The American Songbag

The American Songbag

by Carl Sandburg
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The American Songbag 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
CraigieBobInAustin More than 1 year ago
As might most amateur ethnographers and ethnomusicologists, I had probably seen or heard some variant of the majority of songs in this Carl Sandburg collection prior to opening the book. And, much as previous reviewers of earlier editions, at first glance I considered some of the written melody lines, musical settings and meters, and "Sunday School-ish" piano accompaniments to be well off the mark. Indeed, while Sandburg reminds readers that the songs are intended to be performed more freely than might be implied by the written score, the latter-most of the aforementioned notational 'curiosities' seem to have inflicted the greatest harm in inhibiting such a freer interpretation. Given the period during which Sandburg was gathering and preparing the collection for publication, I am also puzzled that he hadn't chosen the Autoharp as the accompaniment instrument of choice. From the time of its invention in the latter 1800s until widespread availability of phonographs, electro-mechanical recording devices, and recordings in the late 1920s, during its relatively short-lived heyday this popular instrument could be found in many more American homes than either the piano or the guitar. It could be used by persons with little or no formal musical training and was often, in fact, a preferred instrument for accompanying group or solo singing in the privacy of one's own parlor. While we are told that Sandburg started out with a bigger "bag" -- well over 300 songs, in fact, which he then had to 'pare down' to a more manageable size for printing and marketing -- one has to wonder what precious cultural artifact he ultimately 'sacrificed' in order to include "Crazy Song to the Air of 'Dixie.'" Indeed, one of my childhood playmates used to extemporize funnier and more imaginative parodies of "Dixie" than this one while working on art projects or building model airplanes in his garage! Perhaps uniquely among the many entries in the song bag, familiar or not, this one strikes me as literally "not worth the paper..." Nevertheless, among the occasionally hackneyed and cliched, there are some wonderful surprises, any half-dozen (or so) of which would be enough to warrant my five-star rating. (I hesitate even to say "hackneyed and cliched" because we are no longer viewing and listening to these songs with fresh eyes and ears. By the mid-20th century, many of the songs had been included in public school general music textbooks designed for the primary and "intermediate" grades. Others had been included in songbooks designed especially for use by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and summer church or non-sectarian private camps. The likelihood of having been exposed to several such examples was therefore greatly increased during those times from what it would have been when Sandburg's song bag first went to press in 1927. In this respect, I'm also wondering if he were so resigned to the notion that large segments of the general population might continue to ignore these "songs of the people" that he chose "THE..." instead of "AN..." for his title. Unable to foretell the folk song revival of the 1950s and 60s, could this seemingly presumptive choice of wording been less a result of immodesty than a mistaken belief that no one else would care enough about the work to attempt to emulate it? The year the song bag went to press, 1927, was a momentous one, for in that very year, coincidentally, the legendary Carter Family began a fifty-plus year recording period, the impact of which [on our current perceptions of what might constitute the 'correct' renditions of many of these tunes] can hardly be overestimated. Most of us living today are too young to remember a time when "Bury Me Beneath The Willow," "Careless Love," or "Wildwood Flower" had not been the popular, even-paced toe-tappers they'd later become thanks to the compositional 'polishing' skills of Alvin Pleasant "A.P." Delaney Carter and other pioneers of the 'commercial' country and bluegrass music business. Therefore, I'm taking Sandburg at his word that the song bag was a good-faith effort to write down each and every version of a song as he had heard it -- He includes two different melodies for "Frankie and Johnny" -- even if the version included is no longer (or perhaps had never been) the most prevalent or best-arranged. I am personally intrigued by parodies and the difficulties encountered in trying to determine, as songs and the events they describe become more historically remote, which version might have been an earlier or later one, let alone, the original. It is fairly common to discover that what we thought was the first set of lyrics to a song turns out to be yet another parody. THE BIG RED SONGBOOK, a compendium of more than 250 songs of the Industrial Workers of the World, contains many wonderful examples of parody, including Joe Hill's "The Preacher and the Slave" (to the tune of "In the Sweet Bye and Bye") and T-Bone Slim's "The Lumberjack's Prayer." Sandburg's collection includes the former; the latter is set, ostensibly, to a tune THE BIG RED... compilers identified as "Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow," which Christians generally recognize as a doxology and many modern Protestants regard as THE Doxology. Alas, the four lines commonly sung as such are but the final verse of a longer hymn, "Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun," comprising lyrics written by Thomas Ken in 1674. But Ken's hymn is itself another parody based on "Old 100th" (sometimes cited as "Old Hundred"), a psalm setting from the Genevan Psalter, 1551, and attributed to Louis Bourgeois. And so, we see, unless lyrics contain fairly specific references to time, place, events, and cultural context (preferably separated by considerable chronological and geographical distance) distinguishing a parody from an original can be tricky. One of the more interesting examples in Sandburg's song bag appears as "What was Your Name in the States?" in which "the states" apparently refers to "back East." In this short parody, listeners are asked in so any words, jokingly perhaps, if their westward migration has been prompted by a criminal, maybe even capital, crime. The song is in 6/8 time, but the melody line, ignoring meter, is identical to a song recorded on an old Folkways or Nonesuch album of Appalachian dulcimer music and songs featuring Jean Ritchie and others. The song on that album, performed by a now-forgotten tenor, was in 2/4 time and is often known as "Three Jolly Rogues of Lynne." Now, Sandburg's song likely post-dated the Louisiana Purchase (1803) because, in the.collector's opinion, it referenced a common, if not mass, experience of westward migration. "Three Jolly Rogues of Lynne" references colonial times and goes like this (I'm including the verses here as they've rarely been as faithfully reproduced elsewhere): "In the gay old colony days, When we lived under the King, Lived a miller, and a weaver, and a little tailor, Three jolly rogues of Lynne. Now, the miller -- He stole corn, And the weaver-- He stole yarn, And the little tailor -- He stole a broadcloth, For to keep the three rogues warm Now, the miller -- He drowned in his dam, And the weaver -- He hung in his yarn, And the Devil laid his paw on the little tailor, With the broadcloth under his arm. Now, the miller still swims in his dam, And the weaver still hangs in his yarn, And the little tailor goes a-skippin' through Hell, With a broadcloth under his arm!" Ironically, although the 'Appalachian' version references times that pre-date the Louisiana Purchase, lyrics alone offer little assurance that the song was necessarily created in the times it references. Fortunately for us, the song alternately goes by "In Good King Arthur's Time" and written lyrics dating from 1804 have been located in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Not as fortunately for Sandburg, however, his song is probably neither an original nor even the most popular and/or entertaining of multiple extant versions. In other instances, nevertheless, the song bag can prove invaluable. The tune most of us know as "The Wreck of the Old Ninty-Seven" appears in the song bag as "The Ship That Never Returned." Apparent originals of "Casey Jones," the even more frequently parodied "Sweet Betsy From Pike" (Ed Cray's THE EROTIC MUSE contains at least two parodies at poor Betsy's expense -- "Charlotte the Harlot" and "Blinded by Turds;" THE BIG RED SONGBOOK mentioned above contains yet another), and "The Wide Mizzoura" (after no small amount of controversy, now acknowledged to have been the prototype for "Shenandoah," and firmly ensconced in the standard choral repertoire for men's and mixed voices) are also available to anyone who hasn't heard them. Some of the songs, e.g., "Across the Western Ocean," have since been masterfully arranged and assimilated into the standard solo repertoire of modern American art song. Other originals on which country or bluegrass favorites have been based include "Sourwood Mountain," "Turkey In The Straw" (Who knew there were lyrics?), and others. But don't consider this collection either definitive or final. Rather, consider the treasures it contains as guideposts pointing the way to further casual enjoyment and/or serious study... and hopefully more and better answers on performance styles and origins of tunes and lyrics, to the extent that such are possible.