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Shifting Attitudes Towards Appalachian Songs

I’ve been reading a lot of folk song collections and essays on Appalachian music recently. Some are from the 1890’s to 1940’s, some are modern (or, at least, dating from the folk revival). The attitudes from the two time periods are very different, and, to me, quite striking.

Scholars of both time periods clearly care very much about the material — they have taken tremendous time and care to discover, collect, annotate, and compare ballads and folk songs. But it seems the earlier scholars are looking for artifacts of a previous civilization. They see in Appalachian music the fading remnants of some glorious English past. Part of this attitude is contempt for the contemporary singer of these songs, who is the unworthy inheritor and imperfect protector of the tradition.

Comments like these from Folk-Songs of the Southern Highlands (ed. Mellinger Edward Henry) from 1938 are representative of what I’ve read:

“[‘The Perjured Maid’], when I first saw it, impressed me as being what Child would call a ‘blurred, enfeebled, and disfigured form’ of something quite old and good.” (147)

“[‘My Pretty Little Pink’] is worthless as literature…. It is an extreme example of the patchwork of odds and ends so often found in these ‘love lorn songs.’ … It is really nothing at all but an illustration of the way minds of a certain sort work when they meet reverses in love; they think they are making poetry — instead they make up this sort of thing.” (262)

By contrast, the folk revival writers want material that is authentic to America. They have much more respect for the artistry and poetry of the American singer / interpreter of the material. Discovered artists are treated with reverence; many (deservedly) were plucked from mountain cabins and cotton fields and delivered to Carnegie Hall. They are perfect performers, and they need no antecedent.

For these later scholars, lyric coherence and stability is an argument against authenticity; the folk process hasn’t operated on songs that are too neat. A song written by “Anonymous” (or at least arranged by him / her) is better than a song with a noted author. Local variations are celebrated. There is no definitive version, nor definitive tune.

Personally, I agree with the latter scholars. I think the existing forms of Appalachian songs have artistic value in themselves, not just as clues to a “better” precursors. I like the disorder, remixing, and borrowing, and adaptation that created new songs out of European originals. Some of my favorite Appalachian songs aren’t descendants of Child ballads, nor are they even sensical, at least lyrically. The performer’s additional artistic choices — his selection of verses, his style of singing, his instrumental accompaniment (or lack thereof) — give additional coherence and meaning to the lyrics. And a looser overall structure doesn’t negate the impact of individual images and couplets, even if these couplets are used and re-used in different songs. It’s the sampling and name-checking of the 19th century.

Cecelia Conway in African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia makes a similar argument, though the text she chooses to champion is “puzzling, brief, and elliptical” (243). To call this song by Dink Roberts “cohesive” is a stretch:

Put poor John back in jail
Said, “I’d ask my captain for fifteen cents”
“Throw the time away”
“All I want is my .44 gun”
“Go out to Judge–”
“Go out to Judgement Day.”
Yeah, old John Hardy gonna be hung
Steel-driving man. (243)

Conway says “Some might interpret these songs as deteriorated or incoherent fragments of longer narrative songs about a public figure or historical event, by I do not. Dink consciously and intentionally performs these texts; his family enjoys them as they appear and considers them satisfying and complete, and, as I will show, their structure is meaningful and cohesive” (243). What follows are cultural and hermeneutic acrobatics to justify this claim. Some of her arguments are interesting, but still, the song really feels like assembled fragments. “John Hardy” and “John Henry” are completely different songs with antithetical protagonists: John Hardy is a desperate little murder, and John Henry is the “steel-driving man” that out-hammered the steam drill. In the lyrics that Conway quotes, they are conflated, and while I can’t call it a mistake, I can’t see the artistic reason for it, either.

I suppose the final decision rests with the listener; each makes his or her own determination about what’s meaningful and coherent.

Sometimes, a song isn’t about the words. “High ho, diddle dum day” and “King-kong kitchy ky-me-oh” are just as good for dancing as any other.

Written by timwestover

October 8th, 2011 at 2:39 pm

Posted in banjo,folklore