In our experience, and from what we have seen on web pages for Renaissance fairs, the majority of music heard at Renaissance fairs dates from considerably later than the Renaissance.
Sometimes you can’t, for lack of evidence. One can, however, infer some things from basic causality, at least until someone invents a time machine.
One can also compare musical style and structure. Compare the tunes of “All for Me Grog” or “The Mermaid” with early music. They’re nothing like early monophony, nor are they like a madrigal or a lute song. They are rather very basic three-chord, I-IV-V songs of a sort that has had a death grip on Western popular music since the Baroque.
The vast majority of music one hears at Renaissance fairs are traditional tunes and songs from England, Ireland, and Scotland.
Does some Irish music survive from the Renaissance? Yes. The earliest surviving written-down Irish song—at least, the earliest of the sort commonly played by Irish “traditional” music groups or at sessions—dates back to the late sixteenth century. Byrd set a version of it, and the tune of “The Croppy Boy” is a variant of it. Despite this, most Irish jigs and reels evidently have later origins. (See Breandán Breathnach's Folk Music and Dances of Ireland. The liner notes of Altramar's excellent Crossroads of the Celts album also point out the relatively recent origins of what people now think of as “Celtic music.”)
Turlough O’Carolan (in proper Irish spelling, Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin, which is why we’ve never had the nerve to try to learn Irish) was a famed composer and harpist, and you’ll often hear his works played at Renaissance fairs. However, Carolan was born in 1670 and started learning the harp at eighteen. He wrote his first composition three years later, in 1691. This places his works well into the Baroque era.
Scottish music from the Renaissance does survive; look at volume fifteen of Musica Britannica to see some of it. That music, however, is definitely not the Scottish music one hears at Renaissance fairs. Manuscripts from the first half of the seventeenth century (we think—different web pages claim different dates for the Skene manuscript) include Scottish airs and dances, at least one of which one can hear at Renaissance fairs today as “The Parting Glass.” (We haven’t found a reference to the “Parting Glass” lyrics before 1750, when it appeared on a broadside.)
In the late nineteenth century, Francis James Child compiled the collection of ballads, the five-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Do the hundreds of songs Child collected have origins in the Renaissance or Middle Ages? Not very many, as far as we can tell. In fact, exactly three of them are known to have lyrics and matching music that date before 1650; those three, “The Baffled Knight,” “John Dory,” and “The Three Ravens,” appear in Ravenscroft’s collections Melismata and Deuteromelia. A few of the Child ballads have pre-1600 lyrics but no known pre-1600 tune.
Another tradition that borrows some tunes from English and American folk and dance music is “shape note” singing. The best known collection of shape note hymns is The Sacred Harp. We’ve heard a song sometimes used to close Renaissance fairs that turns out to be a shape note hymn, “Parting Friends” (Sacred Harp #267). You may recognize its first line, “Farewell, my friends, I’m bound for Canaan;” the Fasola Home Page’s Sacred Harp Index credits John G. McCurry for the tune and dates it at 1842.
There’s a significant pirate contingent at Renaissance fairs; in fact, there are now pirate-specific fairs. Several groups sing sea chanteys and other songs with a nautical theme at fair.
Sea chanteys are a sort of “work song,” songs to pass the time and to synchronize actions that must be done together. Howard Hornstein’s Favorite Sea Songs of the Ancient Mariners Chanteymen quotes a Dominican friar, Felix Fabri, who wrote about his late 15th-century pilgrimages to the Holy Land, mentioning “mariners who sing when work is going on... [There is] a concert between one who sings out orders and the laborers who sing in response.” (If only he'd written them down...) However, according to Hornstein, sea chanteys flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and moreover that flourishing took place mainly in America. Another source is still more specific, claiming 1820-1860 as the most prolific period for chanteys.
Here are some other nautical songs one hears at Renaissance fairs:
Some songs one hears at Renaissance fairs are modern songs written in traditional style or modern lyrics set to traditional tunes. For example:
Several modern songs that have no particular pretense of traditional style are heard at Renaissance fairs. For example:
We’ve actually heard “Mother Goose” from Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung played at Renaissance fairs.
2010 update: OK, we don't think we can top this one. We hope not, at least.
We have heard AC/DC’s “Big Balls” played at a Renaissance fair. Honest.
Finally there’s the music that one would think would comprise the majority, if not the entirety, of music at Renaissance fairs: music of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. There are groups that play and sing a variety of early music; check our links page for some of them. One hears some kinds fairly often:
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