Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Re-Sounding Folk Voice, Remaking the Ballad: Alan Lomax, Margaret Walker, and the New Criticism

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Re-Sounding Folk Voice, Remaking the Ballad: Alan Lomax, Margaret Walker, and the New Criticism

Article excerpt

From the British Romantic period through the first decades of the twentieth century the literary ballad was a commonly practiced form, some working within the broadside tradition in recounting or imagining narratives with a thinly veiled socio-political aim, others imitating the ancient ballads with their mystical elements. This poetic practice was inspired by and coincided with the development of ballad studies, initiated in the eighteenth-century antiquarian work of Bishop Percy and Robert Burns, among others, formalized in the mid-nineteenth century by the unsurpassed scholarship of Harvard professor Francis Child, and reoriented, in the 1930s with recording technology and anthropological approaches to field work. It's fair to say that scholarship and poetics have often converged in the ballad, and that folk revivals are scenes of instruction as well as creativity and preservation. This is the general context for the specific moment in modern balladry that is the occasion for this essay--a moment in which the ballad captured the attention of archivist, poet, and teacher alike in their attempts to sound folk voice and put it to use.

Three poetic projects of the US 1930s and early '40s brought literary and folk balladry into close proximity: the mid-1930s field recordings of Southern folk ballads gathered by John and Alan Lomax for the Smithsonian, subsequently issued in 1942; the 1939 publication of Cleanth Brooks and Robert 'Penn Warren's influential textbook Understanding Poetry, in which literary balladry serves a critical role for close-reading instruction; and the literary ballads of Margaret Walker, composed in dialect, collected in the middle section of her 1942 book For My People, and later recorded for Smithsonian Folkways. The proximity of these projects is serendipitous, insofar as it calls our attention to the ways that technology and racial politics reshaped folk voice and its representations at mid-century, whether incidentally or by design. From the many, sometimes surprising points of contact among the recordings, the textbook, and the dialect poetry, the ballad emerges as a dynamic modern form in which ideals of American folk voice were being contested.

In this essay, I will begin by showing that Alan Lomax's project challenged the limitations of print as a medium for representing folk voice generally, and the ballad in particular; his appeal to the US public to attend to its folk heritage depended on his faith in sound recording as an authentic inscription of folk voice. Like Lomax, whose recordings were positioned as educational, Brooks and Warren presented the ballad as a point of entry into a scene of instruction, in which the ballad was a rudimentary poetic genre on a continuum that progressed toward complexity and ambiguity. Variations on the ballad "James Harris" in the Lomax recordings, however, complicate Brooks and Warren's important textbook version, highlighting how the medium of presentation influences meaning, form, and reception. This crucial difference notwithstanding, the projects converged in their assumptions about high and low art and, more troublingly, about race and voice. Margaret Walker's print and recorded work offers a provocative solution to the dilemmas presented by Lomax and Understanding Poetry. For Walker recognized that folk voice is a performance, and by giving voice to a marginalized people in her dialect balladry--written and spoken--she staged a critique of racist assumptions about black character and artistry. As I hope this essay will demonstrate, our evolving critical understanding of the ballad and folk voice benefits from an analysis of the performed as well as the written text, an. analysis that brings both under the careful scrutiny of close reading and listening.' Developments in poetry at mid-century cannot be adequately assessed without research into the variety of institutions and materials in which it manifested.

Recording and reviving: the Lomax projects

In 1942, the Library of Congress issued the first of a series of 78RPM albums featuring music collected under the leadership of John and Alan Lomax for the Archive of American Folk Song. …

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