ON THE TRAIL OF NEGRO FOLK-SONGS

A Collection Of Negro Traditional & Folk Songs with Sheet Music Lyrics & Commentaries - online book

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4
NEGRO FOLK-SONGS
they have forgotten even that they have forgotten it. But lovely as hymns and "spirituals" are in their place, if you are a collector, even a pious one, you feel a thrill of despair at hearing a voice, beautiful with the quavery sweetness of old age, trembling with unguessed traditions, sing Hark from the Tomb, when you had been "honing" for Old Virginity Never Tire, or Chicken in de Bread-Tray. You feel that puritanism can go a foot too far. Why has nobody ever dis­cussed the puritanism among Negroes?
And even when you get a song started, when you are listening with your heart in your ear and the greed of the folk-lorist in your eye, you may lose out. If you seem too much interested, the song retreats, draws in like a turtle's head, and no amount of coaxing will make it venture back. And there is something positively fatal about a pencil! Songs seem to be afraid of lead-poisoning. Or perhaps the pencil is secretly attached by a cord (a vocal cord?) to the singer's tongue. It must be so, for otherwise, why has it so often happened that when I, distrustful of my tricky memory to hold a precious song, have sneaked a pencil out to take notes, the tongue has suddenly jerked back and refused to wag again? Yet that is not always the case, for sometimes the knowledge that his song is being written down in­spires a bard with more respect for it and he gives it freely.
Sometimes shyness increases, and again it grows less, under guile­ful persuasion. Some people will confess to acquaintance with folk­songs, perhaps the very ones you may at the moment be most ar­dently pursuing, yet refuse to sing. They "never could sing," or they have quite forgotten how. Their voices have got rusty with disuse, or else never have been tuned for song. They are as Harris Dickson said he was, when I requested songs of him. "Yes, I know Negro songs - but the folks would n't let you print your book if you put in it the ones I know. And any way, I can't sing. Got no talent for music at all. If I put a nickel in a melodeon, the blamed thing stops playing." Or maybe they are like the young girl who was asked by Louis Dodge if she could sing. "No, sir, I could n't carry a tune if I had it in a bucket with a lid on it."
In such cases I often explain the difference between pleasure sing­ing and singing for science. I dare hint delicately that while it is pos­sible that neither the vocalist nor I might derive joy from the singing as singing, yet as a folk-lorist I should experience delight at hearing a folk-song put across in such way that I could capture it. I urge that as a song hunter I should rather hear a Negro in the cornfield or on the levee or in a tobacco factory, than to hear Galli-Curci grand-operize. I hint that humming a tune will do at a pinch, or even