While reading this book, it occurred to me that I have never read a gloomy or negative book about folk music. The subject is simply too rich, too delightful, too ever-refreshing. The music that people make indeed “goes on in endless song,” and that is as true now as it was 200 or 500 years ago. Song is our basic communication after speech, the voice box an instrument that nearly everyone possesses, the material for the craft of composing requiring no other.
Robert V. Wells is the Chauncey H. Winters Professor of History and Social Sciences at Union College. This volume in the series
"Music in American Life" proceeds through various American cultural settings in which music has played a part, showing how songs begin and progress and the purposes they serve. It defines folk music by four criteria: it has been transmitted orally or aurally, even if was at some point in time “written” (example:
Amazing Grace); it demonstrates a “forthright and unaffected style” (that's harder to codify, but lovers of the genre know what it means); its primary purpose is enjoyment, not commercial gain (which is the departure point of the folk-based but essentially commercial genres of bluegrass and country music); and it has the right and the propensity to grow and change with time (note how many mutations there have been of the song that some know as
The Butcher Boy and others as There Is a Tavern in the Town).
The chapters include "Careless Love," about love-and-loss songs like Barbara Allen,
The Brown Girl and The House Carpenter, all with warnings to men and women alike against squandering their affections.
The segment "Lookin' for a Home" is devoted to all-American ditties that reflect our wanderlust and our equal love of home - like
Red River Valley and Home on the Range, with this seldom-sung verse:
The red man was pressed from this part of the West /
Some of the songs of American migration talk about trying to go West and giving up; others chronicle what a terrible place it was to get to and how much better it was back home, but many are paeans to the beauty of the wide open spaces. In the ballad (with many versions)
Sweet Betsy from Pike, Betsy and Ike “reach California ‘spite hell and high water.”
He’s likely no more to return /
To the banks of Red River where seldom if ever /
Their flickering campfires burn.
No book of folk song and certainly no book of American song would be complete without a major contribution from the protesters, the hard-working men and women who struggled to improve conditions in mines, factories and mills. Joe Hill embodies the spirit of that movement. A radical who was hunted down and executed, Hill’s ghost in
The Ballad of Joe Hill declares, “Takes more than guns to kill a man.” And a movement. Of course, American folk song also owes a debt to African American songs, both work chants and spirituals, and the great, simple inspirational marches like
We Shall Not Be Moved.
As you’ve read this review, you have undoubtedly thought of many other fine American folk songs, and you will probably see mention of them in this well-researched and very upbeat volume, though the author admits
that “the array of songs considered thus far is like the tip of an iceberg.” If we all sing out and sing on, there will be many more for the next generation.