Academic journal article American Studies

WHY WE LEFT: Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants

Academic journal article American Studies

WHY WE LEFT: Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants

Article excerpt

WHY WE LEFT: Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants. By Joanna Brooks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2013.

Folklorists have long studied the ballad (defined as a folksong that tells a story), but much of the scholarship has leaned towards either literary interpretations that explore ballad variation and classification or performative interpretations that examine singing styles and music. From an American Studies perspective, some of the more notable contributions have analyzed the ballads (or corridos) found along the border with Mexico that celebrate outlaws such as Gregorio Cortez, escapes from la migra while crossing into the United States, and even a sub-genre known as narcocorridos. But relatively few scholars have used the ballad tradition to address historical and social questions about the peopling of America by immigrants from the British Isles.

Joanna Brooks's Why We Left is therefore a most welcome addition to ballad scholarship, thanks to her discerning analysis of four Anglo-American ballads that were collected by such notable folklorists as Alan Lomax, Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr., Duncan Emrich, and Maud Karpeles between 1932 and 1950. A professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, Brooks is descended from seventeenth-century British immigrants who arrived in America as indentured servants, and eventually found places of their own. Brooks argues convincingly that many of the ballads sung by other descendants of Anglo-American immigrants may offer clues into why their ancestors left.

For instance, on a basic level, the ballad "Edward" tells the story of a man who has killed his younger brother for cutting down a tree, and then flees in shame by ship to America. …

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