Berea College Appalachian Music Fellowship
Day 16, June 22, 2009
Breathing One Unlettered Atmosphere
I’ve been bugging the archivists at the Special Collections & Archives about whether any African-American mountain people were ever ballad singers and/or if their songs were ever collected by the “ballad-mongers” at the turn of the last century.
We can’t find any evidence of African American contributions to ballad singing, at least we haven’t yet. This is troublesome to me because what I’m thinking is that the ballad collectors were convinced that only the descendants of English, Scots, and Irish settlers knew ballads; therefore, they ignored (out of prejudice or ignorance) African-American communities of singers in the mountains.
Another troublesome discovery I made today concerns the ballad collector named Katherine Jackson French. French was born and raised in Laurel County, Kentucky, yet in her writings about ballads, she never associated herself with mountain people, even though she collected several ballads from Laurel Countians. She asked President Frost at Berea College to help her publish her manuscript of Kentucky ballads in 1910. The collection was never published, and she retrieved the manuscript from Dr. Frost in 1915; she then donated her papers and manuscripts to Berea in the early 1950s as a Centennial gift to the college. Like the ballad collectors and folklorists who came before and after her, French writes of the beauty of the mountains but not of the mountain singers–they are, of course, stereotyped as “breathing one unlettered atmosphere.”
“[The ballads] are peculiarly Anglo-American, most characteristic of the traditional history and spirit of their composers of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, and likewise, after generations of contact made to be part of the blood, bone and sinew of the settlers in the remote land. Though told in their own homely, household speech, and illustrative of their own crude life, withal, they are poems of the highest art,–because they are not artful. . . .
In this isolated section, far removed from all activities of modern civilization, life is lived in the open amid all that is fresh and green,–glorious mountains, trees of baronial proportions, rapid creeks and narrow passes. The inhabitants are strikingly homogeneous, breathing one unlettered atmosphere, one habit of thought, one measure of defense and sympathy. . . .”