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

XXVII. Oral Literature

§ 7. American Ballads

Aside from the historical pieces enumerated earlier, there are now many short narrative pieces, orally preserved, and apparently authorless, which may fairly be called indigenous ballads. Already, they are marked, to an instructive degree, by fluctuation of text, variant versions, and local modifications and additions. Most of them have a direct unsophisticated note, and some show traces of rude power. An example of an indigenous ballad is Young Charlotte, who was frozen to death at her lover’s side, on her way to a ball.

  • Spoke Charles, “How fast the freezing ice
  • Is gathering on my brow.”
  • Young Charlottie then feebly said
  • “I’m growing warmer now.”
  • This ballad is current through the Middle West, and has been recovered as far southwest as Texas, owing, apparently, nothing of its circulation to print. Phillips Barry has shown that it was composed at Bensontown, Vermont, as far back as 1835. Another piece which has roamed everywhere is Springfield Mountain, the story of a young man mowing hay who was “bitten by a pizen serpent” and died. W.W. Newell was able to trace the history of this piece to New England composition in the late eighteenth century. Of unknown origin but of equally wide diffusion is Poor Lorella, who was killed by her lover, and lies down under the weeping willow:
  • Down on her knees before him
  • She pleaded for her life;
  • But deep into her bosom
  • He plunged the fatal knife.
  • This is known also as The Weeping Willow, Poor Floella, Floe Ella, Lurella, Lorla, Loretta, The Jealous Lover, Pearl Bryn, etc. Also of unknown origin and also tragic is The Silver Dagger. Jesse James claims sympathy for its outlaw hero, an American Robin Hood. The Death of Garfield reflects moralizing delight in a criminal’s repentance, a stock motive. Fuller and Warren tells of a fatal quarrel between rival lovers; Casey Jones of a fatal railroad run. From the standpoint of the New World, ballad-making is not a “closed account.” Probably there will always be a body of short narrative pieces, their authorship and origin lost, preserved in outlying regions. They will shift in style, for there is a history of taste for folk-poetry as there is for book-poetry; but they will ever be behind contemporary song-modes by a generation or more. These are genuine ballads—unless there is insistence on some communal-mystic origin for what may be termed a ballad, or on the preservation of a mediæval song style. The mediæval song style is the more memorable, because it dated from a time when singing was nearly universal, and when songs were composed for the ear, not for the eye; but it may not logically be insisted upon as a test of what is genuine balladry and what is not.

    There have been many helps to diffusion of popular pieces in this country as in England. Fairs or circuses at which broadsides or sheet music were offered for sale have served as agencies of diffusion, and so have itinerant vendors and entertainers of all kinds. Songs learned at school and in childhood stay in the memory with especial tenacity. Country newspapers have reprinted many well-cherished pieces, later pasted into scrapbooks. Even city newspapers like the Boston Transcript and the Boston Globe have “folk exchanges” which have preserved many good texts. And now, as before the days when print was so common, song lovers copy their favourite texts into manuscript books. Pepys testified to his pleasure at hearing an actress, Mrs. Knipp, sing “her little Scotch song of Barbara Allen”—perhaps the début of this song; and the stage star still remains a great agent in popularization. So do wandering concert troups and minor singers of many types. The once popular negro minstrels helped to universalize many pseudo-negro songs, and real negro singers, like the Jubilee singers and the Hampton Institute singers, have kept alive many songs. A striking text or a tuneful melody, given some impetus in diffusion, lingers when its history has been forgotten. After the Ball and Two Little Girls in Blue, popular stage songs of the 1890’s—the first sung all over the country in the farce A Trip to China Town—are heard no longer in the cities, but they are still vigorous in village communities and on Western ranches.