Folk Music in The United States


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58                 An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

nonites, who live in parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. They farm and, for religious reasons, live a life of considerable austerity, without mechanical appliances, education, or entertainment. Their only songs are hymns, whose tunes live only in oral tradition. The style of the hymns is extremely slow, melismatic, and rhythmically complex. Each word in the text takes up a good many notes, and it is not possible to discern a regular meter in the music. These hymns are always monophonic, for as a token of humility no part-singing or instrumental accompaniment is allowed. At first hearing, they make little sense musically and it is hard to believe that they are the product of a western European group. Indeed, there seems to be no trace of such a style in present-day Germany or Switzerland, nor is it reasonable to believe that the Amish learned it in America, or even in Russia, where they spent some time on the way to the United States.

In Chapter III, I pointed out that the Amish style is one of those peculiarly American phenomena, a marginal survival which seems to have disappeared in its original home, but which still exists on the fringes of its culture. And if the Amish tunes are taken apart it soon becomes evident that they are merely slowed down and highly ornamented versions of old German hymn tunes and that the embellishments themselves are retarded versions of some of the ornaments so characteristic of sixteenth and seventeenth century cultivated music. It is likely that the Amish hymn style is a survival of a way of singing hymns in rural southern Germany, a way which has since died out in its original home under the pressure of modernization.

Of the various ethnic groups in America, only a few have undergone thorough musical examination. We know a good deal about the music of the French-Americans, the German-Americans, the Spanish-Americans, but very little of other groups. In general, it appears that they all brought a sizeable portion of their Old-World traditions with them, that they practice these with considerable vigor, but that these traditions are nevertheless gradually diminishing and giving way to songs in English and to the abandonment of oral tradition in principle.

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