Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music / Edition 1

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Overview

In American music, the notion of "roots" has been a powerful refrain, but just what constitutes our true musical traditions has often been a matter of debate. As Benjamin Filene reveals, a number of competing visions of America's musical past have vied for influence over the public imagination in this century.

Filene builds his story around a fascinating group of characters—folklorists, record company executives, producers, radio programmers, and publicists—who acted as middlemen between folk and popular culture. These cultural brokers "discovered" folk musicians, recorded them, and promoted them. In the process, Filene argues, they shaped mainstream audiences' understanding of what was "authentic" roots music.

Filene moves beyond the usual boundaries of folk music to consider a wide range of performers who drew on or were drawn into the canon of American roots music—from Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, to Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Challenging traditional accounts that would confine folk music revivalism to the 1930s and 1960s, he argues instead that the desire to preserve and popularize America's musical heritage is a powerful current that has run throughout this century's culture and continues to flow today.

About the Author:
Benjamin Filene is a public historian at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
For the first half of this country s existence, our folk song heritage could be traced directly to British peasant culture. Early in the 20th century, musicologists began taking note of such distinctly American musical genres as the Negro spiritual and the cowboy song. When recording became popular in the 1920s, these two styles, now known as race and hillbilly music, established themselves as surprisingly profitable forms of musical expression. In the early 1930s John Lomax, whose 1910 Cowboy Songs and Other Ballads was a folklorist s staple, traveled more than 30,000 miles with a 350 Dictaphone built into the backseat of his car to record our indigenous music. These recordings featured the likes of Lead Belly, Muddy Waters, and Woody Guthrie and laid the groundwork for each succeeding musical generation. Here, Filene tells the story of the musicologists who preserved our indigenous music and the producers, radio programmers, and publicists who made it available to mainstream audiences. A public historian at the Minnesota Historical Society, he has researched such sources as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute to produce a learned and lively look at the development of our national music. Much of the territory covered here is overlooked in books on folk music, making this a reasonable purchase despite the steep hardcover price. Dan Bogey, Clearfield Cty. P.L. Federation, Curwensville, PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Robert Christgau
Romancing the Folk proves a fascinating history of an idea and a shape-shifting body of song.
New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
A fascinating history of the shifting notions of what constitutes American folk music.

New York Times Book Review

An important work that accurately places the idea of 'folk' and 'roots' music into a realistic context.

Creative Loafing

Romancing the Folk proves a fascinating history of an idea and a shape-shifting body of song.

New York Times Book Review

Filene's book is smart and careful and should gain a wide audience.

Journal of American History

Much of the territory covered here is overlooked in books on folk music.

Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807825501
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 6/26/2000
  • Series: Cultural Studies of the United States Series
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 6.02 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.01 (d)

Meet the Author

Benjamin Filene is associate professor and director of public history at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


SETTING THE STAGE IDENTIFYING AN AMERICAN FOLK MUSIC HERITAGE, 1900-1930


As late as 1910, most Americans would have been surprised to hear that America had any folk music. Of course rural whites and African Americans had been playing their traditional music since long before the 1900s, but they had done so, for the most part, out of the view of the middle and upper classes: outsiders had showed little interest in their culture, and, correspondingly, the rural musicians had had no reason yet to think of themselves as "the folk" or of their music as "folk" music. In the late 1800s, though, traces began to emerge of what would eventually become almost a national obsession with America's folk heritage.

    The roots of this phenomenon stretched back to Europe. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, European intellectuals turned their attention as never before to the vernacular culture of their countries' peasants, farmers, and craftspeople, launching what historian Peter Burke has called "the discovery of the people." Once scorned as ignorant and illiterate, ordinary people began to be glorified as the creators of cultural expression with a richness and depth lacking in elite creations. German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), the most influential proponent of the new cultural outlook, contrasted the Kultur des Volkes ("culture of the people") with Kultur der Gelehrten ("learned culture") and made clear which of the two he favored: "Unless our literature is founded on our Volk, we [writers] shall writeeternally for closet sages and disgusting critics out of whose mouths and stomachs we shall get back what we have given." To Herder, folk culture offered a way to escape the Enlightenment's stifling emphasis on reason, planning, and universalism in cultural expression. Folk forms could cleanse culture of the artificiality that, he felt, was poisoning modern life.

    Herder's ideas inspired a generation of intellectuals that came of age in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, initiating a flurry of efforts to identify and understand folk cultures. In 1778 Herder himself published a collection of song lyrics he had gathered and transcribed in the German border region of Riga (present-day Latvia). In tiding the work, Herder used a newly emerging word, Volkslieder—folk song.

    Herder was certainly not the first to collect traditional music. In seventeenth-century England, old ballads were published in numerous collections, tapping into a fad among both the middle class and aristocratic for things "country." Scholars believe that the first explicitly historical collection was A Collection of Old Ballads, published in 1723. The collection's anonymous editor directly stressed its antiquarian nature, emphasizing in the work's subtitle that the ballads were Corrected from the best and most Ancient Copies Extant. A second volume of the collection, issued later in 1723, accentuated the point further, advertising Songs, more Antique, and upon far older Subjects than those in the previous volume. These collections had astonishing popular appeal, becoming among the most popular books of the 1720s. Eventually three volumes of Collections were published, all appearing in multiple editions. Moreover, individual songs from the collections were reprinted as broadsides and sold from printers' stalls on the streets for largely lowbrow audiences. Historian Dianne Dugaw notes that to emphasize the songs' antiquity, publishers printed the broadsides "on heavy, old-fashioned folio paper decorated with woodcuts ... of old-fashioned dress, weaponry, ship design, castles, and so on."

    Such antiquarian interest in songs laid the groundwork for a landmark ballad collection, Reliques of English Poetry, published in 1765 by English clergyman Thomas Percy. Percy's collection was based initially on an old manuscript he had rescued, he claimed, from a friend's maids, who were using it to light a fire, but Reliques also drew considerably on printed broadsides and on the popular Collection of Old Ballads. Ignoring these low- and middlebrow antecedents, though, Percy depicted his ballads as works of high culture. He attributed the songs to early medieval minstrels who, he insisted, had been respected artists in medieval courts.

    Most contemporary readers, however, drew different lessons from Reliques. To an emerging generation of romantic poets and philosophers, including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Herder, the ballads in Reliques were popular poetry, evidence of the tremendous creative power of the untutored folk. Increasingly, intellectuals felt that for a country to have a distinctively national cultural voice, it must understand its folk culture. In Britain and across the Continent, there was a surge of interest in documenting the range of folk cultural expression. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm published their first collection of children's folk tales in 1812. Other enthusiasts issued books depicting the drama and rituals of popular festivals in Venice, England, and Russia. In 1819 the Austrian government ordered local authorities to collect folk songs.

    Even in this period, more than a century before folk revivalism truly took hold in America, the pursuit of folk culture involved a complex series of ideological decisions. First of all, not just anyone counted as "folk." Herder distinguished between the true Volk (primarily rural peasants) and the urban "rabble in the streets," who "never sing or rhyme but scream and mutilate." To Herder and other early collectors, true peasants were pure and artless and, usually, exotic. "The more wild and freely acting a people is," wrote Herder, "the more wild, that is, the more lively, free, sensuous and lyrically acting its songs must be!" Cultural treasure seekers visited remote villages and shepherd's huts, seeking, as Dr. Samuel Johnson put it in 1775, "primitive customs." Historian Burke recounts a scene of cultural encounter that would be reenacted countless hundreds of times over the next two centuries: "Craftsmen and peasants were no doubt surprised to find their homes invaded by men and women with middle-class clothes and accents who insisted they sing traditional songs or tell traditional stories."

    As Burke's description suggests, not all the songs and stories "the folk" knew made the grade as "folk song" or "folk tale" in the eyes of the early enthusiasts. Collectors feared that pure native cultures were being corrupted as transportation improved and literacy spread. Sir Walter Scott wrote that he gathered Scottish ballads fearing that the "peculiar features of [Scotland's] manners and character are daily melting and dissolving into [England's]." He described one singer as "probably the very last instance of the proper minstrel craft." Fired by this sense of being on a last-ditch rescue mission, collectors felt authorized to take drastic steps to reclaim the "original" essences of the cultural products they sought. Thomas Percy admitted to making "corrections and additions" to the ballads he found. Elias Lönnrot gathered Finnish songs to the point that he felt no "singer could any longer compare with me in his knowledge of songs"; then he began freely arranging and rearranging songs as he saw fit, eventually assembling the Finnish national epic Kalevala, published in 1835. Such editorial liberties increasingly provoked expressions of outrage among eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century collectors, but the practice continued largely unabated well into the nineteenth century.

    From the start, then, "discovering" folk cultures involved reimagining them. Herder, the Grimms, and their followers romanticized and transformed the cultures they sought out. Because of these transformations, as much as in spite of them, their vision of the folk had extraordinary reach, extending well beyond their borders and exerting influence long after their deaths. The work of these early philosophers and collectors showed that the idea of "folk culture" had both power and plasticity. Scholars and intellectuals, artists, entrepreneurs, and "the folk" themselves have been shaping and reshaping the idea ever since.


The process by which American folk music eventually became defined as such and started moving into popular culture began with academics and antiquarian collectors. The progenitor of the American folk song movement was Harvard professor Francis James Child. Child seems an unlikely person to have sparked interest in American vernacular music. Born in 1825, he was a Shakespeare scholar and professor of rhetoric, known for his rigorous academic standards, his impatience with those who did not meet these standards, and his obsession with his meticulously cultivated rose garden.

    Child's other passion, however, was British ballads, a subject he pursued with the persistence of a bloodhound and the precision of a detective. Like Thomas Percy and the Grimm brothers before him, Child was very much a literary folklorist, one who treated folk song as popular poetry and analyzed songs as series of texts largely divorced from their tunes. Also like the European folklorists, Child confined his interest to the ballad, which he defined as a "narrative song, a short tale in lyric verse." By no means, however, were all narrative songs anointed by Child as true ballads. Like many of his predecessors, Child felt that although in premodern times the ballad had been "a common treasure" passed on orally and enjoyed by all, it was now a long-dead art. The "sources of English and Scotch ballads," he lamented "may be regarded as sealed or dried up for ever." The culprits in this story were commercial ballads and printed music, which together, Child believed, had polluted the oral tradition.

    This narrative contained considerable class bias. Ballads had once been enjoyed by all, Child felt, but they had become tainted when educated classes had turned their attention to fine-art music, leaving the ballad form to "the ignorant and unschooled mass." Ballads printed for popular audiences as broadsides, which Child noted had been a thriving business from the sixteenth century onward, were "a different genus" from the ballads he treasured: "They are products of a low kind of art, and most of them are, from a literary point of view, thoroughly despicable and worthless." To ensure the purity of his collection, Child concentrated on songs that predated the printing press, which had come to Britain in 1475.

    Child's standards for the ballad's purity profoundly affected his methods of gathering songs. If no new folk songs of merit had been created in the last four centuries or so, Child saw little point in making contact with current folk communities and trying to dredge up songs from their collective memory. Certainly America, with its relatively recent traditions, held only limited interest for him. Although Child was known to encourage his students to collect (especially in European countries other than England, where "some utterly `uneducated' poor old woman" might yet remember a delightful ballad), for the most part Child preferred archival sources as the most direct means of retrieving the songs of yesteryear. The material that could "at this late day" be obtained from contemporary sources, Child stated, was "meagre, and generally of indifferent quality." With an air of finality Child dismissed living informants, proclaiming, "The material is not at hand." Child's ideal sources, summarizes historian Jo McMurtry, were "old manuscript collections which had been written down by private antiquarian hobbyists, straight from the singers' mouths, at some point in time before the tide of cheap printing had begun to alter the songs' traditional forms."

    If in his value system Child resembled the literary folklorists who had preceded him, he distinguished himself by the rigor with which he pursued his goals. Child's motto was "Do it so it shall never have to be done again," and to a great extent he achieved this goal in the course of his forty years of ballad scholarship. Despite working in Massachusetts, thousands of miles away from his source materials, Child combed the British holdings of ballads with unprecedented thoroughness. Some collections he examined on his rare trips abroad, but mostly he relied on a network of overseas friends and helpers. Following Child's written instructions, they tracked down and transcribed material for him from archives and private collections across England and Scotland. After his friend James Russell Lowell was named American ambassador to London, Lowell coordinated some of these collecting efforts, occasionally rushing prize findings to Child via diplomatic pouch.

    Out of these efforts, Child published the most thoroughgoing works of ballad scholarship ever seen. First, between 1857 and 1858, he issued an eight-volume collection entitled English and Scottish Ballads. This work, based on previously printed sources, listed the words to hundreds of traditional British ballads. In later years, though, Child scorned it as hastily compiled and superficial in comparison with the magnum opus that followed. In 1882 Child published the first volume of his masterwork, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The decision to add a "the" to the title of Child's 1857-58 book was significant, for in this series Child aimed for complete coverage of the Anglo ballad field. In a preface to the first volume, Child wrote, "It was not my wish to begin to print The English and Scottish Ballads until this unrestricted title should be justified by my having at command every valuable copy and every known ballad." Issued in ten parts between 1882 and 1898, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads numbered 305 different titles.

    This number alone, though, hardly conveys the extent of Child's obsession or the immensity of his achievement. Influenced by his days as a graduate student in Germany (ever after he kept a picture of the Grimms on the mantelpiece in his study), Child approached ballads with the mind-set of a scientist. His student (and eventual successor at Harvard) George Lyman Kittredge remembered, "As an investigator, Professor Child was at once the inspiration and the despair of his disciples. Nothing could surpass the scientific exactness of his methods and the unwearied diligence with which he conducted his researches." For each song in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Child printed every known variant (thirteen hundred in all), and he provided voluminous annotations explicating the songs' historical origins, the subjects to which they alluded, and the alterations they had suffered.

    Along with this effort to be definitive, Child brought to his ballad scholarship more rigid standards of editing than his predecessors. Although he drew extensively on previous collectors, Child was unsparing in his criticism of their penchant for doctoring texts. He criticized Thomas Percy, for example, for including verses that were "undoubtedly spurious" and pointedly attributed to him numerous "alterations and additions." At times, Child dubbed the work of other respected collectors "modernized," "twaddling," and "entirely worthless" because of impurities they had introduced. Child outlined his own editing practices in the 1860 edition of his English and Scottish Ballads: "For the texts, the rule has been to select the most authentic copies, and to reprint them as they stand in the collections, restoring readings that had been changed without grounds, and noting all deviations from the originals ... in the margin. Interpolations acknowledged by the editors have generally been dropped."

    For all his high-minded precision, of course, Child was by no means an unbiased analyst, even within the narrow segment of folk song that he admitted into view. In the same 1860 edition of English and Scottish Ballads, Child acknowledged that in two instances he had "greatly improved" the original texts. Child was also known at times to omit stanzas he found "tasteless." Child disciple Francis B. Gummere recalled Child's consternation when he encountered off-color material—ballads, Gummere noted, that "the Scotch call `high-kilted' songs." "Yes, he had to print them," wrote Gummere, "but it was a poor business." He abhorred "the wanton and outrageous," and he "frowned on stories, phrases, allusions, which make deliberate sport of man's best impulses." One such offensive passage Child characterized as "brutal and shameless." Child seems to have felt obliged to print some percentage of such material that he encountered, but he did not seek it out, and bawdy material certainly is underrepresented in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The loftiness with which Child treated his subject sometimes butted up against his drive to document the British ballad tradition in its entirety

    Nonetheless, the thoroughness of Child's exploration of British ballads and the sober air of scientism it projected carried immense power. His slice of folk song came to be seen as the touchstone against which all folk songs were judged. Although Child was in many ways a man born outside the time and, indeed, the country that held his heart, his influence extended long after his death and far beyond his Cambridge rose garden. At the turn of the twentieth century, when American scholars began to become interested in the songs Americans sang, their frame of reference was almost completely determined by the canon Child had established.


Concentrated interest in America's folk song tradition began among scholars and antiquarians who became fascinated with the culture of the Appalachian Mountains. The northern middle-class reading public had had some awareness of the Appalachian folk since the 1870s when local-color fiction writers had written stories based on "folk" characters and traditions. Into the early 1900s, however, interest in mountain folk music was largely confined to a small group of enthusiasts who collected songs with an eye to printing them in academic journals. The first published collection of songs from the southern mountains consisted of one ballad and two songs that Lila W. Edmonds had collected in North Carolina's Roan Mountains. The Journal of American Folklore (which, along with the American Folklore Society, had been founded in 1888) printed it in 1893. A number of articles followed suit over the next two decades, mostly appearing in the JAF.

    These early collectors, although drawing on the Appalachians, were very much in the Child tradition of British song scholarship. They overwhelmingly focused on collecting ballads and were especially thrilled when they found a mountaineer who sang one of the songs Child had anointed as a true British folk ballad. It became habitual to note parenthetically where such finds belonged in Child's canon of 305 ballads—as in "`Lord Thomas and Fair Annet' (Child, No. 73)." To these collectors, Child's work provided a frame of reference, a set of goals, and scholarly legitimation for the songs they were gathering. Following Child's example, the collectors published the texts but not the runes of the songs they unearthed. Usually they made no effort to contextualize a song, to explain its importance in mountain culture, or to comment on the mountaineer who sang it. In the words of George Lyman Kittredge, "The text is the thing." Most of the early collectors traveled the mountains as much to document Child's canon as to learn about Appalachian culture.

    Although articles documenting folk songs were published steadily in the fifteen years or so after Lila Edmonds's 1893 collection, scholars and collectors did not become fully aware of the abundance of southern mountain songs until after 1910. First to spread the word of musical riches in the South were mountain settlement schools, such as the Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, Kentucky, which had been founded in 1902; the Log Cabin Settlement in Asheville, North Carolina (founded before 1895); Berea College (1869); and the Pine Mountain Settlement (1913). Working to preserve what they saw as the mountaineers' traditional culture, these schools usually included folk song programs. Scholars and collectors who visited the schools heard the students sing and returned home talking about the musical mountaineers. In December 1908, Olive Dame Campbell visited the Hindman School and heard the children sing ballad tunes "as old as the hills—the real old plaintive folk tunes handed from mother to daughter." Inspired, Campbell began one of the most far-ranging collections up to that time, covering counties in Kentucky, Georgia, and Tennessee by early 1910.

    In 1911, Transylvania University professor Hubert G. Shearin published an article in the Sewanee Review, entitled "British Ballads in the Cumberland Mountains," that both signaled and helped further the growing interest in mountain songs. Shearin revealed that his collecting work had convinced him that the Appalachian region contained a vast trove of old-time British songs. "Like the belated April snows upon their shady slopes," he writes, "the folk-lore of the British Isles yet lingers here untouched and unchanged." Shearin goes on to list by number the nineteen Child ballads he unearthed and to make an emotional plea for collectors to hurry and track down other British ballads "before they have faded into the shadows of the past." "In another generation or two," Shearin warns, the ballads will be "but a memory" in the mountains: "The clank of the colliery, the rattle of the locomotive, the roar of the blast-furnace, the shriek of the factory whistle, and, alas, even the music of the school-bell, are already overwhelming the thin tones of the dulcimore [sic] and the quavering voice of the Last Minstrel of the Cumberlands, who can find scant heart to sing again the lays of olden years across the seas."

    Shearin's call to pursue the rich song heritage in the Appalachians marked the beginning of a great expansion of collecting efforts in the region. Ballad enthusiasts followed Shearin and Campbell to the mountains and issued numerous collections of their own. Most important, folk song collectors began professionalizing after 1910. State folklore societies were organized in North Carolina and Kentucky in 1912, in Virginia in 1913, and in West Virginia in 1915. These societies were founded mostly by area English professors eager to systematize collecting work that hitherto had been done in a makeshift way by them and students in their classes. In 1913 the head of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society, C. Alphonso Smith, tried to elevate ballad collecting into a national campaign. He enlisted the United States commissioner of education to issue a circular urging Americans to preserve the country's "ballad resources" before it was too late. The circular included an essay by Smith entitled "A Great Movement in Which Everyone Can Help," an alphabetical listing of Child ballads, and statements on the social necessity of ballad collecting. Smith quoted poet Sidney Lanier, who intoned, "I know that he who works in the way these ... ballads point will be manful in necessary fight, fair in trade, loyal in love, generous to the poor, tender in the household, prudent in living, plain in speech, merry upon occasion, simple in behavior, and honest in all things."

    Smith wanted to galvanize ballad collectors to document the remnants of the Child canon before the songs inevitably disappeared from America. Shortly after Smith issued his circular, though, collectors began to emerge who saw no reason for the ballads to fade into "the shadows of the past." Josephine McGill, Loraine Wyman, and Howard Brockway shared Smith's and Shearin's fascination with surviving Child ballads, but rather than preserve them in destined-to-be-dusty tomes, they worked to popularize the tunes they collected.

    McGill, Wyman, and Brockway could embrace a less esoteric purpose for their work largely because they were not academics but private collectors and enthusiasts. McGill was a ballad lover from New York whose interest in the Appalachians had been piqued by local-color writer Lucy Furman's short stories and novels about the Hindman Settlement School. In 1914, using Hindman as her base, she spent the summer collecting ballads in the Kentucky mountains. Two years later, Wyman and Brockway, both classical musicians from New York, embarked on a somewhat more extensive trip that covered three hundred miles in seven Kentucky counties, including both the Hindman and Pine Mountain settlement schools.

    McGill's, Wyman's, and Brockway's interest in popularizing the music they collected shows through in the very form of the songbooks they published after their expeditions. McGill's Folk Songs of the Kentucky Mountains: Twenty Traditional Ballads and Other English Folk-Songs (1917) and the two books jointly edited by Wyman and Brockway, Lonesome Tunes: Folk Songs from the Kentucky Mountains (1916) and Twenty Kentucky Mountain Songs (1920), plainly aspire to different goals than the more academic collections. A comparison with Child's multivolume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads illustrates the differences. Child's tomes, chock-full of footnotes and cross-references and, in many cases, with lyrics written in Old English dialect, were meant to occupy a place of honor in a scholar's library. McGill's and Wyman and Brockway's books, in contrast, suggest that their publishers intended them to be used not by scholars but by families eager to make music at home. In a striking departure from previous folklorists' work, these three books feature not just a song's text but also its tune. Most significant, the tunes are scored with a simple piano accompaniment beneath the melody line. The song's words are written between the melody and accompaniment so that pianist and singers can easily sing along together.

    In keeping with the emphasis on popularization, all three authors strove for conciseness and simplicity. None of these books aspires to Child-like completeness: they give no introductory material about individual songs, provide not a single footnote, and do not bother to specify the folk sources who sang each song to the collectors (they are thanked in prefaces). For convenience and price considerations, moreover, two of the three books came in paperback editions, and all are slim volumes. Each contains between twenty and twenty-five songs and is roughly one hundred pages. Keeping the books short in part prevented them from looking too academic and intimidating; but doing so also allowed them to be thin, which, along with their unusually tall height, enabled them to fit easily on a piano's music stand.

    A final indication that these books were made for a piano is that none of them has a title on its spine; instead they have elaborate and colorful covers, designs meant to face forward and be seen as a part of a parlor's decor. All three feature floral patterns, and, perhaps most significant, both McGill's book and Wyman and Brockway's feature images of the home. McGill's cover shows a quaint log cabin-like house in a tidy clearing by a mountain stream. The cabin has an open back porch, partly drawn curtains, and a red brick chimney from which smoke rises. Wyman and Brockway's Twenty Kentucky Mountain Songs shows a barefoot dulcimer-playing mother and five happy barefoot children sitting on a back porch overlooking verdant hills.

    This move to link mountain music to the feminized realm of the home has significance on several levels. Most directly, it suggests that publishers were trying to appeal to women as consumers of songbooks. Traditionally, middle-class women controlled cultural activities within the home, overseeing family reading, music making, and playacting; in middle- and upper-class families, at least, the parlor or piano room was decidedly in the woman's sphere. At another level, to depict a singing woman on the cover of Wyman's book says something accurate about the actual sources of the songs in the books: the strong majority of the songs Wyman, Brockway, and McGill collected came from women. Likewise, the more extensive mountain collection that Cecil Sharp and Olive Dame Campbell published in 1917 draws on vastly more women than men. The preponderance of women in these collections may indicate that they felt more comfortable than men singing for collectors or that the collectors themselves felt more comfortable with female informants. Certainly countless Appalachian men did sing folk songs, but women may have been more likely to preserve the sorts of songs in which collectors were most interested. Scholars have noted that in American folk-singing traditions, men have tended to do more "public" singing—that is, in social gatherings involving people outside the family—while women have been more likely to sing in the "private" realm of the home, often while completing their domestic work. Folklorist Edward D. Ives speculates that the "domestic tradition" is more static and contains more old-fashioned songs, including more Child ballads.

    A final element in the gendered aspects of early folk song collecting is that many of the collectors themselves were women. Aside from McGill and Wyman, Lila W. Edmonds, Katherine Pettit, Olive Dame Campbell, Maud Karpeles, Louise Pound, Louise Rand Bascam, and Dorothy Scarborough all made pioneering contributions to song collecting before the mid-1920s. Pound and Scarborough operated in the more scholarly camp of the early folk song movement, but it is perhaps significant that the first collectors to try to extend the songs they found into middle-class women's parlor (Wyman and McGill) were women themselves.


Wyman's and McGill's parlor books represented the first efforts to popularize British ballads, but not until Englishman Cecil Sharp arrived in the Appalachians did Americans begin to appreciate the extent of the folk song heritage in the Appalachians. In some ways Sharp was a latecomer to the mountains. He did not make his first trip there until 1916, when he and his assistant, Maud Karpeles, accepted Olive Dame Campbell's invitation to visit and collect in western North Carolina. By this point, the Journal of American Folklore alone had published more than a dozen articles about mountain folk song; McGill, Wyman, and Brockway had completed the expeditions that would lead to their books; and Campbell's own collecting in the area had yielded seventy or eighty tunes. Sharp's renown as a collector, though, rests not so much on his being the first to show any interest in mountain song but rather on his ability to crystallize and extend trends that had been emerging over the previous two decades.

    Sharp used his status as an authority on British folk song to add weight to the notion that the mountains were rich in Child ballads. He bolstered this claim in part through the sheer numbers of traditional British songs he collected. In close to twelve months of collecting in Appalachia (spread over three expeditions between 1916 and 1918), Sharp collected more than 1,600 versions of 500 songs from 281 singers, almost all British-derived material. Like his American predecessors, Sharp most eagerly sought Child ballads. In the book he published from his first expedition, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, thirty-seven of the fifty-five ballads he selected belonged to Child's canon. He privileged these thirty-seven by listing them first in the volume, adopting what folklore historian D. K. Wilgus refers to as the "Child-and-Other" organization so prevalent at the time.

    In other ways, too, Sharp's English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians reinforced trends that had been emerging in folk song scholarship since the late nineteenth century. To a great extent, it is an academic book in the Child tradition. It includes several variants of every song published, and in each case Sharp carefully notes the singer who sang the variant to him and when and where he collected it. Further, Sharp indicates for every song which mode or scale governs the tune, referring to an involved chart he gives in his introduction. For example, Variant C of "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter" is "Hexatonic. Mode 4, b (with sharpened 7th)."

    For all these academicisms, though, English Folk Songs reveals Sharp to be much more in sympathy with parlor-book popularizers like McGill and Wyman than Child would have been. The book treats folk songs not just as literature but as pieces to be sung. It includes the tunes as well as the songs' texts. Although in keeping with academic practice Sharp does not harmonize the tunes in English Folk Songs, he advocates harmonizing in the volume's introduction, saying that adding accompaniment would give the songs "a wider and more popular appeal." He did add harmonic accompaniments to other of his folk song books. Sharp, then, was at the forefront of a slowly emerging group of collectors who refused, in Karpeles's words, to see folk songs as "precious objects [that] must be protected from common usage for fear of their vulgarization." Sharp wanted to reintegrate folk songs into people's everyday lives.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
Chapter 1 Setting the Stage: Identifying an American Folk
Music Heritage, 1900-1930 9
Chapter 2 Creating the Cult of Authenticity: The Lomaxes
and Lead Belly 47
Chapter 3 Mastering the Cult of Authenticity: Leonard
Chess, Willie Dixon, and the Strange Career of Muddy Waters 76
Chapter 4 Searching for Folk Music's Institutional Niche:
Alan Lomax, Charles Seeger, B. A. Botkin, and Richard Dorson 133
Chapter 5. Performing the Folk: Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan 183
Coda 233
Notes 237
Bibliography 279
Discography 303
Permissions 305
Index 307
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