Folk Music in The United States

The British Tradition

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44                 An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

with a quill. There are usually three strings, the lower two providing a drone whose pitch never changes, but the highest string has frets under it similar to those of a guitar, and it carries the melody. Like most instruments, dulcimers are not standardized, for the instruments of folk culture behave Hke other kinds of folklore. Instrument making is governed by oral tradition and communal re-creation, and there are many variants of each basic type. Consequently, some dulcimers have string arrangements and shapes quite different from the one described here. The dulcimer is also found in northern and western Europe and it may have been brought to America from Scandinavia or Germany. Its somewhat artificial revival in America is paralleled in European schools and music clubs.

The drone principle, or accompaniment on the dulcimer, is quite important in American folk singing. When accompanied at all, most of the old ballads are set to a very simple arrangement of chords, often just a single chord, the tonic, predominating almost to the exclusion of any harmonic change. On the dulcimer this is inevitable, but it is also the practice on the guitar and the banjo. Even on the fiddle, open strings are often played along with the melody, producing an eflFect similar to that of the drone.

Many of the old EngHsh ballads were composed by professional song writers, printed on large sheets called broadsides, and peddled in the streets. These so-called broadside ballads often dealt with current events and news, and many passed into oral tradition. The early ballad scholars declined to include them with what they considered genuine ballads, which presumably had a popular origin. Thus an American scholar, Francis James Child, placed the British non-broadside material in a special category and gave each ballad a number.^ Thus today, although the title for a ballad is not always fixed ("James Harris," "The Dea-mon Lover," and "The House Carpenter" are all variants of the same ballad.), it can always#be identified by the number given by Child (243 for "The House Carpenter," 86 for "Barbara Allen," and so on). But the importance of the broadsides, often underrated in the past, is perhaps greater than that of the popular ballads, and this applies to America as well as Britain.

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