s why he imposes these impossible task on her – to make sure that she loves him as well. Does that sound familiar to you? “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme” are said to be the ingredients of love potions. Some say the song is actually about the plague because these four spices were used to ward off the smell of the dead, which in this case could imply she will be “dead” to him if she doesn’t try.

Have you ever been sad and disillusioned after being disappointed by love? One old French song ,”Love’s pleasure” describes that feeling. The song was written by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian and composed by Jean-Paul-Egide Martini in 1784. It has numerous versions and in 1859 it was arranged for orchestra by Hector Berlioz. The main point is that the happy moments of love are short, but the disappointment lasts for a lifetime:

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment,

The pain of love lasts a lifetime

“As long as this water will run gently

Towards this brook which borders the meadow,

I will love you”, Sylvia told me repeatedly.

The water still runs, but she has changed.

A similar emotion is the motif of one Czech song. Disillusioned by love, a man decides to go away to a monastery on the mountains and to live there without love because he can’t stand another betrayal. I guess you know that feeling of just wanting to run away and forget everything when someone hurts you badly. Probably a monastery wouldn’t be your first choice, but that’s beside the point…

Folk songs are still as moving as they were centuries ago | Photo: Public domain

Oh love, love, you are not constant

like water between riverbanks

Water flows away, love passes on

like a little leaf of rosemary.

I’ll build a monastery in the mountains,

and live there without love.

Without love I’ll live there,

I won’t let my darling deceive me again.

Have you ever said “I just can’t live without him/her” when thinking about your love? I think this is what the author of the popular Catalan song “Dead souls” had in mind. It is based on an old folk song and it was sung by Maria del Mar Bonet in 1985. It tells the story of two lovers who were separated by war. After returning from the battle, the soldier finds his beloved dead. He tries to call her up with song and guitar, but without success. Finally, he decides to come to her in the grave. On the tombstone he writes:

I am dead for love,

Without love it’s impossible to live.

It’s very true that you can’t live without loving someone and without someone loving you. Luckily, there are millions of souls in this world, so don’t despair, you will find one who matches you.

If you found any connections with your real love life when reading this, I think that’s the answer to the question at the beginning of the article. This is the explanation of why folk love songs were so popular and why they are still not forgotten today. We can still identify ourselves with their characters, their stories and the message they bring to us. They still can make us sad, happy or melancholy, make us laugh or make us cry. They remind us of a special person in our life and that’s why we are always coming back to them. Folk love songs are an important part of our tradition, just as love is an important part of our lives. And finally, here are some words from a French folk song:

Ah, what sweetness one savours

When love takes care of one’s heart!

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