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America’s Folk-Songs

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

It is assumed generally that America has no organic body of folk-music, certainly none that is significant in quantity and representative of the American people as that people appears today. Observers have come to this negative conclusion in a way which is typical, unfortunately, of much American reasoning in matters of the culture of this land. They have begun with Europe. There they have observed bodies of folk-music integrated with what appear to be tight little or big ethnic units. Race and music have seemed to be one, the latter an organic phase of the former. Then they have reasoned that, since America has no racial integrity, it cannot expect to have an integral folk-music. So there you have it. Why argue further?

That seems to be good reasoning. But there must be a flaw in it, for it leads to a totally false conclusion. America does possess a folk-music ample in quantity and organic with its people. The untrue conclusion is the result of a false premise. The reasoners have looked on folk-music as a function of race, whereas it is in reality a function of culture. And they have failed to see that what they took for “tight ethnic groups” in Europe are themselves racial mixtures, some of them just as mixed as is the American folk. The essential fact is that those groups are cultural-linguistic units, and that it is within the boundaries of such a cultural-linguistic—not racial—unit that a folk-music characteristic of that culture finds its conditions of life and growth.

If this view is correct—I cannot enter into a proof of it in this article, which has another objective—then America can have a folk- music. For no one will deny that the people of this land have enjoyed, from the start to the present, one dominant culture and language, that of the British Isles. And what is more, those Isles have had, from their cultural beginnings down to now, a strong and beautiful tradition of folk-music. This important fact has been fully realized only comparatively recently. And in view of this and of our cultural provenience, it would seem quite reasonable to assert, not only that we can have a folk-music but also that we must. My first task, therefore, is clear: to prove my above assertion that American culture does possess this music and to lay the substance of that proof before the doubters.

A goodly part of the proof has already been adduced. (That proof has been almost exclusively in the field of folksong. And since folk-music is always essentially song, I shall, from here on, restrict my observations to that phase.) It has been adduced, however, only during the past thirty years. The accomplishments in the American folk-song field thus suffer still from those defects which tend to mark the work and achievements of all pioneers. Among those defects are an uncertainty as to just what is to be sought, a certain incompleteness in the song seekers’ equipment, and the fact that no one has yet integrated the isolated findings. Some song seekers, for example, have sought texts, some have gone after tunes, and still others have searched for the full song, as the textual-musical gestalt which it is. Some again have been interested in only one sort of song, and have excluded from their collections everything else.

The early workers at Harvard University, and those under the influence of that group, have been pointed out as examples of those whose tools and methods were excellent but whose objective was too narrow. They restricted their search to ballads, excluding everything else, and to texts, taking no notice of music. They considered, moreover, only those ballads that showed a family relationship to the body of Scottish and English (Old World) ballads which had been collected earlier by Harvard’s Professor Francis Child. Purely American songs of any sort didn’t count.

The more recent Harvard workers, along with some of those who have leaned less on the New Englanders, have had broader objectives and an equipment adequate to the broader points of view. Among these I shall mention but one, the late Cecil Sharp. He was an excellent folk-song seeker who knew what he was after and how to find and record it. He sought ballads on the Child list and on no list. He sought “folk-songs,” too—the name given generally in America to what is left after sifting out the ballads. And, most notably, he made tune recordings, along with recordings of the texts, which were examples of a musical efficiency hitherto unrealized in the work of American collectors.

The folk-song findings in the American field have not been surveyed as a body. No one knows as yet, therefore, how many songs have been collected. When such a survey is made, however, the material now in collections and otherwise recorded and published will without doubt run into thousands of songs; and if all variants are reckoned, the total will be many times greater.

The folk-song territory, if one judges the book titles, seems to be the staid sections of the East, north and south. But one must not get the idea that those sections are all. Every new collection brings new revelations as to the breadth of the song field. Texas, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, and other trans-Mississippi states have furnished great numbers of songs. And although the rural parts yield better than the centers of population, the cities must not be left out of consideration. I have just learned that a manuscript collection of some three hundred folk-songs has been made in Cleveland, Ohio, and the territory roundabout.

That the folk-song field is broad—perhaps as broad as white-populated America was, up to a short time ago—must be looked on as a fair statement. Concrete evidence lies at hand in collections of cowboy songs, plains farmers’ songs, those of the Ozark highlanders, the lumberjacks in the Northwest and the Northeast, songs of the Negro work gangs-bond and free—in the South, songs of Negro church gatherings and of white people’s all-day-singings—also largely in the South. But it is precisely in these many apparently independent collections that the doubters find what seems to substantiate their one remaining contention. They will say, yes, of course America has these distinct bodies of song delimited by section, occupation, race, and religious practices; but they will remind us that their denial was of the existence of one organic body of song.

Facing this phase of the argument, I call attention to the fact that the above mentioned collections are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, the songs of one compilation are found—sometimes to a very great extent—also in others, sometimes in many others. Indeed, it may be safely asserted that there is not a single sizable folk-song collection made in the United States—excepting, of course, those of the Indians and of other non-English-language minorities—which does not overlap considerably with other collections. The import of this observation must be obvious; for overlapping means interrelationship, and the extent of overlapping is a reliable measure of the degree of integration in the whole body of songs under consideration. I shall therefore try to present some evidence of the kinship of American folk-songs.

There are two ways of finding relationships among songs, by comparison of texts and tunes. Thus far it has been the texts alone that have been used, as I have indicated above. The tunes have rarely been called in as evidence of kinship. This is especially unfortunate because the tunes have two distinct advantages over the texts, as material for comparison, in that they are older and fewer. In proof of this assertion, it is necessary probably merely to call attention to the age-old custom, in all lands, of introducing a new song-text by singing it to an older and already well known tune, and to the corollary following from this, that the older, tune-lending song lives on. Thus we have two texts, that is, two songs, with but one tune. And this procedure can and does go on—in the case of an infectious melody—indefinitely.

In connection with my work on a forthcoming collection of early American religious folk-songs, I have made a little excursion into this unworked field of comparative folk-melody. And it is appropriate here to mention some of the observations made in that connection, because they shed some light on the interrelationship of American folk-songs.

My immediate material for observation was four hundred and sixty tunes, most of which I had found in the forgotten singing-school song books of from eighty to one hundred and twenty years ago. One of my first discoveries was that nearly one half my store of spiritual tunes were related—as note-for-note replicas or as close variants—to secular melodies which I found in the recently made compilations of Sharp, Cox, Davis, and a score of others. With this discovery, therefore, the old fence which has separated religious from secular folk-music has been knocked down. The two bodies are merely two phases of the same traditional song material.

Another discovery was that no less than sixty of my tunes —and words to a somewhat less extent—had reappeared in a dozen subsequently and recently compiled books of Negro religious songs. That the Negroes’ songs are not African but American in origin, and that the American blacks have borrowed their songs generally from the whites, has become increasingly clear. It was ten years ago that Dorothy Scar-brough listed, in her book “On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs,” fifteen British-American ballads and other secular songs in Negro-sung forms. Reed Smith, John A. Lomax, and others have since called attention to further secular borrowings. I offer these sixty spiritual songs in evidence. The total indicates clearly that the Negroes’ songs must be included in the basic folk-song body of this land.

The hook-up of what have seemed to be the most dispersed and disparate songs has been established all the more easily by the discovery and use of “tune families.” A “tune family” is a group of melodies following a similar trend but differing one from another in musical detail and found in combination not only with related texts but also with texts which show no relationship at all. I have isolated a number of these families. Their sizes run from a three- or four-song group on up to the ‘Lord Lovel’ family of which I have found some thirty members. The better the tune pleased the folk-singers, the greater was the facility, apparently, with which it spread—on the borrowing plan mentioned above— from one text to another, undergoing at the same time minor alterations due partly to the different text settings, and increasing thus the size of its family. Let us look at what I have called the ‘Lord Lovel’ tune family.

Sixty years ago a song book appeared in Wadley, Georgia, under the title “The Olive Leaf.” On one of its pages is a song called ‘Land of Rest’; and the author explains that “the inspiration of this tune [was] caught from a female voice at a distance, at Barbee Hotel, High Point, N. C, 1868.” I found variant relatives of this tune in eight other older collections under eighteen different song titles and with as many different texts, the oldest being in the “Missouri Harmony,” a Saint Louis book dating from 1820, and the farthest northern being in the Troy, N. Y., “Revivalist.”

The “female voice at a distance” was without doubt intoning a secular folk-song; and it was in all probability ‘Lord Lovel,’ Sharp recorded essentially the same tune half a century later in the same Appalachian section associated with that old English ballad as well as with ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor,’ ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well,’ ‘The Two Brothers,’ and ‘The Mermaid.’ In the ancient music of Ireland it was called ‘St. Columba’ and in England it has been recorded under the title ‘A Sprig of Thyme.’ That the American Negroes sang the ‘Lord Lovel’ tune was shown by Miss Scarbrough. The secular ballads just listed appear in most of the ballad collections made in America and are sung not only to the above tune and its variants but also to entirely different melodies. ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor,’ for example, has thirty-one variant melodic forms in Sharp’s collection alone.

In the “Southern Harmony,” a singing-school manual which is just a hundred years old, appears a folk-carol entitled ‘The Babe of Bethlehem,’ which tells in eight long stanzas the story of Christ’s birth. I have found its tune in various forms attached to ten other religious folk-songs of the early Americans appearing in six different collections, mostly rural Southern ones and some even older than the “Southern Harmony.” The compiler of one of these books had heard “some unknown ladies” sing the tune at a camp meeting in 1830. From this we may see that the melody was from what they then called “unwritten” music or what we now call oral tradition. Sharp found related tunes associated with ‘The Virginian Lover,’ and ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ (recorded also in Ireland, Scotland, England, and among the Maine lumberjacks). In West Virginia Cox found it as the melody of ‘The Greenwood Siding,’ which is a variant title of ‘The Cruel Mother,’ the ballad of old England whose story is an ancient one also in northern Europe. Still other American folk-songs sung to this tune are ‘Seven Long Years’ and ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor.’ In “The Christian Science Hymnal” the tune is called ‘Kingsfold.’ Among English carols it is the melodic vestment of the Biblical story of Job. Among the Irish traditional songs it is associated with ‘The Peevish Child’ and ‘The Little Red Lark of the Mountain.’ Thus the ‘Babe of Bethlehem’ melodic family tree is seen to be old, wide-spreading, and still healthy.

In eighteenth-century England a song entitled variously ‘Daniel Monroe,’ ‘Donald Monroe,’ and ‘Sons of North Britain’ was current. McKenzie recently found variants of it in Nova Scotia. Rickaby recorded it in northern Michigan and Sharp discovered it in the Appalachians as ‘Sons of Liberty.’ The same tune was used in the Southern highlands also for ‘The Lady and the Dragoon,’ ‘The Sheffield Apprentice,’ ‘Loving Reilly,’ and ‘Poor Stranger.’ In England the melody has served ‘John Barleycorn,’ ‘Van Die-men’s Land,’ ‘I Wish I Was in Dublin Town,’ ‘The Barley and the Rye,’ and ‘High Germany.’ “The Christian Science Hymnal” calls it ‘King’s Lynn,’ and it appears in Petrie’s “Ancient Irish Music” as ‘Rise Up Young William Reilly.’ My first discovery of the tune was in the ninety-one-years-old “Sacred Harp” where, as an American folk-hymn, it bears the title ‘Pilgrim.’

The Primitive Baptists sing a lament called ‘The Old Churchyard.’ Its tune is wedded, in Newfoundland, to a sea song, ‘Yankee Land.’ Other worldly ditties of the southern mountains which share the tune are ‘The Brown Girl,’ ‘Pretty Saro,’ ‘The Cuckoo,’ ‘Green Bushes,’ and ‘Farewell Dear Rosanna.’ Negro spiritual versions are ‘Been A-listening,’ ‘I’m Troubled in Mind,’ and ‘My Body Rock ‘Long Fever.’

In Carl Sandburg’s “The American Songbag” we find the tune of ‘Old Rosin the Bow’ as used with improvised political texts to further the presidential campaigns of Clay, Lincoln, and Grant, successively. Sandburg has the melody hooked up also with ‘My Sister She Works in a Laundry.’ I found it as the music of ‘Sawyer’s Exit’ in the “Sacred Harp,” ‘When Sherman Marched Down to the Sea,’ the old ballad ‘Lord Randal,’ and the English song ‘I Wonder When I’m to Be Married.’

In the New York camp-meeting song book, “The Revivalist,” there is a song ‘O Brother Be Faithful.’ Two other recordings of this folk-spiritual song indicate its spread. One, dating from 1831, was found in Vermont. The other appeared in the 1860’s as a “Negro spiritual” in Charleston, S. C.

The above examples should suffice, it would seem, to indicate the correctness of the assumption that there is a far greater integration in the great body of American folk-song, as viewed in the scores of published collections, than is generally assumed.

Observers of American culture have assumed a lack of fundamental folk-melodism in this land. This would be a very serious defect if it were true. But I hope the foregoing pages will indicate with sufficient clearness that it is not true. I hope also to have negated definitely those other assumptions that, given a traditional music, it is nevertheless meager, restricted to a small territory, and dying out. Individual songs die of, of course. But folk-song as such, granting it the prerogative of change, eternal change, cannot die out any more than a folk-language can die out. I have met also the one remaining contention—that the many folk-songs represent isolated bodies—with proof to the contrary.

What is it that has brought about this state of mind leading to these utterly false conclusions? One factor is probably our national inferiority complex in matters cultural. This self depreciation, it would seem, has delayed beyond all reasonable limits the thorough and sympathetic study of our own songs and has fostered beyond all reasonable limits our childish worship of, and sole dependence on, Europe’s music, even her folk-music.

Another factor is our tendency to look merely at the flat surface of things, especially cultural things, as they appear now, instead of viewing them from the perspective which time offers. We see now, for example, the “melting pot” bubbling and behold cultures and races in what seems to be a nondescript flux. One glance backward in time, however, would convince us that Americans were, up to two or at most three generations ago, a practically homogeneous people. And as a result of the better view we could come to the truer realization that the earlier cultural entity is still dominant and that it will remain dominant in the future. A part of this entity is music. And it is a very important part. Folk-music, our folk-music, is not only a thing of beauty in itself; it is also an indispensable basis for art development. Rising on such a firm foundation, American art-music may become the same kind of healthily growing organism which is observable in various European lands. Otherwise, the music of America will remain sterile.


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