Folk Songs and Ballads
The oldest category of eternal songs, at least those that we have documentation for, are folk songs and ballads that were brought to the New World from the old. Some of these were centuries old when the immigrants from England, Scotland, and Ireland boarded the ships that would carry them to America; others were being sung on the docks and in taverns the day the ships departed. These songs had been passed on by word of mouth for generations, though occasionally some enterprising antiquarian (like the famed novelist Sir Walter Scott) would copy them down and print them in collections. Many of them were ballads - narrative songs about eternal themes of love, death, honor, and betrayal - though many Americans often called them "old love songs."
Of these early ballads, the one most often collected in the U.S. is Barbara Allen. It was sung during Colonial days, and Abe Lincoln sang it as a boy growing up in Indiana. There are printed references to it in England as far back as 1666, and the poet William Goldsmith mentioned it in the mid-18th century. It continued to be popular in the age of mass media; Kentucky singer Bradley Kincaid featured it on his broadcasts from Chicago and Boston in the1920s and 1930s, and during the Folk Revival of the 1960s, Joan Baez recorded it and featured it in her concerts. Like many ballads, "Barbara Allen" is long, with some versions running to 20 stanzas - a reflection of a pre-mass media age when songs functioned as novels, soap operas, TV shows, and movies.
While songs like "Barbara Allen" dealt with unrequited love, others told tales of murder and betrayal. Such as the haunting Pretty Polly, which follows a familiar plot line where a callous young man murders his girlfriend when he learns she is pregnant. It is derived from a long British ballad called "The Gosport Tragedy," but with one important difference. In the British original, the murderer tries to escape by sailing away, but a great storm comes up, and the ghost of his victim rises from the waves and tears him apart. In the American version, there is no such supernatural retribution; the murderer leaves Polly in her lonely grave, with only the wild birds to mourn. The song became a favorite of old-time, folk, and country singers of the 20th century. The great Kentucky coal miner and singer Dock Boggs recorded an influential version of it in 1928, as did Woody Guthrie (1940s) and The Stanley Brothers (1950).
In 1910 John Lomax published his book Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, the first real collection of American folk songs, and introduced the world to a group of ballads sung by working cowboys in the West and Southwest. As western music made its way into popular culture through the singing cowboy movies of the 30s and 40s, one of the best-known favorites was Streets Of Laredo, also known as "The Dying Cowboy" or "Tom Sherman's Barroom." At first glance, the song seems to be a quintessential portrait of the old west: a young cowboy is shot through the chest, is dressed in white linen, and offers up his dying words. Yet many versions have an incongruous refrain that usually goes something like, "So beat the drums lowly, and play the fifes slowly." These are hardly references to the old west, and prove that the song was adapted from an old Irish song called "The Unfortunate Rake." Though the song was successfully transplanted to America, a few of its Irish roots were still clinging to it.
It didn't take Americans long to start coming up with folk songs about their own heroes. Probably the most popular of these "native American ballads" is John Henry, the tale of the legendary black railroad worker's contest with a steam drill. Many historians feel the song was based on a real incident that occurred at the Big Bend Tunnel of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad near Hinton, West Virginia, sometime around 1870. The building of this tunnel resulted in a number of deaths, and there were charges that the railroad bosses were guilty of gross negligence in the treatment of the laborers who dug the tunnel. The song circulated among both whites and blacks for years but it was not printed anywhere until 1909. John Henry himself has entered the pantheon of black folk heroes, and has been the subject of at least two full-length books. The song is known to most school children today, and has been recorded dozens of time. As early as 1928, it was recorded by DeFord Bailey, the first black star on the Grand Ole Opry, and in 1925 by Fiddlin' John Carson, the first country singer to record. Mississippi John Hurt knew it as "Spike Driver's Blues," and it was often featured in later years by Johnny Cash (who devoted a whole album to it), Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe.
Another native folk ballad popular with both blacks and whites was Stagolee, the about the notorious "bad man" who took his "forty-four" and shot down a man named Billy Lion who made the mistake of stealing his Stetson hat. Again, the history behind the song contains as much folklore as the song itself. There was a character named Jim Stack Lee, the black son of a Confederate officer named Stack Lee. There was also a well-known steamboat working out of Memphis in the19th century named "Stacker Lee," and the son of the owner of the boat was also called Stacker Lee. Whatever the case, references to the song began cropping up in the 1890's, and it entered the repertoires of early roots singers like Mississippi John Hurt, Ma Rainey, and Woody Guthrie. In 1958 rhythm and blues singer Lloyd Price recorded a version of it that landed in the Number One slot on Billboard's charts, earning the song (and Price) a page in rock and roll history.
Another such tune was Ida Red, the quintessential Texas two step that has become a required addition to any dance in Texas, Oklahoma, or southern California. Though associated with western swing king Bob Wills (who recorded his definitive version in 1938), it seems much older. Folksong collector John Lomax classified it as a song about "Negro Bad Men" and prints a version he collected in the Colorado River bottoms in Texas (see his book American Ballads and Folk Songs.) The song was featured in later years by Woody Guthrie's uncle, Jack Guthrie, a popular radio entertainer in the 40s, and leant its melody to rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry for his 1955 classic "Mabelline."
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