Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship
Day 11, June 15, 2009
“The house our foreparents left had a song, had a story.
We didn’t care.
them old love songs
them old ballets
them old stories and like foolishness.”
I’m reading about “them old love songs, them old ballets” again this week. The Special Collections & Archives at Berea have ballad lyrics by the hundreds, collected by various folk from the folk in Kentucky and beyond. Of course, the grand-daddy of folk ballad collecting and classifying was Francis James Child, 1825-1896, who published The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in ten parts, forming five large volumes, from 1882 to 1989. It contains 305 distinct ballads; many of those old ballets were collected in the southern Appalachian mountains beginning in the late 19th century.
Here’s a little bit from Child’s introduction of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which describes what a ballad is (and sounds a whole lot like a Cormac McCarthy novel as well):
“A ballad is a song that tells a story, or—to take the other point of view—a story told in song. More formally, it may be defined as a short narrative poem, adapted for singing, simple in plot and metrical structure, divided into stanzas, and characterized by complete impersonality so far as the author or singer is concerned. . . . A ballad has no author. . . . Not only is the author of a ballad invisible, and so far as the effect which the poem produces on the hearer is concerned, practically non-existent, but the teller of the tale has no role in it. Unlike other songs, it does not purport to give utterance to the feelings or the mood of the singer. . . . [The singer] does not dissect or psychologize. He does not take sides for or against any of the dramatis personae. He merely tells what happened and what people said, and he confines the dialogue to its simplest and most inevitable elements. The story exists for its own sake. If it were possible to conceive a tale as telling itself, without the instrumentality of a conscious speaker, the ballad would be such a tale.”
“It is greatly to be deplored that the literature of the ballad has, in the past, attracted so much more attention than the music. Properly speaking, the two elements should never be dissociated; the music and the text are one and indivisible, and to sever one from the other is to remove the gem from its setting. Early poetry, to which category the traditional ballad belongs, was always sung or chanted; it was addressed to the ear, not the eye.”
Sharp was one of the first to note that mountaineers referred to ballads as “love songs” and to printed lyrics (rare, and usually handwritten) as “ballets.”
More ballad updates tomorrow . . .
Over the weekend I got to hear Chad Berry, director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea, talk about his research on the National Barn Dance. At the LMU Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, Chad talked about his grandparents’ migration out of Tennessee into the northern cities and how important the WLS Barn Dance broadcasts were to his grandfather. Chad noted that when migrants from the mountains (like his grandfather) heard the people on barn dance radio, they were really hearing “home.” For great reading, check out The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance, edited by Chad, and look for the documentary film on the National Barn Dance in the near future.