Folk Music in The United States


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42                 An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

is fetched by the devil and taken to hell, but she is so difiScult to handle that the devil returns her to her husband.

The stories especially those of the oldest ballads are told in an unique way. The narrator ordinarily takes no part in them, telling them with no signs of emotion, but remaining objective and detached, and in his singing not differentiating between a stanza which gives routine background and another which contains the dramatic chmax. The - musical aspects of the performance are equally austere and calm; they do not portray the dramatic and emotional impact of the stories. This might be considered detrimental to the total effect of the ballad, but in fact it seems to improve the performance, for the contrast between the dramatic tension in the plot and the quiet, detached delivery is in itself effective and helps to make the old folk ballads unique artistic phenomena.

The language of the ballads is a peculiar mixture of American colloquial speech and old English literary conventions. Along with such seventeenth century poetic expressions as "lily-white hand" and "milk-white steed," we find Americanisms like "Stay here you dear little babe and keep your pa company." ("House Carpenter").

The music of the older English ballads is in a style which seems to go back to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. It has much in common with the folk music of other areas in Europe. Most of the tunes do not make use of the seven-tone scale, as do those of eighteenth and nineteenth century origin, but are restricted to five or six tones. Many of the tunes are modal; that is, they do not fit into the major and minor scales to which we are accustomed, and hence sometimes sound incomplete to our ears. The Mixolydian and Dorian modes are the most prominent after the major (Ionian) and the natural minor (AeoHan). In many of the tLines the melody rises to a peak about the middle and then descends slowly to its original level.

The rhythm of the ballads is largely dependent on that of the words. A line with four iambic feet may be set to a musical rhythm like the following, with all of the notes approximately

the same length: Sometimes, however, the

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