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

XXVII. Oral Literature

§ 6. Other Imported Songs

Some narrative poems or songs of the type collected by Professor Child were no doubt brought over in the colonial period by emigrants, or by sailors, or returned travellers, and the process of importation from England has not yet entirely ceased. In almost any community some new arrival from the Old World may bring over an old song; though as time passes the chance for survival grows less. The communities richest in these pieces are, as might be anticipated, the North Atlantic and the Southern; that is, the older, not the more newly settled sections of our country. At present, representatives of nearly eighty of the three hundred and five ballads, or lyric-tales, included in the collection of Old World pieces by Professor Child have been salvaged in the United States, besides many not included in his collection, some of which he may not have known. They come from New England, from the Middle Atlantic, North Central, Western, and Southwestern states, and from the Southern mountains. Some of the most popular of these traditional pieces, their popularity varying in varying regions, are Barbara Allen’s Cruelty, which leads in geographical distribution and in number of variants, Lord Lovel, The Two Sisters, The Two Brothers, The House Carpenter, Young Beichan, The Wife of Usher’s Well, and Lord Randal—who appears as Johnny Randall in Colorado, Jimmy Randall in Illinois, Jimmy Ransing in Indiana, Johnny Ramble in Ohio, and Jimmy Randolph in North Carolina. Sentimental ballads are well represented, among these emigrants from the Old World, and ballads of romantic tragedy and adventure. A riddle ballad remains, The Cambric Shirt, deriving from The Elfin Knight, and in Little Harry Hughes, from the Old World Sir Hugh, a relic of the mediæval superstitions concerning the Jews; and there are some sea narratives. Heroic ballads, or local or border ballads, have not found diffusion in the New World.

These traditional pieces find their best chance for survival in outlying, isolated, or secluded regions, those least invaded by modern songs or song modes. Sometimes city dwellers remember and hand them on; but for the most part they are best sought for in mountain districts or in rural communities in the South and East, and on isolated farms or ranches in the West. The Southern Appalachians are peculiarly rich in the preservation of Old World ballads. Sometimes traditional ballads remain, in degenerate form, as nursery songs, where adults have no longer cared to preserve them; examples are Lamkin, Lord Randal, The Two Brothers. Usually these transplanted pieces are sung to a variety of tunes. The text and the melody brought from the Old World occasionally survive together; but, on the whole, one text holds to one air with little regularity. Despite its fluctuations and the variant forms it assumes, the text of a ballad remains more constant and is more easily identified than the air. Nevertheless it is the singing which tends to keep ballads alive. The words and the music are recalled together by the singers. The music and the text help to preserve each other. Where comparison is possible between the melodies of the American pieces and their Old World originals, it shows that the tendency is constantly toward greater simplicity in the New World derivatives. This is true also when ephemeral popular airs of the day are taken up by the people and persist in folk-song. Like the songs which are emigrants they tend toward simplification in transmission.

Many Old World songs and ballads now having oral currency in the United States have passed through the medium of print, and owe something of their diffusion to broadsides and songbooks, or to rural newspapers. When ballads are reduced to print, they are not “killed” but have a better chance to survive; and the same is true when they have been transcribed in manuscript books. Most of the ballads included in the Child collection were preserved in broadsides or printed sources, or in manuscripts, and the same agencies have helped to perpetuate these songs when they reach the New World. The life of ballads is not ended by their reduction to print or to writing, but they are likely to receive new tenure therefrom.

Various things happen in America to these Old World emigrants. Occasionally they are preserved pretty exactly. A few lose compactness and are lengthened by repetition, iteration, or garrulous protraction, sometimes from the example of other songs, or they cross outright with other songs. More often they are shortened. Passages are forgotten until hardly recognizable fragments remain. Moralizing banalities drop out. Frequently ballads become disordered, one well-known piece blending with another; and a new amalgam song may arise. And sometimes they cross with songs of recent origin, lending a few stanzas to assimilated street songs of unmistakably modern composition. The more vulgar and repugnant elements tend to disappear, and also the supernatural elements. In The House Carpenter, the returned lover becomes a living lover, not a ghost; and in some versions of The Farmer’s Curst Wife, the devil disappears. Characteristically they take on modern elements, substituting the known for the unknown, and accommodating their personal names, and their localizations. One, The Farmer’s Curst Wife, just mentioned, has drifted to Texas, and has taken to itself classification as a cowboy song. The Two Brothers, in a Nebraska version, seems well on the way toward becoming a Western song.

  • “O what shall I tell your true love, John,
  • If she inquires for you?”
  • “O tell her I’m dead and lying in my grave,
  • Way out in Idaho.”
  • Popular tradition dims the romantic elements. Lords lose their nobility and become ordinary citizens. Kings and princesses and ghosts are made over into the singer’s own kind of people. The narrative loses its reflection of the original surroundings, and assumes altered character. And, in both imported and indigenous pieces, serious events or sentiments are often vulgarized or made commonplace, till the originally earnest survives only in farce.

    The general trend is toward degradation, not improvement, by the process of oral preservation and transmission. This may be seen when there is comparison of a body of New World texts en masse with the texts printed by Professor Child. There is no improvement in the narrative element—though some theorists hold that communal preservation brings epic development—nor are artistic sequences and climaxes evolved, unless where an inferior piece crosses with a better. In communities where the style of English and Scottish pieces has best maintained itself, new songs assimilate themselves to this style, in rare instances, and assume some of the mannerisms of the English and Scottish ballads, like the “legacy” motive, or the “climax of relatives”—mannerisms, on the whole, of the later Old World ballads rather than the earlier. More often, however, these distinctive mannerisms, when inherited, become lost. Communal preservation and re-creation, in the New World, tends, not to improve inherited ballads or to increase the presence of these ballad mannerisms, but to obscure or obliterate them.

    The Old World songs having on the whole the best chance to survive are those which tell some tragic story, or contain some strongly marked formula. The same is true of parallel indigenous verse. The short song telling a story, in particular a tragic story, has the best chance of vitality. Whatever else drops out, the death, or the immediate event bringing it, lingers in the memory. The moving or the striking in subject matter, and the familiar or conventional in style, are likeliest to persist.

    Beside the imported romantic and legendary ballads, many songs and song-tales on the themes of broadside balladry of the last two centuries in England have currency in the United States, often in such disguised or modified form that their origin is no longer recognizable. Of this character is The Butcher Boy, whose forsaken sweetheart hangs herself—a ballad related to the British A Brisk Young Lover; also The Boston Burglar, or Charlie’s Town—related to The Sheffield Apprentice. To this same group belongs probably the “confessions” of Young McAffie, who poisoned his wife and her baby. The Dying Cowboy, despite its name, is ultimately imported. Still older is the ballad of the maidservant Betsy Brown, who is “sold to Verginny” by her mistress. An instructive instance of the migration of a song is offered by The Romish Lady, a story of a Protestant martyr, having considerable currency in the Central West.

  • There lived a Romish lady
  • Brought up in proper array.
  • Her mother oft times told her
  • She must the priest obey.
  • This is the Elizabethan ballad “It was a lady’s daughter, of Paris properly,” introduced into Fletcher’s Knight of the Burning Pestle. It was reprinted in the reign of Charles II, and is to be found among the Roxburgh Ballads.
  • It was a lady’s daughter,
  • of Paris properly;
  • Her mother her commanded
  • to Mass that she should hie.
  • The American texts show simplification in transmission, but remain strikingly faithful to the original narrative.

    Most of the later imported pieces show, like the earlier, inclination for romantic pathos or tragedy, or for sentimental story. Several tell of the return of a lover, as The Banks of Claudy, or of a girl who follows her lover. Others tell of a girl whom her lover lures away and kills. A striking piece of wide diffusion and of Old World provenance is The Drowsy Sleeper, known as The Bedroom Window, Willie and Mary, etc.

  • “O Mary dear, go ask your father
  • If you my wedded bride may be;
  • And if he says nay then come and tell me,
  • And I no more will trouble thee.”
  • “O Willie dear, I dare not ask him,
  • For he is on his bed of rest,
  • And by his side there lies a dagger
  • To pierce the one that I love best.”
  • Robbin, Bobbin, Richard, and John, or The Wren Shooting is a St. Stephen’s Day song, from the Isle of Man. Other pieces connected with British folk-song, some of them lingering only as songs for children, are Father Grumble, or Old Grumbly, etc., who thinks “he can do more work in a day than his wife can do in three,” The Children in the Wood, Billy Boy, The Frog and the Mouse, and many nursery rhymes. Of modern importation and widely current because used as a party song is the Irish William Reilly or The Coolen Bawn. Ritual songs hardly occur in the United States; for instance Harvest Home songs, carols, springtime and Mayday songs. Ritual observances have not been transplanted.