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The Background--Musical Interests

Background and Commentary by Daniel W. Patterson

In the early 20th century a different stream of collectors—such as the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and the educator Cecil Sharp—began to find traditional singers in England and collect from them. The Australian pianist Percy Granger even used the newly available phonograph to record their singing. By the time Sharp came to the Southern Appalachians during the First World War, college and university teachers here were beginning to gather song collections, and increasingly, to make sound recordings. In the South these collectors were typically members of a transitional generation born into families with a farming background but personally ambitious for education and a profession. They knew of the songs, and collecting helped them mediate their own conflicting allegiances. John Lomax was a leading figure among them. He wrote a master’s thesis at Harvard on cowboy songs he heard as a boy in Texas and became the first major field collector for the Library of Congress. And he opened the lifelong and highly important career of his son Alan.

The music proved a key to the ballad form. Each stanza holds a speech, action, image, or moment in the story and is bounded by one turn of the tune. Each line of verse is sculpted by a musical phrase into a grammatical unit. Normally the words for the first phrase of the melody—and often those for the third and even the second—will form one statement, one independent clause. The fourth line may be a shorter unit, even just a prepositional phrase, but that late in the stanza, it will be completely intelligible. This grammatical structure lets the listener effortlessly comprehend what is being sung. It produces the famous simplicity of ballad stanzas. We can see and hear this in all of Almeda’s older ballads like “The Banks of Yarrow” (“The Dowie Dens of Yarrow; Child 214): http://web.lyon.edu/wolfcollection/songs/riddlebanks1304.html

But sister, dear, I’ve had this dream,
And I fear it means sorrow,
For I dreamed I pulled heather green
On the bonnie banks of the Yarrow.

or

Last night my bed was made full wide;
Tonight it shall be narrow.
No man shall ever sleep by my side;
My Willie’s drowned in the Yarrow.

Unlike the metrics of art poetry in English, ballad verse is “accentual.” That is, it has a fixed number of beats per line, but an irregular number of unaccented syllables. This opens the way for greater rhythmic variety in the musical phrases to which the lines are sung.

The tunes also offer several clues about the period in which a song originated. The earlier folk tunes use not only the major and minor but also a variety of seven-tone scales that classical music left behind in the Renaissance. They also use other five- and six-tone scales. In later folksong the number of scales grew more contracted. The structures of melodies that came into fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries, on the other hand, were often twice as long as those of earlier tunes. Their vocabularies also are more Latinate, their metrics more monotonous, their grammatical structures more complex, and their plots longer and more diffuse. An illustration is Almeda Riddle’s “The Texas Rangers.” A stanza printed in Abrahams’ A Singer and Her Songs reads:

And when the bugle sounded, our captain gave command.
“To arms, to arms,” he shouted, “and by your horses stand.”
I saw the smoke ascending, it seemed to reach the sky,
The first thought then that struck me, “My time had come to die.”

Printed ballad sheets, chapbooks, songsters, and newspapers influenced these later songs, although oral transmission could also wear down their vocabulary, syntax, and plot into smoother and more effective forms.

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