The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXVII. Oral Literature

§ 2. Definitions

The mediæval ballads of England and Scotland have for their matter the adventures of lord or lady, the incidents of the hunt, clan feuds, the love affairs of the nobly born. They are frankly aristocratic. In later British balladry, these are succeeded by less ambitious pieces. Commonplace characters replace the aristocrats, paralleling the democratization of fiction and of the drama; and other styles succeed the minstrel style—much as Defoe’s plebeian narratives, in homely setting, succeeded romances of knight errantry. Both types of song have been brought to America from the mother country; but along-side this imported material, types of indigenous song have developed. A rough classification of the poetic literature orally current in the United States includes many groups. There are English and Scottish traditional ballads and songs, and Irish and pseudo-Irish ballads and songs. There are songs of the tragic death of the true love, and dying messages and confessions, some of these imported and some not. There are picturesque songs of pioneer and Western life, songs of criminals and outlaws, of soldiers and wars, of tragedies and disasters, and even of the lost at sea. Sentimental songs play an important rôle; and religious and moralizing songs, political campaign songs, humorous songs, negro and pseudo-negro and Indian songs, appear. And, finally there are sequence songs and rhymes, singing games, movement songs, nursery rhymes, and the like. All these belong to “folk-song.” For songs are folk-songs if the people have liked them and preserved them—if they have “lived in the folk-mouth”—and if they have persisted in oral currency through a fair period of years. Questions of origin, quality, technique, or style, are secondary. Attempts at differentiating traditional songs into “popular songs,” or songs made for the people, and “folk-songs,” or songs made by the people, based on some hypothetical manner of origin or on the continuation of a mediæval style are undependable and unsafe. This has been demonstrated many times, when the origin of any body of folk-songs is subjected to study. Whatever has commanded itself to the folk-consciousness and has established currency for itself apart from written sources is genuine folk-literature.