Sunday, November 15, 2015

The History Behind American Ballads

Telling a story in song is one of our oldest human traditions. For hundreds of years people have sung ballads that told stories about murders, outlaws, romances, wars, tragedies, and hardships. During four visits between 1916 and 1918 British musicologist Cecil Sharp collected over 1500 American songs in the southern Appalachians.

At the same time Sharp collected old ballads new ones were being created as a response to events of the time. These new songs included responses to modern calamities involving railroad accidents, shipwrecks, and the treatment of workers and prisoners. 

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales that Inspired "Stagolee," "John Henry," and Other Traditional American Folk Songs by Richard Polenberg explores American ballads based on historical people and events, explaining the events and persons who inspired them, and covering their first known performances, recordings, and publication. 

The songs in their categories include:
  • St Louis (St. Louis Blues, Stagolee, Frankie and Johnny, Duncan and Brady)
  • Lying Cold on the Ground (Omi Wise, Ballad of Frankie Silver, Tom Dooley, Poor Ellen Smith, Pearl Bryan, Delia's Gone)
  • Bold Highwaymen and Outlaws (Cole younger, Jesse James, John Hardy, Railroad Bill, Betty and Dupree)
  • Railroads (John Henry, Engine 143, Casey Jones, Wreck of the Old 97)
  • Workers (Cotton Mill Blues, Chain Gang Blues, Only a Miner, House of the Rising Sun)
  • Disasters (The Titanic, The Boll Weevil)
  • Martyrs (Joe Hill, Sacco and Vanzetti)
Persons interested in folk music and its performers, American history, or music recordings will find this book informative and interesting. 

Here is a summary of the history of one song included in the book.
Tom Dooley as recorded by the Kingston Trio was all over the radio when I was a girl, selling over a million copies in a few months. It won the Grammy for Best Country and Western Recording. Everyone knew the words.

Tom Dooley was first recorded in 1929 with these words:

"Tom Dooley"
As recorded by Grayson & Whitter (1929)
Hang your head, Tom Dooley,
Hang your head and cry;
Killed poor Laura Foster,
You know you're bound to die.

You took her on the hillside,
As God almighty knows;
You took her on the hillside,
And there you hid her clothes.

You took her by the roadside,
Where you begged to be excused;
You took her by the roadside,
Where there you hid her shoes.

Took her on the hillside,
To make her your wife;
Took her on the hillside
Where there you took her life. (CHO.)

Take down my old violin,
Play it all you please;
This time tomorrow,
It'll be no use to me. (CHO.)

I dug a grave four feet long,
I dug it three feet deep;
Throwed the cold clay over her,
And tromped it with my feet. (CHO.)

This world and one more,
Then where you reckon I'll be?
Hadn't a-been for Grayson,
I'd a-been in Tennessee. (CHO.)

How many of us know that Tom Dooley was a real person, Thomas Caleb Dula, a handsome lady killer and Confederate soldier? After bedding two cousins, Ann (an old flame, now married) and Laura Foster, Tom discovered he had syphilis. So did Ann. But Tom blamed the disease on Laura. Ann blamed Tom. 
Tom Dula
Tom paid Laura several visits. Then Laura was found missing. Laura's father believed she was murdered and a warrant for Tom's arrest was issued. Tom had taken off. He turned up at a farm owned by Union veteran Lt. Colonel Grayson who hired him as a field hand. The posse tracked Tom down, but he'd high tailed it again...wearing new boots that hurt his feet. 

Tom was cooling his blistered feet when Grayson found him and brought him in. When Laura's body was found, Tom was indicted for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death by hanging. An appeal was made, improper handling of evidence was proved, and Tom faced a second trial. He was again found guilty and his execution set for May 1, 1868.

Tom spent his jail time trying to cut his chain with a piece of glass--and getting baptized. Neither delayed his execution. On the fatal day a cheerful Tom insisted he was innocent and quipped, "I would have washed my neck if I had known you were using such a nice clean rope." He spoke for an hour to the crowd, maintaining his innocence and accusing witnesses of false testimony. The crowd wasn't buying it. The day before he'd written a note declaring "I am the only person that had any hand to the murder of Laura Foster."

By 1867 a song was being sung about the murder. An early folklore scholar noted the song was sung all over Watauga County. The first recording of Tom Dooley was made in 1929 by Grayson's nephew, Gilliam Banmon Grayson. Folklorists Anne and Frank Warner sang the song and recorded it in 1940. They sang Tom Dooley in every lecture and program. In 1948 Alan Lomax included the song in Folk Song:USA. Then in 1958 the Kingston Trio made the song a national sensation. NPR choose Tom Dooley as one of the most important songs of the twentieth century.

Hear My Sad Story was an enjoyable and informative read.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales that Inspired "Stagolee," "John Henry," and Other Traditional American Folk Songs
by Richard Polenberg
Cornell University Press
Publication Date November 17, 2015
ISBN: 9781501700026
$26.00 hard cover

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