Folk Music in The United States


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56                 An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

and love songs. On the other hand, the content of many songs is similar to that of white people's songs. For example, John Henry, the steel-driving hero of a Negro ballad, is comparable to such a white ballad character as Jesse James.

The instruments of the Negroes were in some cases simply borrowed from the culture of the whites; they, too, use guitars, fiddles, mandolins, and dulcimers. But the Negroes brought some instruments from West Africa with them, modified them, and made them genuine members of the American family of folk instruments. The most famous, of course, is the banjo, originally the West African hania, the Negroes' favorite instrument for accompanying songs, which, with significant changes, has penetrated Anglo-American culture. Another is the "washtub," a string stretched vertically between an obliquely standing stick and a wash tub turned upside-down. It is evidently derived from a type of animal trap in which a skin is suspended over a hole by a string which breaks when an animal steps on the skin.

A subject which has commanded widespread interest and caused a great deal of discussion in recent years is the status of jazz in folklore. Jazz is obviously related to folklore, but the problem is whether it can actually be treated as fdlklore, whether it behaves like folk tradition.^ There are a number of interesting aspects of this problem which bear discussion in a general book on folk music in the United States.

If we examine jazz as it is today, we find that it is composed and performed by highly trained, sophisticated, and even intellectual musicians in the cities and is hardly distinguishable from cultivated music, except by its popularity with the general public. And some of the most "progressive" jazz is not, in fact, popular. The usual justification given for calling it folklore is that much of it is improvised. This practice, however, is not really particularly characteristic of folk music, but it was a common phenomenon in various periods of cultivated music history. In the earlier periods of jazz, however, there were a good many elements found also in folklore. Many of the first jazz musicians were untrained or self-taught. They came from a tradition of genuine folk singers like Leadbelly and Josh White, singers who,

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