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Native American Folk-Songs

ISSUE:  Spring 1926

The Negro and His Songs.
By Howard W. Odom, Ph.D., and Guy B. Johnson, A.M. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.00.

Dawn Boy. Blackfoot and Navajo Songs. By Eda Lou Walton. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $2.50.

The Traditional Ballad and Its South Carolina Survivals. By Reed Smith. Columbia: Bulletin of the University of South Carolina.

America may be proud to have nurtured within its boundaries three such lusty folk of song:—the Anglo-Saxon, whose contribution is the authentic racial inheritance of a plurality of Americans; the Negro, whose songs, half African, half American, are the authentic expression of the black minority of America; and the autochthonous Indian, whose songs belong to the American soil.

Another state is heard from as the publication of traditional ballad material proceeds apace. South Carolina contributes eleven ballads of British origin to the American total of eighty-seven survivals thus far reported. This material with its valuable introductory essay summarizing the general subject of balladry is worthy of a form more permanent than a university bulletin.

The impulse back of “The Negro and His Songs”—”to portray objectively the song life of the Negro” and to present his songs “as materials for the objective study of race problems”—is a worthy one; but one is inclined to question whether the authors have altogether succeeded in achieving their dual aim. There is an abundance of new song material; the words of typical religious, social and work songs are presented just as the present-day Negro sings them. There is also a wealth of Negro folk-lore to be gleaned intermittently from page to page. The general reader will find much information about the Negro’s singing, rather pleasantly to be acquired. Yet one feels that there is something fundamentally wrong with the book. It is at once too popular to delve into sociology, too scholarly to descend to song.

By the nature of its subject, by its purpose avowed and implied, and by its very title, “The Negro and His Songs” is an appeal to two classes of readers, the social student of Negro problems and the lover of Negro songs. By one or both of these the work must ultimately be judged, and it is doubtful if it will be found satisfactory to either. The sociologist will be appalled by the number of song-texts printed for their own sake, without interpretation, disappointed at the absence of adequate generalization from the material, chagrined at the exclusion of “a great mass of material because of its vulgar and indecent character.” If his conclusions are to be true, they must be based upon all the facts, and some facts are withheld from him. The lover of Negro songs, in like manner, will regret the absence of the older and more beautiful spirituals; he will resent the excess of minute analysis and descriptive comment; most of all, he will bewail the fact that not a single melody is given. With the tunes omitted, he finds not songs, only song-words. Could not an appendix have been spared to a few airs? Indeed, are not the melodies more typically Negro than the words? If there is sociology in the words of a song, is there none in its music? The lover of Negro songs will pass lightly over this volume and find solace in works of a different and more congenial sort, in Coleridge-Taylor’s “Twenty-four Negro Melodies” or in the more recent Swan and Abbot’s “Eight Negro Songs from Bedford County, Virginia.” Here there is purity of aim, song naked and unashamed, song unmarred by sociology. Even the sociologist might, to his own gain, have dealt more justly with song.

One is far from suggesting that this study of typical Negro songs in the South is altogether valueless. But its chief value consists in its contribution not to social science and not to song, but to the somewhat indeterminate realm of folk-lore.

What the sociologist has done to the songs of the Negro, the anthropologist has been known to do for the songs of the Indian. The Blackfoot and Navajo tribes are fortunate in having as their interpreter one who is not an ologist of any sort, but an artist and a poet. Any reviewer would be willing to read even a volume of sociology undiluted by song to have as his reward so much poetic beauty. “Dawn Boy” is the very fifth essence of poetry. If these songs owe much to Miss Walton’s “re-creation”, their essential beauty is still unmistakably Indian. “Waking Song” gives a clue to the title: Scatter your dawn pollen,
Dawn Boy,
For tonight
In your hoary age
You will have only
Twilight pollen
To spread forth upon the earth.
Turning from a Negro “spiritual” to a Navajo ceremonial song is like turning from a primitive Greek bacchanal to the austere poetry of Marcus Aurelius. When the “Oxford Books of English Mystical Verse” is revised it will have to include some of these exquisite songs. Many of them suggest William Blake and would do honor to the pages of “Songs of Innocence and Experience:”

Come on the trail of song,
Leaving no footprints there,
Over the rainbow bridge
Down the mountain stair.

Come on the trail of song,
Gods of the Navajo,
Out of the sky-land
And the five worlds below.

The mysticism of the Navajo is balanced by the earthly joyousness of the Blackfoot songs: I see
Yellow buffalo,
I smell
The dust they blow
With nostrils red
Up from the powdered trail,
Fail me not now,
Good bow,
Good arrow, go!

There are others perhaps more typically Indian, equally fresh and simple. For sheer poetic beauty the “poor Indian”, thus rendered by Miss Walton, triumphs over his folk-song competitors and contributes a strain refreshingly exotic heard above the humdrum chorus of modern verse.


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