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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III
NEGRO BALLADS
T HE Negro loves a ballad, his own or another's. Fond as he is of a story, and using song as his second speech, he is particularly happy in combining the two into one product. He cherishes the tra­ditional ballads that have come down from the white men, adding his distinctive touches to them till his versions are his own; and like­wise he makes his racial versions of modern ballads of the whites, as Casey Jones, for example, the tale of the brave engineer. But he is not content with that. He must make his own ballads, sing his own stories in song. The Negro is by nature a mimetic creature, drama­tizing all he knows, his experiences and the life about him, expressing everything in form and motion. Abstract ideas appeal to him less than action, and his poetry in general loves to symbolize and per­sonify his philosophizings. Even his religious songs tell definite stories more often than not, balladize "Norah" and his ark, Cain and Abel, Samson and "Delijah," and the rest, with well-defined plots and climatic progression of events.
The Negro is a bom dramatist. Who else is capable of such, epic largeness of gesture, such eloquent roll of eye, such expressive hesita­tion in speech? Any old darky in the cornfield or cabin can put life and color and movement into a narrative that in a white man's speech might" come limping," to use the Negro's term. So it is nat­ural that the ballad form, with its distinct personalities, its action and dialogue, should be dear to the Negro heart, as indeed it is to all of us until we ignorantly become too learned to realize the simpler values. And sometimes a scholar makes of the living ballad a thing of dust and dry bones — which the Negro would never be guilty of. He loves it for itself, not for any theories concerning it.
One interesting variation that the Negro shows in his treatment of the ballad is to use the first person whenever he likes. While imper­sonality is held one distinguishing mark of the ballad as traditional with the whites, and a lack of identification with any specific author or transmitter is considered a merit, the Negro freely uses the first person in his racial ballads and also in those he has taken over from the whites. He brings in his "I" prominently in his versions of the