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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74
NEGRO FOLK-SONGS
These old songs are interesting in themselves, as survivals of the ballad-making art in America, apart from their racial significance. They show that America, while cherishing with delight the tradi­tional ballads of England and Scotland, the weightless cargo of song brought over in brave adventurous ships, while not forgetting the quaint and lovely tales told in verse that generations now dead took pleasure in, has produced ballads of its own as well. This new land, too, has had the power to seize upon an incident and make it mem­orable in words that sing themselves, to tell in picturing lines a story of some local character, some hero or some villain of this side the water.
One does not need, in order to appreciate them, to argue for these Negro ballads of slavery times the literary quality that inheres in those our Scotch and English forbears composed. One may value them for their homely simplicity, their rough humor, their awkward wistfulness; and though they would not stand the rigid tests of poetry, they are indigenous ballads, made in America and based on native characters and happenings; hence are worth our study. They are newer than the ballads of the old country, but they are as un­identified as to authorship, and they circulated among the people of the South, both white and black, having been sung on many planta­tions where song lightened labor and made the Negro almost forget that he was working, so great was his pleasure in his song.
In 1904, Professor Kittredge, in his introduction to the one-volume edition of Child's "English and Scottish Popular Ballads/' wrote: "Ballad-making, so far as the English-speaking nations are con­cerned, is a lost art; and the same may be said of ballad-singing."
In a letter to Professor Alphonso Smith, dated February 20, 1915, he says: "When I wrote'the same may be said of ballad-singing/ I was, of course, in error. Ballad-singing is by no means a lost art, either in Great Britain, or in America. The evidence for its survival has come in since I wrote. If I were now summing up the facts I should modify my statement."
I wonder if Professor Kittredge would not modify also his state­ment that ball&d-making is a lost art, if he were to review the Negro folk-songs of to-day. The Negroes in the South are now singing bal­lads which of necessity are of recent composition, since they cele­brate recent happenings. These ballads are as far from being linked with the names of specific authors as are those in Child's collections, so that if the impersonality of composition be a proof of ballad art, that is not wanting here. No Negro can tell you who made the song he sings, for he is not at all interested in authcr, or "maker," but in