Folk Progressions

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Folk Progressions
by Rich Scott

The “E-B7” (I-V7) Folk Chord Progression, which follows the Circle of Fifths movement, is the was used in countless folk songs such as Three Blind Mice, Skip To My Lou, Buffalo Girls, and Alouette. Interest in folk songs grew in the 19th century and since the 1950’s, has been a significant source of popular music particularly by artists such as John Denver, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and Joni Mitchell.

Over the years, songwriters have used various tools to breath new life into this well worn progression such as Chord Quality Changes, Chord Substitutions, Reverses, Static Bass Lines, and Combinations. The most frequently encountered Chord Quality Changes are listed below with a well-known song example.

Chord Quality Changes

E-B Theme from “Cheers” – verse (1982)
E-B7 Detroit City – verse (1963)
E-B7#5 Cabaret – verse (1966)
E-B11 Help Me Rhonda – verse (1965)
E-Bm7 Ferry Cross The Mersy – verse (1964)

The most common Folk Progression Chord Substitutions are the “C#m” chord for the “E” chord and the “G#m” chord for the “B7” chord. Popular examples include:

Chord Substitutions

C#m-G#m Losing My Religion – verse (1991)
C#m-G#7 Paint It Black – verse (1966)

If the Folk changes are reversed, the “B7-E” (V7-I) progression is created. Songwriters will sometimes begin a verse, chorus, or bridge with a “B” Chord Progression to differentiate and contrast it with a corresponding verse, chorus, or bridge built around an “E” Chord Progression. The classic example of the “B7-E” is the 1946 show tune Anything You Can Do.

Static Bass Lines are another tool used by many songwriters to create interesting and memorable progressions often in combination with other tools such as Chord Quality Changes. Several examples are of this technique are listed below.

Static Bass Lines

E-B/E Jack And Diane – intro (1982)
B/E-E (Reverse) Never Be The Same – verse (1980)
E-Bm/E Taxi – verse (1972)

Lastly, songwriters often combine two or more chord progressions to create new and different progressions. The most common Combination Progression that starts with a Folk Progression is the “E-B7-E-A” (I-V7-I-IV) progression. This progression has been used since at least the early 1700’s. The oldest songs I found using this progression were the verses of the 1711 Auld Lang Syne and the 1818 Silent Night. A more recent example is The Drifters’ 1964 hit Under the Boardwalk verse.


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