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Public Domain Songs Question

Robert asks…

Where can I find piano sheet music?

I want the music to popular songs instead of public domain songs such as Old MacDonald and Jingle Bells.

scottparat answers:

Go to
(Best site ever!)

Sharon asks…

How do I determine if a song is public domain or not? I am particularly interested in…?

…cowboy/texas folk music rights.
I am writing a musical about Colonel Charles Goodnight. I want to include common folk music, but I want to verify that the folk songs I am interested in are in fact public domain. How do I do this?

scottparat answers:

In general, folk music by its very nature is in the public domain and anyone can use it. No one owns folk songs, however many people have been “collectors” and have recorded and published folk music. These collections should be cited properly and used with appropriate permission as should any specific recordings that influence your work. John and Alan Lomax come to mind as examples of collectors of cowboy and prison songs and if the music you want to use was found in their archives (for example) you should get permission from that archive. Lomax attributed his songs to particular singers from time to time, so these singers should be noted in your work though permission would be difficult to obtain from these often obscure performers. Folk songs themselves (melodies, tunes, lyrics) are in the public domain so you can quote them in your work as you would any other familiar melody. I just recommend that you be thorough with your research and be absolutely certain that you locate and cite sources as necessary.

I suggest that you check the archives in the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. Folkways Records is also an excellent resource–you could search their catalog of recordings both for inspiration and research. Using these kinds of resources you can try to track down the music you want to use and figure out if it is a true folk song or if there is a composer/collector you should contact for permission. Folk music is difficult to track down but with some effort and research you can make sure the songs you use are true public songs.

Best of luck!

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