Folk Music in The United States

The British Tradition

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46                 An Introduction to Folk Music in the United States

A considerable number, perhaps as many as one-third, of the British broadsides are of Irish origin. Although in English, their style and their subject matter are different from the English and Scottish ones, and a larger proportion of them are in the humorous category.

Most of the native American ballads first appeared as broadsides and, typically, deal with real events. Their texts are similar to those of the British broadsides. They are presented in a more emotional, less detached manner, for the narrator sometimes takes part and often makes moral and ethical evaluations. In "Jesse James," for example, the refrain of each stanza condemns the hero's murderer:

But that dirty little coward shot Mr. Howard And laid Jesse James in his grave.

The plots of the American and British broadsides are often much more complex than those of the British popular ballads. Often they have not been in oral tradition long enough to shake off the many secondary characters which have evidently disappeared in the older ballads. The broadside ballads do not always revolve around a single event as do the Child ballads. Some, like those dealing with Jesse James, John Henry, and even Franklin D. Roosevelt, are biographical and narrate several episodes. The order of events varies. Most of the American broadsides tend to emphasize a hero, praise his qualities and dwell on his deeds, including some which are not of primary importance to the main theme.

The music of the broadside ballads is sometimes in the style of the old English ones, but more often it is modern. It is usually based on a seven-tone scale and is in major or minor rather than in one of the other modes which are common in the older material. The rhythm is more varied than in the Child ballads, but it is usually cast in one of the standard eighteenth and nineteenth century meters, 3/4,4/4, or 6/8. While the British material as sung in the Old World has a large proportion of triple meter, when these songs become estabhshed in American tradition, there

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