What kinds of songs are appropriate for an acoustic music session? How many do you need? Where do you get your repertoire from? How do you remember all the words? Each of these topics is worthy of a string of blog posts. Let’s start with some introductory ideas.

What songs are appropriate?

Depends on the session. You’ll get clues from how the session advertises itself and who attends, but the best way to find out is to go along at least once and just listen. Is this an Americana session (old timey, bluegrass, Appalachian)? Is it all pre-radio unaccompanied English folk songs? Is there a focus on folk revival songs from the 60s and 70s, or do they play both kinds of music here – country and western? Or is it a mix – did you hear Greensleeves and Mama Mia, Worried Man Blues and You Shook Me All Night Long? (if the latter, you may have been at my local session – hope you came up and said hello).

The people who run a session usually feel strongly about what kinds of songs ‘fit’. The good news is, they’ll tell you – just ask!

What genres tend to be welcomed in acoustic sessions?

Again it depends on the session, but the following genres tend to suit acoustic instruments and/or unaccompanied singing:

  • sea shanties
  • work songs and ‘hollers’
  • gospel songs
  • pre-radio traditional songs from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales; colonial versions of these from Australia and specific pockets of North America (e.g. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, the Appalachians); colonial songs in general
  • pre-radio songs from various world traditions e.g. calypso; simple ‘world music’ songs that English speakers find easy to learn (I know sessioners who do a sprinkling of Hebrew, Middle English, Gaelic, Torres Strait Islander, Ghanan and Macedonian songs); and English translations of ‘world’ songs
  • ‘folk revival’ songs from the late 50s to the 70s (Arlo and Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter Paul and Mary, the Seekers)
  • union and political songs from the 60s onwards
  • Australian pub rock from the 70s and 80s
  • anything that was so popular in its day that everyone has learned all the words and riffs by osmosis. Brown-Eyed Girl springs to mind, but be careful – some sessions and some sessioners reject ‘Buskers Hate List’ songs with a passion
  • Irish songs (again, caution is warranted – there’s a strong resistance to ‘plastic Paddy’ songs in some quarters)
  • pop songs that grew from folk/acoustic roots (huge range – we play a fair bit of Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, Paul Kelly)
  • songs from artists and bands marketed as ‘folk’, ‘folk rock’ etc. (Ted Egan, Eric Bogle, Judy Small, Great Big Sea, the Decembrists)
  • bluegrass
  • country

This is by no means an exhaustive list – let’s see what the Replies bring in.

How many do you need?

I know lots of people who’ve come to the session as newbies with just one song they’ve practised up in their bedroom, until they’re prepared to share it with the world. A few tips here.

  • don’t make your debut song an original or obscure song no-one knows except you. There are exceptions to every rule, and maybe the song aligns perfectly with the groove of this particular session and is a real humdinger and you can pull it off with great pizazz – in which case, go for it. But the point of a session is participation. People will sit and listen politely to a newcomer’s first offering, but if they don’t know it, there’s nothing for them to join in with, and it doesn’t blow them away, you won’t make a positive first impression.
  • if you’ve learnt a song from the singing of someone else in the session, don’t do that song as your debut, unless you’ve asked them first. We’ll do a whole post about this ‘ownership’ of songs issue, but for now just trust me – people can be taken aback when a newcomer proudly trots out a song that Old Jimmy has been singing for so many years it feels like he wrote it. Of course, if you don’t know that’s Old Jimmy’s song, people aren’t going to hold it against you. And if they do, don’t fret – just nod, smile and apologise when Old Jimmy drops a word in your ear. Most sessioners are thrilled when a newbie leads a song, especially one that fits the vibe of the session.
  • if they like your first offering, they’re likely to look to you for a second one later in the session. It’s nice if you have one up your sleeve.

Where do you get your repertoire?

Here are just a few suggestions:

  • recordings by bands you like, who play in the right genre for this session
  • You Tube clips of ditto. Expand your horizons by following links to similar music
  • your community choir repertoire
  • songs you learnt as a kid, at school or from family and friends
  • the singing of other sessioners and musicians you know
  • music/singing workshops – go to festivals, take classes by visiting singers
  • libraries, especially if you want to bring back forgotten versions of old songs

4 thoughts on “Repertoire

Add yours

  1. Great blog Andrea – thank you for all your amazing contributions to the folk community, and in particular to the recording of our eccentricities 🙂


  2. I’m with Shez, it is wonderful to have this forum Andrea! You pose these issues so comprehensively and politely. I have posted the link on my FB page to hopefully draw a few more people from the regional Acoustic Music Gatherings into the discussions (thanks Don for the prompt). Ali xx

    Liked by 2 people

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