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The Quest of the Ballad

ISSUE:  Spring 1925

Folk-Songs of the South.
Collected under the Auspices of the West Virginia Folk-Lore Society and Edited by John Harrington Cox, Ph.D., Litt.D., Professor in West Virginia University. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $5.00.

For well over a dozen years the quest of the ballad in America has proceeded with energy and success. It is a fascinating story, how under wise and enthusiastic leadership these old songs, some of them brought over with our earliest settlers and still surviving in oral tradition in various sections, have been taken down, words and music, hot from the lips of the singers and stowed safely in the archives of some state folk-lore society. Perhaps the most fruitful territory for the ballad-hunter has been the South, especially the more primitive mountain sections of Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, where the population, largely of British descent, remains in a state congenial to the survival of the folk-song. In these regions the labor of collecting is now about complete and the collectors are setting to work at the task of publishing their results.

Indeed, the stage of publication may be said to have begun some time ago. In addition to the findings reported piecemeal in the Journal of American Folk-Lore and in the annual bulletins of various state folk-lore societies, in 1910 Mr. John A. Lomax published his “Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads,” found largely in Texas; in 1914 appeared the findings of the distinguished visiting ballad-authority and musician, the late Cecil J. Sharp, who with the collaboration of Mrs. Campbell published his ‘English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians;” in 1917 Miss Josephine McGill published her “Folk-Songs of the Kentucky Mountains;” and now Professor John Harrington Cox gives us the collection of the West Virginia Folk-Lore Society under the title of “Folk-Songs of the South.”

To say that this bulky and various volume enshrines the results of a decade of song collecting and that it was compiled by a well-known enthusiast and student of the folksong with the guidance and interest of Professor George Lyman Kittredge, is to tell something of its worth. Its tempting and many-tasting food is sure to prove a source of lasting delight to all lovers of folk-lore.

The miscellaneous character of the collection is at once its strength and its weakness—its strength, in that it shows the catholicity of scholarship and in that there will be found something to ring familiarly or pleasantly to every ear; its weakness, in that there will be found a good deal of ephemeral stuff scarce worthy of preservation or of the reader’s attention. The most substantial part of the collection is, of course, its thirty-four authentic English or Scottish popular ballads, versions of those included by Child in his definitive edition of the three hundred and five ballads. In comparison with this thirty-four, Sharp’s volume contained thirtyseven ballads, but the West Virginia collection contains eight not recorded by Sharp (nos. 76, 199, 201, 214, 250, 275, 283, and 289, according to Child’s numbering)—a goodly accession to Southern balladry. Of the thirty-four ballads in the present volume, thirty-three very properly occupy the position of honor at the front of the book, while the thirty-fourth, doubtless by reason of its eleventh-hour arrival, is torn from its fellows and put last, where it inadvertently captures for the ballads the emphasis of the final position to which their distinction entitles them.

From the delectable heights of the traditional ballad at either end, then, one descends into the comparative waste-spaces of miscellaneous folk-songs in between. The range and variety of these specimens is remarkable. There are such well-known English songs as “Sweet William” and “Charming Beauty Bright;” there are American versions of such popular British broadsides and stall-ballads as “Young Johnny,” “Dog and Gun,” and “Pretty Polly;” there are favorite folk-songs of American origin, such as “Fair Charlotte,” “McAfee’s Confession,” and “Springfield Mountain;” there are songs of local West Virginia origin, such as “John Hardy,” “The Wreck on the C. & 0.,” “A West Virginia Feud-Song,” “Logan County Court House,” and “A Tolliver-Martin Feud Song.” There are, in addition, war-pieces, especially Civil War camp-ballads like “Jeff Davis” and “The Yankee Retreat,” and such familiar frontier songs as “The Dying Cowboy” and “The Lone Prairie,” and innumerable other varieties of popular song.

This rich profusion, this abundant diversity of folk-song, is set before the reader helter skelter, with little apparent attempt at organization, other than the segregation of the thirty-four true ballads. Even in the introduction there is no attempt at a critical differentiation of types. Perhaps the greatest fault that may be found with the volume is the inadequacy of its introduction. In a few words it covers the history of the West Virginia Folk-Lore Society, recounts some of the adventures of the editor in ballad-collecting, and gives intimate details of the life history of several ballad-singers. But with all this rich material at hand and with the wealth of experience which went to its collection, the editor has not a suggestion to offer as to the distinction between ballad and folk-song, or between the different varieties of each, nor does he offer any contribution to the much-agitated problem of ballad origins.

The delinquency of the introduction is atoned for in a measure by the fullness and excellence of the notes introducing each song. It is here that the work shows the scholarly thoroughness that went to its making. The best bit of research in the volume is to be found in the introduction to “John Hardy,” while the other introductions are generally quite adequate. No one who has not done this sort of work can know the minute pains, the infinite patience required. Still, the scholar of today has a right to demand something more than mere “German research,” and after enjoying many songs and ballads one puts the book down with a longing for adequate distinctions, a hankering after “general conclusions” of some sort.

It is something of a pity, too, that tunes are printed for only twenty-six of the one hundred and eighty-five songs, and that these twenty-six tunes are relegated to the back of the volume, away from their respective texts. In this connection it is well to recall the words of Cecil J. Sharp:—”It is greatly to be deplored that the literature of the ballad has, in the past, attracted so much more attention than the music. Properly speaking, the two elements should never be dissociated; the music and the text are one and indivisible, and to sever one from the other is to remove the gem from its setting.” The example of the same collector in printing folk-songs as songs and not merely as verse might also have been followed with profit, had the tunes been numerous enough.

But nothing which has been said will alter the fact that Professor Cox has done an excellent piece of work, and that with the appearance of his volume from West Virginia the collecting of folk-songs in the South has advanced another notch. Will it be ungenerous to suggest that he is perhaps guilty of a certain lack of consideration for sister states in appropriating the title “Folk-Songs of the South,” especially in view of the fact that if there is one state which can arrogate to itself the title of “the South” with a poorer grace than any other, that state is West Virginia? If the editor had not been aware that neighboring states are preparing similar volumes, his title might be partly justified in the sense that the balladry it represents, though found in West Virginia, is really the heritage of similar regions throughout the South, and to a lesser extent, the whole country. The fact is, one feels now what a pity it is that the collecting of the ballads, which depend for their existence and survival on certain ethnological and cultural considerations, should have been undertaken on the artificial compart-mental basis of state lines.


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