The origins of a specific piece of music can be difficult to find. Especially when there are multiple variations in multiple languages. Folk music is often old and translated many times.

Sometimes part of the lyrics or the title give away the origin. For instance, The Irish Rover is probably of Irish origin. It's even easier on titles like Dúlamán and Eilean Mo Chridhe (respectively Irish and Scottish).

If a location is mentioned, there's a fair chance the language spoken in that location is the language of origin (for example, The Red Rose Cafe was originally written in Dutch and Maid of Culmore in Irish). However, this can result false positives. My love's in Germany is Scottish, not German. Even the language of the title can be misleading. Que Sera, Sera originated in the USA, but the title is French.

To make things even harder, titles are often translated along with the lyrics. The German Alle, die mit uns auf Kaperfahrt fahren probably has a Flemish origin (Al die willen te kapren varen) but originated around Dunkirk (which is located in northern France). Garten Eden is actually a translated version of Scarborough Fair.

Now we've established finding the origins is hard, what are often used tactics to find them with relatively high accuracy? Wikipedia knows much, but not everything and can't always be trusted. A large, historic database would be perfect (it would be great if the ICTM will launch something like that), but I can't imagine something like that actually exists. I'm not afraid of doing the hard work, I just don't know where to start.

How does one find the origin of old, often translated music?

The question is specifically about .

  • 2
    Que sera, sera - more likely Spanish or Italian.
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 15:54
  • And according to Wikipedia, it is ungrammatical in all three languages. :)
    – Old John
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 19:15
  • I'd think that for a song with a title like "My love's in X", you could be confident that it's written in somewhere other that "X".
    – DavidW
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 8:03
  • An excellent book about the origins of old jazz, blues and also pop music is "It's One For The Money" by Clinton Heylin. He shows how unscrupulous people claimed credit for songs that had been around for decades, or were folk songs, and published them claiming it is their copyright. Ostensibly it is about the history of copyright but is a wonderful history of popular music. Be warned though, after reading it you could become misanthropic. Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 9:30

2 Answers 2


Many of the old traditional folk songs originated before the advent of recorded music. Typically folk songs were composed for the enjoyment of friends and family and neighbors with no thought of profiting commercially, thus there was no desire or need to copyright the songs or even write them down.

Many folk songs became popular and were transmitted orally through the process of someone hearing the song and then remembering it as best they could and performing it from memory for their friends and family and neighbors.

Often each new iteration contained a change from the original due to errant memory or personal or cultural preference or embellishments or additions. So each subsequent version and translation was slightly different from the original.

Because there was no copyright process involved and often the songs were not even written and not recorded, many are of unknown origin. It can be impossible to definitively determine the true origin of many folk songs and any attempt to do so is based purely on speculation.

I read a book by Ted Anthony called "Chasing The Rising Sun" Chasing The Rising Sun on Amazon which chronicles the author's attempt to determine the origin of the popular song "House of The Rising Sun" which became a hit for The Animals when they recorded their version of it. After many years of traveling all over America and even England (starting with meeting and interviewing Eric Burdon of The Animals who ironically was living in New Orleans), Anthony was never even able to definitively determine the country of origin (early versions omitted mention of New Orleans) of that song, much less the author and never could find a house in New Orleans called "The Rising Sun".

There are many folk songs for which the origin was buried with the original composer and those friends and family members who heard the original debut performance. So the answer to your question is, you can attempt to trace the origins in the manner of a genealogist, but for many songs, there are no "known" origins.


Often it's a case of chasing through libraries, recordings, and memories. The Library of Congress has a large amount of old sheet music. https://www.loc.gov/collections/historic-sheet-music/about-this-collection/ A source for early tangos is Todotango.com. https://www.todotango.com/english/

You can search for melodies or lyrics (mostly melodies.) There are some melodic indexes online. (I don't have a like for any of these. Most are for classical music.)

There are also some older collections (hymnals, early English song, ...) that may link up to a tune of interest.

I did chase a couple of pieces I used to play but neither were folksongs. One was "Orange Blossom Special"; it was written by Ernest Rouse in 1938 (I thought it was older.) The other was "Red River Valley" which learned as a song about the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma. I heard it all over China where it refers to a river in Yunnan, I think. The earliest I found on the net was that a song called something like "Red River Valley" in the late 1800s; a similar song was called "Bright Mohawk Valley" published in New York with different attributions.

Supposedly "Las Mañanitas" was supposed to be composed by Alfonso Esparza Oteo, but I had thought it was earlier.

It's like a lot of historical research. One just chases a melody down every musical rabbit hole and see what's therer.

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