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The Rise Of A Native American Balladry

1601 words - 6 pages

The Rise of a Native American Balladry

First, it will be necessary to review some important points. In the
early days (1600-1770s), importation/adaptation was the dominant process.
British songs and ballads were adapted to the frontier experience,
Victorian morality and Puritan ethics. Songs which contained subject
matter which was completely irrelevant to the frontier or unacceptable to
moral and ethical standards were either discarded altogether, new lyrics
were added to old melodies, or lyrical changes were made. (Remember, there
were no copyright laws at that time). However, even from the beginning,
original folk creations began to take their place alongside the traditional

While some strong similarities to the traditional patterns my be
observed, some important differences emerge. Compared with British ballads,
American ballads placed more emphasis on vocal harmony and instrumentation
(except in the mountain regions where women seldom played instruments).
The American ballads were more journalistic (Wolfe, in Carr, 1979:4),
that is, they paid much more attention to names (Tom Dula, Sally Goodin,
Omie Wise, Floyd Collins), dates (of train wrecks, floods, wars, mining
disasters) and place. They were certainly more moralistic - in keeping with
the Puritan moral code. Art for art's sake was considered frivolous, e.g.,
"fiddling around." The idle mind is the devil's workshop, therefore
frivolity is also probably sinful. These attitudes were very pervasive
and were instilled in generations of American youth through McGuffey's
Reader, Poor Richard's Almanac and popular literature such as Hawthorne's
Scarlet Letter). Writers of new songs and adapters of old ones took great
care to make the lyrics conform to moral and ethical standards. This was
done by including a moral object lesson, i.e., a warning, exhortation,
etc., which gave the song some moral justification and made it palatable to
Calvinistic religious beliefs or by omitting offensive material. The
"Wreck of the Old 97" ends with the admonition to girls that they should
never speak harshly to their sweetheart because "he may go an never
return." In "Rising Sun Blues," the singer says,

"Go tell my baby brother, Lord, not to do what I have done,
Don't spend your days in pain and misery,
In the House of the Rising Sun."

Even songs about natural disaster such as floods, storms, etc., contained
such lessons. In a song known as the Vicksburg Flood, the writer warns his
listeners to "Get right with your Maker as He doeth all things right." At
the same time, American ballads retained the significant characteristics of
the ballad tradition --descriptive narrative, hard-hitting realism and a
pre-occupation with the tragic element.

Just as important as the adaptation of older ballads and the creation
of new ones was the...

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