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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NEGRO BALLADS
75
the story, in the incident and character the song relates. A collector may ask in vain as to authorship, for he finds nothing.
These ballads of to-day, as sung by the Negroes of the South, are as fluid in form, as changeable in version, as different in varying locali­ties, as ever were English or Scotch songs of centuries ago. They are being made now, as in the past, and are the products of recognized individual composers rather than of many singers. What is com­munal origin, if it does not imply that different singers contributed their share to the making of a song? One does not need to believe that the ballad was made all at once, that spontaneous group-singing on one occasion produced it. But these Negroes illustrate their type of communal composition when they add to or subtract from or change the songs they sing. Many times I have been told by Negro singers that they vary their song to suit their mood, that they rarely sing stanzas twice in the same order, and that individual singers will add to the song at will.
The printed page has nothing to do with the Negro's circulation of his ballads. The Negro who is fondest of his ballads is the one who is not interested particularly in print, perhaps is altogether ignorant of it. (That is not true in all cases, of course.) The ballad is scattered over a state by the singing of the care-free vagrant Negroes who go from place to place in search of work, or are sent about on construc­tion gangs, and so forth. Songs lightly pass the borders of states, stealing a ride as casually as the tramps who ride the sleepers. Tunes may persist while the words vary, or words may remain somewhat the same and be sung to different airs. In different states a song may celebrate different local characters, bring in names of different towns, and in each locality be thought of as a purely native product. But a careful comparison may show that the versions are but variants of one ballad, started by some unknown soldier of song, and kept alive by thousands of others. A song passes from lip to lip, till it is almost unrecognizable, and yet is the same.
The Negro has no theory of ballad origin to expound or explode. Communal composition as a theory of literary art concerns him not at all, but he makes use of it as a practice in his spontaneous singing. The Negro is a born improviser, and takes delight in adding to a song, his own or another's. A spiritual or a shout-song sung at a camp meeting may be prolonged indefinitely, as any individual singer may start a new stanza, which is easy to construct because of the simple framework. The congregation will quickly catch it up, and perhaps it becomes a permanent part of the song after that, or perhaps it is never thought of again. Mrs. Busbee, of North Caro-