The Ballad Tree: A Study of British and American Ballads, Their Folklore, Verse and Music, Together with Sixty Traditional Ballads and Their Tunes

By Evelyn Kendrick Wells | Go to book overview

Chapter 15
AMERICAN FOLK SONGS AND SINGERS

BECAUSE of its very nature, the folk song depends for its existence on a certain kind of social and economic framework, and the student of folk song thus finds himself becoming a student of folkways. We have said that ever since people began to notice the songs of the countryside, they have spoken of them as almost extinct. And today, as we look for a source of traditional song, we realize that the passing of the "blind crowder," the ballad-hawker, and the milk-maid singer, together with their occupations, has removed many possibilities for gathering songs that former generations possessed. Has anyone taken their place today?

It is apparently true that those countries which have developed industrially have not preserved folk customs to the extent that those parts of the world have done where people still lead a pastoral or an agricultural life. But folk customs have a surprising amount of endurance, and have sometimes lived on in an underground way in the most industrially developed districts. In the midst of Arnold Bennett's Five Towns country in Staffordshire, with its potteries and smoking chimneys, the ancient ritual Horn Dance is still annually performed in the village of Abbots Bromley. In this country in recent years the Saturday night square dance has been brought to the city by city people from their skiing week ends. Dance is a group pursuit, demanding special conditions for survival, but song, which can be kept alive by one person, has an even greater chance for life

Although recent discoveries have shown us that we must not exclude towns and cities from our search for folk song, it is still true that the country is our richest field. Cecil Sharp's English collections come from rural settings, or from gypsies wandering always on the fringes of organized society, or from an occasional ancient pensioner in an almshouse, or from an old salt, whose days before the mast belong to a type of life that will never return. Sharp thought that they were the last fragments of a dying tradition until his Ameri-

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