Folk & Traditional Music of the Western Continents

The folk & traditional music of Europe, Africa & the Americas explored.

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tion are usually to be found in its religious manifestations. Thus, per­haps, the oldest European folk music preserved in the Americas may be that which is associated with religion. The Spanish liturgical dramas are one example; another is the tradition of German spiritual folk song which is found especially in Pennsylvania but also among the Amish of the midwestern United States.
The Amish are a religious community related to the Mennonites. Of Swiss and German origin, they began leaving Germany in the seventeenth century, some migrating first to Russia and then, in the early nineteenth century, to the United States, while others came directly to America. Their austere manner of living and their con­servative traditions kept them essentially out of contact with other German-Americans. Devoting themselves exclusively to farming, they use music only for worship. Their hymns are of two types, an older one that is possibly a survival of a medieval hymn-singing tra­dition, and a newer one evidently part of the German-American spiritual tradition of Pennsylvania.
To most listeners, the older hymns of the Amish scarcely sound like a product of Western musical culture. They are monophonic and sung without accompaniment, without perceptible meter, with syllables drawn out over many tones, and with slowly executed orna­ments. Only when one becomes acquainted with the style does one see in it any resemblance to the hymn tunes of the German reformed churches. This can be done by connecting the first notes of the tex­tual syllables to each other, even when they are short and seemingly insignificant. Since this style of singing is not found in Europe today, how did it come about? Possibly the Amish, after arriving in Russia or the United States, began to slow down the hymns they had sung in Germany, to add ornaments, and to draw out the metric structure until it was not to be recognized. On the other hand, possibly their way of singing was once widely used in the German-speaking rural areas of Europe, and has simply been retained by the Amish in America while it underwent complete change in Europe under the impact of the all-pervading musical influence of the cities and courts. At any rate, the Amish hymns are an example of the marginal sur­vival that characterizes the musical culture of the Americas to the extent that it is derived from Europe.2
2 Bruno Nettl, "The Hymns of the Amish, an Example of Marginal Sur­vival," Journal of American Folklore LXX (1957), 327-328.

E-Book - An Annotated Compendium of Old Time American Songs by James Alverson III