Folk Music in The United States

The Ethnic Backgrounds of American Folk Music

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The Ethnic Backgrounds of American Folk Music                   23

in order to round out the knowledge of their native traditions. They often find that America has preserved a great deal of European folklore which has disappeared in its original home. Early in the twentieth century (first in 1916) Cecil J. Sharp, a noted English folk song scholar, heard that the old English and Scottish ballads were still being sung in the United States. His resulting field trip to the mountain areas of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky showed that the number of variants of these ballads current among the folk far exceeded that of present-day Britain; and he discovered some songs which had died out in British folk tradition.

Chapter VI describes the Amish, a Swiss-German farmer group of Protestants related to the Mennonites, who sing hymns in a style very different from anything else in American or European folklore, a style which seems to be distantly related to sixteenth and seventeenth century German cultivated music. This practice must have existed at one time in European folklore, but evidently it disappeared under the impact of urbanization. The survival of culture traits at the fringes of German or British culture, as indicated here, is explained by the theory of marginal survivals, which recognizes the fact that a trait often disappears in the original center of its geographic distribution (Germany and Switzerland, for example) but can survive and even flourish much longer in the outskirts or margins of that area, for example, among German-Americans. This theory helps to account for the great wealth of European folk music in America, a wealth which also makes it possible, at least in some ways, to study at first-hand the folk songs of most Old World cultures without leaving the United States.

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