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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34
NEGRO FOLK-SONGS
ous land, but they were among the most precious of the cargo that came over, and they have survived through the years, through the poverty, the hardships, and all the struggles of pioneer life, better than the material goods that accompanied them. While the hearts that cherished them, the lips that sang them, are indistinguishable dust, these songs live on. Students of balladry know that America is still rich in the traditional songs of the old country, that in remote mountain sections of the South to-day there is perhaps a rarer heri­tage of English and Scotch folk-songs actually being sung from oral tradition than in any part of Great Britain. The old songs and bal­lads have been lovingly remembered, transmitted orally from gener­ation to generation, with variations such as inevitably come in a change of surroundings and social conditions. The old songs are alive among us, and the American versions are distinctive, as true to the traditions as those handed down on the other side of the water, though differing from them in details.
In the early days on the plantations in the South, when books and newspapers were less plentiful than now, songs formed a larger part of the social life than they do at present. At the "great house" the loved old ballads would be sung over and over, till the house ser­vants, being quick of memory and of apt musical ear, would learn them, then pass them on in turn to their brethren of the fields. This process would be altogether oral, since the slaves were not taught to read or write, save in exceptional cases, and their communication with each other and with the outside world would of necessity be by the spoken word.
By cabin firesides, as before the great hearths in big houses, the old songs would be learned by the little folk as part of their natural heritage, to be handed down to their children and their children's children. Such a survival among the Negroes was remarkable, far more so than song-preservation among the whites, who in many in­stances kept old ballads by writing them down in notebooks, and learning them from old broadsides or keepsake volumes; while the Negroes had none of these aids, but had to sing each song as they learned it from hearing others sing it, and must remember it of them­selves. And yet they cherished the old songs and had their own ver­sions of them.
My first find of folk-material of this sort made a great impres­sion on my mind. Some years ago I was sitting on the porch of my sister's home in Virginia, talking with a young colored maid who loafed on the steps. It was a warm summer afternoon when neither of us felt inclined to exertion, and Lucy was entertaining me with