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Womenfolk: Feminist Reimaginings of Traditional Folk Songs(2021 Donald Award Winner)

the lower half a person's body is shown, holding the neck of an acoustic guitar. the hand is adorned with rings and a watch and has fingernails painted black

Allegedly, folk music is the music of the people, but recent recordings by American women folk artists suggest that it has too often been the music of only half the people. Though women have often performed traditional folk songs, the women characters in most of those songs have generally fit into only a few categories. Women in folk songs can be longing for love or victims of cruel and caddish lovers, their virginity taken and their honor stained. They can be murder victims or objects of male emotion, most commonly desire. They can be background characters, given no real role to play save that of wife or mother. Even when they are allowed to be the protagonist of a song, as Peggy Seeger writes, “There is far more variety in man-hero songs than there is in woman-heroine pieces.”1 In any of these cases, though, their importance largely depends on how men treat or use them. On recent albums by luminaries in the folk music world as well as newcomers, women performers have recast traditional songs, stories, and styles to challenge, diversify, and update the folk canon, reflecting and reinterpreting the stories of women, too often left out or relegated to roles of silence or suffering in the originals. Each suggests an argument about how women have been treated in folk, and taken together they represent a movement that calls for a change in how our traditional songs represent the people they speak about and for.

“John Henry” is somewhat unusual among folk songs in that its story can be traced to a historically verifiable event—in this case a contest between the African American steel driver John Henry and a steam drill in the 1870s. The song is named for the male hero, who is lauded for his prowess in driving steel, though he knows it will “be the death of him.” In the song, if not in real life, John Henry collapses from the exertion of trying to drive steel faster than the steam drill before the contest is over. There are a few versions of what happens next, of course, as the folk tradition defies stasis, but most commonly the song relates that:

Now John Henry had a little woman
Her name was Polly Anne
John Henry took sick and had to go to bed
Polly Anne drove steel like a man

The song, of course, is a celebration of human endeavor in the face of industrialization, and John Henry’s power and audacity are to inspire listeners. His tragedy, that he beats the steam drill, proving his point, but then dies from the task, is the song’s pathos and point. Often ignored, though, is that he doesn’t beat the steam drill. Polly Anne is actually the one who finishes the job—performing probably the more unlikely show of strength—and she gets short shrift indeed.

Our Native Daughters is a supergroup made up of four Black women musicians—Rhiannon Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, and Allison Russell—who delve deep into American folk music. For their 2019 album Songs of Our Native Daughters, they chose to revisit this story in “Polly Ann’s Hammer.” The song begins as an echo of the original, stating “When John was sick, Polly drove steel like a man.” It continues:

“Polly can you lift that hammer?”
“Yes I can, Yes I can
“I can swing it, I can strike it
“Harder than any man can”2

So far, Our Native Daughters are highlighting the important role Polly Ann plays in the John Henry story, how she is capable and strong despite being sidelined in the original. What comes next is an even larger challenge to the original, which ends with the image of John Henry’s baby stating “My daddy was a steel driving man,” as though to join in the celebration of his father’s accomplishments. This updated version ends:

When Polly had a small baby
On her knee, on her knee
Grabbed a hammer in her left hand
“Ain’t no one as strong as me”

This little hammer killed John Henry
Won’t kill me, won’t kill me
This little hammer killed your daddy
Throw it down and we’ll be free3

Rather than celebrate the prowess of the child’s father, Polly Ann seeks to stop the cycle and change the story. She’ll brag about her strength, but she doesn’t want to use it to drive steel. She encourages the baby, the new generation, to throw the hammer away rather than seek to use it. Amythyst Kiah wrote in the liner notes that the song was partially “about [Polly’s] wish to be free from the grip of the physically unforgiving and often thank-less job of steel driving,”4 but Allison Russell’s note on the song takes the implications of these final verses further. She writes “The supposedly weaker sex survives the work that kills John Henry, raises the babies, and perhaps lives long enough to see their children campaign for civil rights and true freedom.”5 When Polly Ann and her baby throw down the hammer at the end of Our Native Daughters’ version of this song, they are walking away from the kind of heavy manual labor it represents, but maybe also from the need for African American families to rely on that kind of labor and the exploitation present in the kind of contest sponsored by the railroad company that the song relates. Regardless, the song asks us to rethink what we have long known of the John Henry story and consider the strength and power of Polly Ann.

Strength and power are also the focus of “Silver Blade,” the Josh Ritter-composed rewrite of the ballad “Silver Dagger,” which was made known to most folk fans by the queen of the genre, Joan Baez, on her first album in 1960. “Silver Dagger” goes back at least to the 19th century, and, like most folk ballads, has older roots and many versions. In Baez’ version, later sung by artists from Dolly Parton to Fleet Foxes, a young woman is addressing her potential suitor from where she lays beside her sleeping mother. Her mother has told her:

All men are false They’ll tell you wicked, lovin’ lies
The very next evening they’ll court another
Leave you alone to pine and sigh6

The girl explains that her own father is a cad who has a string of women he has loved and deserted; the audience is left to understand that the mother’s experience has moved her to teach her daughter as she has. The suitor never speaks, but is told that the mother sleeps with a silver dagger in her right hand. When the speaker proclaims that she has “been warned” and has “decided to sleep alone all [her] life,”7 it isn’t clear whether she has decided to stay unmarried because she has bought into her mother’s views or because she knows her mother will use that silver dagger if she attempts to go with the young man at the window.

It is ostensibly a song about the fickle and cruel nature of men, but a closer look brings that into question. The girl’s desires are never known in “Silver Dagger.” Is it fear of the man’s cruelty or of her mother’s that keeps her from her suitor? Clearly the mother has been wronged and wishes to spare her daughter the same fate, but the young woman in this tale has no agency.

In 2018, Joan Baez released what she claims will be her final studio album. On it, she performs a song written specifically for her by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter entitled “Silver Blade,” a complete reimagining of the original story that Rolling Stone called “a fable for the #MeToo era.”8 In this version, there is no mother to give warnings and remove the choice from the young woman. Instead, the speaker tells the story of how she met a beautiful, well-dressed young man who offered her his love, who told her she should elope with him, “to be his lady ever more.”9 She bought into the suitor’s lies, for lies they are in this version, and rode away, expecting love and marriage and commitment. Instead, she tells us, after they had sex the first time, he took out a silver blade to cut off a lock of her hair and told her to “go her way.” It isn’t explicitly said, but it is understood that this is his trophy and that he must have many others; this suitor has fulfilled all the worst warnings made in “Silver Dagger.”

The story isn’t done, though. The speaker tells us she watched where that silver blade was put down after it was used to cut her hair. When her lover’s back was turned, she grabbed it and killed him. She used the blade, she reports, to dig a grave in a spot “even God don’t know” and then returned each evening until she knew his body had disintegrated and his bones been scattered. Now, she says,

All I have of what I was
Is the memory of a maid
Who mistook a thief for love
But who gained a silver blade10

There is no remorse for the killing here, and the narrative is clearly delivered at some remove. She is sorry, perhaps, that it happened, that she “mistook a thief for love.” This is, of course, what the mother in the original version was warning might happen to the daughter if she fell for the love songs of her suitor. This version, then, doesn’t do anything to rehabilitate the reputation of men in the story. What it does do is make the speaker herself responsible for her choices. There is no mother here telling her what to do and when she says she “gained a silver blade,” there seems to be pride in that. It is worth noting that a woman “ruined” in the song’s time period would likely not have been able to marry and so being lied to by a lover who claimed real commitment was a life-changing disaster. The song, however, doesn’t actually ask or answer any questions about whether murder was an appropriate response to what was done to the speaker, but it does offer her agency. It is an old-fashioned murder ballad that takes a folk classic and gives it a feminist twist.

Another feminist take on the traditional murder ballad comes from all-female folk group Lula Wiles, named for the titular character of the Carter Family classic “Lulu Walls,” in which a woman rebuffs a marriage offer with silence. Lula Wiles has a long list of overtly political compositions, but their song “Bad Guy” is a nuanced and feminist updating of what we have come to expect from folk murder ballads. As band member Eleanor Buckland reported to NPR:

there are just scores and scores of murder ballads. And in most of them, the man kills the woman because she either says no to his advances or they get pregnant and he’s upset. And so he brutally kills them both. It’s horrendous. And we wanted to put a drop in the bucket of sort of settling that score.11

“Bad Guy,” then, isn’t a reimaging of a specific song, like “Polly Ann’s Hammer” or “Silver Blade,” but of the whole genre. Here, the speaker is a woman who is asking her lover to run away with her because she will “never more be free”; she’s going on the lam after committing a crime. Committing murder, running from the law, begging your lover to come with you—in folk music, these are traditionally male activities. Here, the woman speaker asks her interlocuter at the end of every verse “if I was the bad guy, would you love me less?”

It isn’t until the third verse that she begins to describe the crime she has committed. She tells us that: “Late last evening, to me, my sister ran / With a weight of darkness upon her breast / And it tells the story of her husband’s hand.”12 Her sister was beaten by her husband, so our speaker followed her brother-in-law into the woods and killed him. At the end of the song, she affirms that she is the bad guy, but it is hard for us as listeners to feel that way. Unlike those murderers in the old ballads that Buckland described, this killer hasn’t acted out of self-interest or embarrassment; she has killed to protect her sister and she declares: “I won’t repent / For sisters know, our hearts are but the same / They break and grieve as one.”13 The characters in the song are literal sisters, but one can hear Lula Wiles’ feminism beating strong through that line, suggesting that the sisterhood of women is really being referenced here. Is this woman, who has committed murder and is fleeing the law, really “the bad guy” or, in this upheaval of the murder ballad, is she a sort of hero?

It isn’t just traditional folk songs that are receiving this treatment on recent albums by women artists; twentieth century folk favorites are also being given feminist updates. Another all-woman supergroup, The Highwomen is made up of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlisle, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby. On the track that shares their name, they are joined by UK songstress Yola, and together the women reimagine the Jimmy Webb composition “Highwayman.” The original “Highwayman,” most famously performed by the all-male supergroup The Highwaymen in 1985, made up of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash, tells the story of four incarnations of the same soul as it lives and dies four times. Each of the four lives is a man’s life and is described by the job that it does—an outlaw, a sailor, a builder, and a spaceship pilot—all traditionally strong male roles. The song is delivered in the first person, with the soul telling the listeners about its journey. Somewhat contradictorily, it ends by saying it may find peace or may be reincarnated, but it will surely be back again and again and again. There is no great underlying message; it’s a cool song with a slightly metaphysical edge.

Carlisle and Shires rewrote the song with original composer Jimmy Webb, and their rewrite, though it mirrors the original, is profoundly different in its purpose. In “Highwomen,” the singers once again present their lives and deaths in the first person, but they do not share a soul so much as a mission. These are stories of women who have died as victims of the hatred of the world: a Central American immigrant who dies fleeing the Sandinistas, a Puritan healer killed as a witch in Salem, a Freedom Rider killed by white supremacists, and a woman called to be a preacher killed by those who believed her sex should not be learned in that art.

The choice to sing about women instead of men while reimagining this song would have been enough to merit their inclusion in this discussion, but the stories included make not just a woman’s version but, as NPR christened it, a “statement song.”14 The men in the original die doing their jobs; the women here die at the hands of others—and others means men. These are all deaths that would not have happened in a world that wasn’t poisoned by prejudice.

Taking the statement a step further, the song ends with this verse:

We are The Highwomen
Singing stories still untold
We carry the sons you can only hold
We are the daughters of the silent generations
You sent our hearts to die alone in foreign nations
It may return to us as tiny drops of rain
But we will still remain

And we’ll come back again and again and again15

These women’s stories are not united by the gimmicky but cool idea that the same soul lived them all. They are united because they are women’s stories, women who dared to step out of line and challenge the status quo of their times and places, women who carry the future in their bodies, who wait to hear if their sons will die in foreign wars. When The Highwaymen sang the original ending “I’ll be back again and again and again and again,”16 it was about reincarnation. When The Highwomen sing “we’ll be back again and again and again and again,” it means that women will keep rising up, though individual women may be thrown back down for doing so.

Women artists have been finding, then, different ways to reimagine and revisit traditional folk music as well as more recent compositions made famous by men. In December 2019, Pheobe Bridgers, along with Fiona Apple and The National’s Matt Berninger, released a track that is both a traditional and a cover; they created a new version of the mashup originally thought up and executed by Simon & Garfunkel on their famous 1966 album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme. Simon & Garfunkel’s tune featured the duo singing the Christmas standard “Silent Night” over an excerpt from the 7 o’clock news.17 The newscast they chose to use in 1966 was largely about domestic unrest over the war in Vietnam and Civil Rights and is, of course, supposed to jar against the calm of the carol. In the new version, Bridgers and Apple croon out the same carol over Berninger’s reading of the nightly news. Which news items they chose for this cover is where things get interesting. Paul Simon was most interested in pointing out the tension between the song’s peaceful sentiments and the unrest and murder in the newscast he chose to sing over. Bridgers’ news contains several items that directly affect women. The sole “good news” in Berninger’s report is the first all-female spacewalk that had just occurred, celebrating the achievements of women in a traditionally male field. An anti-abortion Louisiana law is given the most time in the news report, which presents the law as a danger to women’s rights. This updated version of “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” was, in fact, created as a part of Berninger’s charity project “7 inches for Planned Parenthood,” wherein a portion of its sales was donated to Planned Parenthood to help protect women’s reproductive rights. Bridgers puts women’s stories up front in her version, juxtaposing Berninger’s report that “the health and safety of women across the nation, particularly those in lower-income homes” is at risk directly against the “virgin mother and child” described in “Silent Night.”18 We are hurting women, mothers, she says, even as we pretend to idolize them. By using Simon & Garfunkel’s idea but changing its focus, Bridgers is able to bring attention to an important issue facing women.

From taking a different look at oft-repeated tales to creating new stories that mirror the traditional ones, women in folk music have been shaking things up over the past few years. These songs challenge the traditional place of women in this music as victim, sidekick, love object, or mother and give them more, offer them a more three-dimensional existence in the rich landscape of traditional and modern folk. As Peggy Seeger wrote for her workshop on anti-feminism in traditional folk music, “Coming to grips with [these] issues does not mean we have to be anti-male in our attitude. It doesn’t mean we can’t be funny. It doesn’t mean we have to stop singing the songs. But it might be advisable to put them into a modern context or to comment on their true nature before singing them.”19 These singers and songwriters are firmly entrenched in the folk tradition, but they are working to do just that—put that tradition into a modern context and comment on its nature. It will, no doubt, be interesting to watch as women folk artists continue to enrich the genre, reimagining and rethinking the music of the people.


Baez, Joan, vocalist. “Silver Dagger,” Track #1 on Joan Baez, Vanguard, 1960, Compact Disc.

— —, vocalist. “Silver Blade,” Track #8 on Whistle Down the Wind, Proper, 2018, Compact Disc.

Bridgers, Phoebe, vocalist. “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” Track #2 on If We Make it Through December, Dead Oceans, 2020, streaming. (

Garcia-Navarro, Lulu. “Lula Wiles Flips Notions About American Folk on its Head,” NPR, 27 January 2019. (

Gotrich, Lars. “Hear The Highwomen’s New Statement Song, ‘Highwomen,’” NPR, August 13, 2019. (

Hermes, Will. “Review: Joan Baez, 77, Still America’s Folk Music Queen on ‘Whistle Down the Wind,’” Rolling Stone Magazine, March 2, 2018. (

The Highwaymen, vocalists. “Highwayman.” Track #1 on Highwayman, Columbia Nashville, 1985, Compact Disc.

The Highwomen, songwriters. “Highwomen.” Track #1 on The Highwomen, Elecktra, 2019, Compact Disc.

Lula Wiles, songwriters. “Bad Guy,” Track #6 on What Will We Do, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019, Compact Disc.

Our Native Daughters, vocalists and songwriters. “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” Track #6 on Our Native Daughters, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019, Compact Disc.

Seeger, Peggy. “A Feminist View of Anglo-American Traditional Songs.”, June 21, 2009. (

Simon & Garfunkel, vocalists. “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” Track #12 on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, And Thyme, Columbia, 1966, Compact Disc.


  1. Peggy Seeger, “A Feminist View of Anglo-American Traditional Songs,”, June 21, 2009, ](↩︎

  2. Our Native Daughters, “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” Track #6 on Our Native Daughters, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  3. Our Native Daughters, “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” Track #6 on Our Native Daughters, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  4. Amythyst Kiah, liner notes for Songs of Our Native Daughters, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019. ↩︎

  5. Allison Russell, liner notes for Songs of Our Native Daughters, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019. ↩︎

  6. Joan Baez, “Silver Dagger,” Track #1 on Joan Baez, Vanguard, 1960, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  7. Joan Baez, “Silver Dagger,” Track #1 on Joan Baez, Vanguard, 1960, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  8. Will Hermes, “Review: Joan Baez, 77, Still America’s Folk Music Queen on ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ ” Rolling Stone Magazine, March 2, 2018. (↩︎

  9. Joan Baez, “Silver Blade,” Track #8 on Whistle Down the Wind, Proper, 2018, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  10. Joan Baez, “Silver Blade,” Track #8 on Whistle Down the Wind, Proper, 2018, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  11. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, “Lula Wiles Flips Notions About American Folk on its Head,” NPR, 27 January 2019. ( ↩︎

  12. Lula Wiles, “Bad Guy,” Track #6 on What Will We Do, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  13. Lula Wiles, “Bad Guy,” Track #6 on What Will We Do, Smithsonian Folkways, 2019, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  14. Lars Gotrich, “Hear The Highwomen’s New Statement Song, ‘Highwomen,’” NPR, August 13, 2019, ( ↩︎

  15. The Highwomen, “Highwomen.” Track #1 on The Highwomen, Elecktra, 2019, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  16. The Highwaymen, “Highwayman.” Track #1 on Highwayman, Columbia Nashville, 1985, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  17. Simon & Garfunkel, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” Track #12 on Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, And Thyme, Columbia, 1966, Compact Disc. ↩︎

  18. Phoebe Bridgers, “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” Track #2 on If We Make it Through December, Dead Oceans, 2020, streaming audio, accessed on Spotify. ( ↩︎

  19. Peggy Seeger, “A Feminist View of Anglo-American Traditional Songs,”, June 21, 2009, ( ↩︎

About the Author: 

Lily Corwin teaches writing at Virginia Tech. She holds a Ph.D. in Language and Literature from the Catholic University of America and has presented and published on many subjects, including American folk music and Jewish American Literature. She writes, lives, and parents in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Roanoke, Virginia.

This feature is the recipient of the 2021 Ralph Donald Award, recognizing an outstanding paper and presentation delivered at MAPACA’s annual conference.