"Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire" - Gustav Mahler

First: What is Public Domain? I have often joked that my favorite songwriter is Trad Anon. When I pull that one off before an audience, I get these blank stares, then – slowly - smiles and nods of recognition. Traditional Anonymous songs are Public Domain. So are songs whose copyright has expired. And songs of any age, never copyrighted for one reason or another, ones that fell between the cracks. Also songs whose authorship cannot be determined. Public Domain songs are often of anonymous  or ambiguous origin.


Copyright law has changed over the years. Now, the best advice is that anything recorded or appearing in books prior to 1923 is probably Public Domain. (Note: today, copyrights no longer expire. They did once, after 75 years.)  From 1923 on (I've also heard 1925 and 1927) expect it to be copyrighted. And this is about when the recording industry really started to take off, so while a lot of great songs are very old, they are not necessarily Public Domain. However, people have been singing far longer than they have been recording.  In those early days demand was greater than supply, so many musicians played what they and their forebears had played all their lives, old songs. 

These days, increasing numbers of musical events request that performers sing only original songs - or ones which are in the Public Domain. And if you are going to record or put something on You Tube, you cannot legally use un-permitted copyrighted material. Music which is in the Public Domain music does not require permission (which is usually otherwise purchased); it's free for anyone to use. Help yourself. So, since we all have computers, one can just Google "Public Domain Music" and get the official list, right?

Wrong. Amazingly, a definitive list doesn't exist. You have to do your own research, maybe even employ an entertainment lawyer to search out copyrighted material, or pay the US Copyright Office to do that for you. This is not just research over the internet either; you may have to go to select libraries to search out old song books, early recordings, scholarly works, and so forth. Screw-up and you could be sued for copyright infringement. The rules and laws are not simple, they're convoluted, complex, and the burden of proof may be upon you. By Googling, you can find various helpful explanations of how these things work, so there is no need for me to reinvent that wheel.

Below is a list of nearly 5000 songs that, to the best of my knowledge, are in the public domain (PD).  This project started because I'd planned a CD of mostly traditional music and didn't want to run afoul of the law or to cheat anyone out of their rights. So I  stepped into it, rather deeply, and started my own list.  When first

posted, it was far bigger than any other I had been able to find. Most of the lists out there focus on pop or classical music, and not the really old traditional stuff which interests me the most.  My approach is from the traditional folk music singer's perspective. There is nothing particularly “legal or definitive” about this list. I don't pretend to give advice on anything legal. However,  it's a great spot to start your search. (Yes, there are still large numbers of songs and tunes to add and, if you call my attention to them and send them to me, I'll add them as appropriate. There are, no doubt, some mistakes in here as well. If you spot one, let me know so I can correct it. Please.)


In general, I try to have one entry per piece of music. Which is not so easy as it may first seem. With an oral folk tradition behind them, many variations develop, alternate names, creative spellings. Complicating our task, some traditional songs were sort of changed over decades by their singers, a note here, a word there, much like the games of Telephone or Post Office play out. Also, songs may  have been copyrighted by persons who had no hand in their making. AP Carter of the Carter Family was famous for this: he'd search for songs in the surrounding mountains, bring them into the Carter Family repertoire, and then get copyrights. Few others had thought to do this and how would the Copyright Office  know otherwise? This also commonly happened  during the folk boom in the late 50's and 60's. Some singers copyright their "version", not the song itself, which is perfectly legal.  So if you want to sound like the Kingston Trio (or whoever), you owe a license fee, but if you want to sound different, you do not. Even if these folks have a tenuous hold on their copyrights, they could seek to enforce them. 


And, don't think that just because you don't intend to make money off your video or recording they'll let off the hook. Copyright law doesn't care if you intended to make money any more than it cares if you actually made money or not. (The IRS cares about the latter, however.)

Many of the songs here originated from multiple sources; they often incorporate “floating verses” or snippets from other songs. Defining the source of these gives enthnomusicologists something to debate.  Some we only know are just very old. Eventually, you get a sense for these things,  a trap when someone more modern writes in an older style. A few do. The listings here are based less upon that and more upon what I have found in a large variety of sources: the internet, research books which list songs' copyright dates, a bookcase full of song books + many thousands of recordings, some being well-annotated.  I read liner notes.  My research has been more from secondary than primary sources.  Perhaps my sources made mistakes. Please correct me so they are not perpetuated.

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