Jim Griffith

Journal of American Folklore

Vol. 130, Number 516, Spring 2017


This book contains 12 essays by 10 authors (Guy Logsdon and Paul J. Stamler wrote two apiece). The subject is a little narrower than the title might lead one to believe: the emphasis is on collections made before 1940, and any collections in languages other than English receive only passing mention. Editor Spencer leads off with a historical background sketch and a preview of the volume’s contents. Erika Brady follows with a thoughtful essay on Franz Boas’ impact on collecting and the varying approaches in the field to use of cylinder recordings. It seems that women were the pioneers in the use of this new technology—a good early introduction to the continuing importance of women as songcatchers.

The essays then move to regional collections and collectors, beginning with Norman Cohen’s excellent treatment of the Ozarks. After discussions of Henry Belden and Vance Randolph, Cohen turns to a group of six who collected folk songs as a part of MA thesis projects. He then runs through a list of lesser-known collectors, giving the whereabouts of their collections and manuscripts when known, and ends with the octogenarian ex-postmaster Fred High.

Guy Logsdon covers cowboy songs and ballads, with due emphasis on such giants as John Lomax and N. Howard “Jack” Thorp, but with fascinating material on such lesser-known collectors as Ina Sires and Charles Siringo. In a second essay, Logsdon deals ably with other Western traditions. The great Mormon collections find their place here, as does the work of Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin in California’s migrant labor camps of the 1930s. With collectors, and collections such as these, we can note an expansion of what was considered folk song. Logsdon’s articles take us into the occupational lore of cowboys and forty-niners, the lore of religious communities, and recently composed songs by and about Dust Bowl refugees.

James Leary’s essay on the Midwest moves from Missouri’s Henry Belden, mentioned earlier, through the prolific Louise Pound in Nebraska, to E. C. Beck and his work with Michigan lumberjacks and Ivan Walton’s collection of Great Lakes songs. Curiously, these two genres were often collected from the same singers, who would change jobs with the seasons. After writing of Alan Lomax’s Upper Peninsula James Leary’s essay on the Midwest moves from Missouri’s Henry Belden, mentioned earlier, through the prolific Louise Pound in Nebraska, to E. C. Beck and his work with Michigan lumberjacks and Ivan Walton’s collection of Great Lakes songs. Curiously, these two genres were often collected from the same singers, who would change jobs with the seasons. After writing of Alan Lomax’s Upper Peninsula recording project of 1938, which netted about a thousand songs, Leary leaves us with the charming vignette of Helene Stratman-Thomas sitting in her car while her assistant recorded bawdy lumberjack songs—another example of the dedication of these collectors.

The northeastern corner of North America has been rich in songs, singers, and collectors. Most of the great singers have passed on, but thanks to the enthusiastic work of two women, many of their songs remain for those who wish to study, enjoy, or sing them. Fannie Hardy Eckstorm collected in Maine and published two collections. Unfortunately, her notes and cylinder recordings are, at the time of publication, lost. Helen Hartness Flanders worked all over New England, but especially in Vermont. Her collection of almost 4,500 songs and fiddle tunes from nearly 500 singers and musicians from all over New England now reside in Middlebury College and in the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. The essay on her work and that of Fannie Eckstorm was written by her granddaughter, Nancy-Jean Ballard Seigel.

I. Sheldon Posen introduces us to four collectors in eastern Canada: W. Roy Mackenzie, Elisabeth Bristol Greenleaf, Maud Karpeles, and Helen Creighton. Each brought different interests and skills to the task. One impressive passage recounts a session in which Creighton sang a stirring ballad about a rescue to a group of men who were involved in the incident, recording their comments and interjections. This example shows that folklorists have come a long, long way from the collecting of antiquarian texts.

The next two essays leave regionalism and deal with three giants of folk song collecting who helped nurture and give direction to the archives of the Library of Congress: John and Alan Lomax and Robert Winslow Gordon. Matthew Barton and Paul J. Stamler deal thoroughly and thoughtfully with these seminal figures.

Next comes Dan Milner’s essay on “Collecting Occupational Songs,” which contains an overview of those occupations that have been celebrated in song: heavy labor to create our transportation infrastructure, songs about transportation work and workers, songs of the sea, union songs, and prison work songs. Many songs describe labor; others actually facilitate the job to be done. Outstanding in Milner’s account is Joanna C. Colcord, who was born—and to a great extent grew up—shipboard. The volume ends with “Commodification and Revival,” by Paul J. Stamler, an article that examines the work of Loraine Wyman and Carl Sandburg. These two early members of the Folk Revival both collected and performed folk songs, with Wyman performing in a formal concert setting and Sandburg often performing at the end of a lecture or poetry reading. Sandburg’s collection, in particular, is of more use to the singer than to the scholar, as he often omitted data surrounding the songs he printed.

What do we learn from all these contributions? We have vignettes of a number of dedicated collectors and some notion of their methods and motives. The careful reader can detect changes in the view of what “folk” is. We see folk festivals bringing performance of traditional music by tradition bearers to a broader audience, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. On a personal level, the book leaves me wishing for a final essay dealing with the second part of the title: the transformation of academic thought and American identity. The clues are in the essays, but a summing up would have been helpful. And, each of the musicians on the cover should really be identified.

But it is the songcatchers themselves—the courageous men and women who stepped outside their physical, cultural, and psychological comfort zones to track down and preserve vital parts of our national heritage—who demand our attention. This is really their book, and we are all in their debt.


Dr. A. Ebert

Jive Talk

May 7, 2013

The 1960s were a decade of massive change, no matter what subject we pick, be it Civil Rights, the arts, medicine, the conquest of space or what have you. Some of the most compelling changes took place in popular culture, particularly where music was concerned; here a number of new genres were created, such as beat, garage, surf music, psychedelia among other styles.

And “something funny” happened too: a return to the heritage of American music, that is also rooted deeply in folk music on a broad scale, thus paving the way to the protest songs of the 1960s while using this kind of approach as a unique history of life, working conditions, social inequality and everyday problems from an era long past.

One of the many changes this new interest in past local, regional and most of all truly American music and lore put into the center was a fresh way of music appreciation.
With it went the respect and praise for the many authors and composers whose names we will never know since two of the key features of this music were “variation and improvisation,” two aspects not exclusively present in forms of African American music. Meaning that lyrics and harmonies of individual songs were circulating and received distinct arrangement and lyrics changes, depending of the musician presenting the songs.

So the musical (and the political) influence of musicians as Dylan and Baez, to mention but two of the big names, was deeply rooted in both the familiarity of the harmonies and melodies people had listened to for decades and their policy-making content.

The reviewed title The Ballad Collectors of North America covers that and much more.
Nevertheless, the full title of Scott B. Spencer’s books reads How Gathering Folksongs Transformed Academic Thought and American Identity and this says it all.
The volume is devoted to the researchers, “song-catchers,” folklorists, collectors and reporters who in long journeys sometimes to the most remote parts of the U.S. collected tales, songs, and even dialect and variations to gather data for future surveys of the folklorist wealth of the country.
While naturally mentioning the findings and achievements of the “field agents,” Spencer’s book, first of all, takes a closer look at the agents themselves, and so the volume is the first of its kind to get into detail on the individual histories of the great men and women who collected all this precious data. Because “… the songs they collected and the books they published have become instrumental in the collective consciousness of our ideas of ‘folk’ or what it is to be American … and the impact of their efforts had on larger social movements – are mostly unsung.”
Some collectors’ names pop up time and again (if we consider blues research that name would be ‘Lomax,’ for example) others are more or less forgotten nowadays. Any lover of pop music today – and I here refer to the Western world – should forever be grateful to the folklorists who were quickly recognizing and recording – although sometimes merely sketching – a way of life, a dialect, a dying form of song as well as the social condition and ways of communication vastly changing with the advent of electricity, the phonograph and mass media. There is a sad truth about jazz research one may read rather often and that is also true in the face of any music research: “a song not recorded is a song not existent,” describing the void a missing link in the development of a song, a regional style or the personal evolution of a certain musician leaves open.

Many of the researchers portrayed in The Ballad Collectors of North America left the beaten paths (quite literally) to explore rural regions often days away from the next village, with no roads, no telephones or doctors around in case of an emergency. They gained their reputation by collecting the most diverse kind of folklore, so that what little we know today about the origins of blues styles, bluegrass music, the huge body of cowboy and country songs, work songs and chain gang songs, we owe to Franz Boaz, D. K. Wilgus, the Lomaxes, Austin and Alta Fife, R. W. Gordon and most importantly James Francis Child.

As already stated above, the modern forms of popular music are naturally connected to the ancient folklore and ballads; it should be clear that songs such as “Franky and Johnny,” “The House of the Rising Sun,” Black Betty,” or “See See Rider” (to name some of the more popular songs that hit the U.S. charts) were not written in the 1960s but were sometimes created decades earlier, often by authors unknown today and thus being labeled “traditionals.”

While there were as many different approaches to collecting and transcribing as there were individual researchers, their results differ enormously, while shifting in focus from melody collecting to lyrics preservation, dialect comparison or song evolution.
For any scholar of popular music, folklore, vernacular, dialect and most of all oral history and oral culture the folklore thus printed, recorded and stored serves as a precious cultural archive. Scott Spencer’s book is a way to pay respect to the forefathers of that archive.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert