Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Five Folk Songs For Easter

Reed George
Ralph Stanely and the Clinch Mountain Boys at 2011's Watermelon Park Festival.

This is Holy Week, the most meaningful time of the year for Christians. Whether you are a religious believer or not, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is part of our culture and has been reflected in many ways in music, art, and literature through the centuries. 

In normal times, Easter Sunday is the day of highest church attendance in the year. But these are not normal times.

This will be a difficult Easter for many who are cut off from face-to-face interaction with their church communities, not to mention gatherings with extended family. On a more worldly note, parents are having to explain to their kids why there are no big, public Easter egg hunts.

Remember that there are better times ahead, and have a happy and blessed Easter. Here are five songs from the folk genre, both traditional and newly written, that touch upon the Easter story.

Tony Barrand - The Merchant's Carrol

We’ll begin with a traditional English Easter carol, sung by Tony Barrand, who is most often heard along with his musical partner John Roberts. This recording was made as part of an actual church service on Palm Sunday in 2018 in Guilford, Vermont.

Texas Sacred Harp Singers - Wondrous Love

Sacred Harp, or shape-note, singing is a uniquely American style of choral music that developed during the 18th and 19th centuries. Each note is represented on the musical staff by a different shape, hence the name “shape-note singing."

Each note also has a certain syllable associated with it (similar to the do-re-mi scale most of us know, but slightly different). The singers begin by singing the song through using the note names rather than the lyrics, which can sound cacophonous. Then they switch to singing the actual words of the hymn, and the result is glorious. The singers arrange themselves in a square, singing toward each other, and people take turns standing in the center of the square to keep time.

Ralph Stanley/Clinch Mountain Boys - I Am The Man, Thomas

Ralph Stanley, along with his brother Carter, was one of the pioneers of bluegrass music. The Stanley Brothers and their band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, began performing in the late 1940s, and when Carter died in 1966, Ralph carried on as front man for the band.

He wrote this song with guitarist Larry Sparks, who joined the Clinch Mountain Boys in 1964 and later went on to bluegrass fame of his own. The song tells of one small vignette from the Easter story, when the apostle Thomas refuses to believe that the man he encounters is in fact the risen Jesus, until Jesus shows him the scars on his hands.

David Olney - Barrabas

In the liner notes to his 2012 EP “The Stone,” David Olney wrote: “Something happened. Back there all those centuries ago. Something not easily believed or easily dismissed. Two thousand years of glory and horror, of love and hate, of beauty and violence have only made those long ago events more murky and more enigmatic. But nothing comes of nothing. Something happened. The Stone is an attempt to address those events. From varying points of view (a con man, a donkey, a murderer and a soldier), a story is told. A picture struggles to emerge. Nothing is proved. Nothing is denied.”

This song is narrated by Barrabas, the thief and murderer who was due to be crucified along with Christ but was spared.

Kate Campbell - The Last Song

Kate Campbell grew up in Mississippi and is now based in Nashville.  Her father was a Baptist preacher, and her mother played blues and swing tunes on the piano. This is her meditation on the last days of Jesus’ life.

Karen Impola is the host of IPR's The Folk Tree