American Ballads and Songs

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songs gathered by native collectors have been left as they were and American texts can be accepted without qualification. Taken as a whole, they testify that, though ballads may both gain and lose by transmission, the latter is the more usual process. It is a mistake to affirm that traditional preservation ensures improve­ment, though it may help for a time. It shortens a long or diffuse piece, drops out non-essentials, and preserves dramatic scenes, bits of dialogue, and the situation which is the soul of the story. Salient pas­sages come to stand out, old introductions are lost, while the critical features of the narrative, the dialogue and the turning points, remain. The "nobler wild-flower sort of poetry" may have become such by virtue of the sifting hands through which it has passed, or by virtue of the selective processes of the folk-memory. But in the majority of cases a folk-song deteriorates in oral tradition, developing incompleteness, incoher­ence, and sometimes garrulous protraction. An in­stance in point is the ballad of Springfield Mountain which originated in the eighteenth century and has survived only in oral form. The process of folk-transmission has not evolved it into a good ballad or improved it. It had little poetical merit at the begin­ning and its twentieth century derivatives have not remedied the weaknesses of the original. Another instance is the fine old song of Barbara Allen's Cruelty which emerges from the seventeenth century. In many later forms it has wholly lost its dignity and appeal. Even those songs which have been improved by the processes of folk-transmission in the end fall themselves into decay.
As to stylistic characteristics, some American songs are rough, frank, spirited, others picturesque and pathe­tic. The diction tends to be rugged, the meter crude, the tone unsophisticated. Though sometimes highly

E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III