Life Flows on in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History

By Sellars, Nigel Anthony | The Journal of Southern History, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Life Flows on in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History


Sellars, Nigel Anthony, The Journal of Southern History


Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History. By Robert V. Wells. Music in American Life. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, c. 2009. Pp. [xiv], 245. Paper, $25.00, ISBN 978-0-252-07650-3; cloth, $65.00, ISBN 978-0-252-03455-8.)

Robert V. Wells, a respected demographic historian, takes the title for his latest work from the opening line of the much-beloved hymn "How Can I Keep from Singing?" A sometime folksinger himself, Wells offers a lively, if sometimes frustrating, journey through American history through the medium of folk songs. While by no means the first such history, Wells's work marks--at least to my knowledge--the first rime a historian has used this approach.

Mostly the work of musicologists, folklorists, and folksingers, the earlier studies tended to emphasize the songs as songs rather than the tunes' historical and social context. Wells remedies that situation with a text that should serve as the basis for using folk Songs as living primary sources both to teach and to study American history.

The book is not without problems. Wells breaks his subject into thematic categories, an approach that works for most topics but not for others. For example, chapters on labor songs, transportation, and disasters provide excellent analysis and offer clear and meaningful context for the lyrics. A section on transportation songs also demonstrates how race played a role in how some songs were performed and interpreted. Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter played different versions of "Titanic" to white and African American audiences. The two stanzas he sang for black audiences told the apocryphal story that Jack Johnson, the African American world heavyweight boxing champion, was denied a place on the doomed ocean liner because the captain said, "I ain't hauling no coal" (p. …

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