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ON THE TRAIL OF NEGRO FOLK-SONGS
F OLK-SONGS are shy, elusive things. If you wish to capture them, you have to steal up behind them, unbeknownst, and sprinkle salt on their tails. Even so, as often as not they fly off saucily from under your nose. You have to speak them gently, and with magic words, else they will vanish before your ears. You must know how to mask your trembling eagerness in their presence, to pretend, if need be, that you are deaf and indifferent, to act as if vocal music were the last thing in life you ever gave a thought to. Folk-songs have to be wooed and coaxed and wheedled with all manner of blandishments and flatteries.
People who sing or hum to themselves hate to be overheard. It is as embarrassing as to be caught talking to one's self, and as indignantly resented; yet if you aspire to be a folk-song collector, you must cast aside the niceties of conduct, must shamelessly eavesdrop, and ask intrusive questions.
How often have I overheard alluring snatches of song, only to be baffled by denial when I asked for morel Kindly black faces smile indulgently as at the vagaries of an imaginative child, when I persist in pleading for the rest. "Nawm, honey, I wa'n't singing nothing — nothing a-tall! " How often have I been tricked into enthusiasm over the promise of folk-songs, only to hear age-worn phonograph records, — but perhaps so changed and worked upon by usage that they could possibly claim to be folk-songs after all! — or Broadway echoes, or conventional songs by white authors! Yet cajolements might be in vain, even though all the time I knew, by the uncanny instinct of folk-lorists, that there were folk-songs there.
How often, when seeking for dance songs, which Negroes call "reels," have I been told rebukingly that "sech things was sinful," that" wild folks sing reels," but church members must forget them, must do as one fat black girl recently converted said she did: "Ah devotes mah voice to God!" Such passionate rending of all worldly songs from the memory is impressive as an act of piety, but discouraging. Aged colored folk have intimated to me that they have rinsed their minds of all such revelry, have so completely put it aside that