Folk Music 101, Part II: Origins of Folk Music
Folk Songs and Poetry: Ballads, Epics and Riddles
Wherever reading and writing are not widespread, poetry is always chanted or sung. This is true of literary epics - The Bible, the Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf - as well as those ballads and songs which are composed and transmitted orally, without ever being written down at all. This second class makes up what in simpler times used to be known as "folk" music. A third class might be called riddles and code songs which are ways of preserving a culture's collective knowledge and wisdom.
Set to music, important stories - even long ones - could be remembered and passed down from one generation to the next, learned simply by repeated hearing and singing. Because one of the main purposes of song was to aid memory, these songs of the oral tradition share certain characteristics - simple, repetitive melodies, repeated lines and refrains, formulaic images or dialog that can be lifted from one song and used in another. To my mind, the key feature of folk songs is economy - economy of form, of language, and even of subject matter. With human memory being a limited commodity, most folk songs stick to the essentials: birth, death, and sex. Many delve into the supernatural, the mysterious realm where the urges of the human psyche and the forces of nature combat and become each other.
Work songs - including lullabies - are also part of the folk repertoire. Love - as a feeling - is usually not a subject for folk songs; it becomes interesting only when it's part of a story, when it's news, which usually entails sex, birth or death, preferably all together. Many people have noted that the vast majority of folk songs are tragic and violent - even humorous songs and songs for children have a tendency toward physical comedy and violence: "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly...." Folk songs are almost always weirdly amoral. They are stories that take place in a chaotic, elemental world over which no one - even kings, queens, warriors and maidens - has any real or lasting power.
Merry Old England
Perhaps the best place to start is with Francis Child, a nineteenth century American musicologist. Child made it his life work to collect as many old ballads as he could find. Most of these songs had only recently been written down after being passed down from generation to generation orally for centuries. Child saw this "oral tradition" disappearing and began collecting all the transcriptions he could find. He discovered that many songs had scores of variants. Like his colleagues in biology and philology, he began the arduous task of both classifying the ballads he collected and attempting to trace them back to common ancestral originals. His ultimate collection, known popularly as The Child Ballads, encompasses about 300 distinct songs, some of which have as many as a dozen musical and lyrical variants. The 300 root songs are classified according to their basic plots. Variations range from relatively minor changes - character and place names, number of verses, amount of dialogue, changes in the melody line, to major shifts like alternate melodies and verse forms, switched genders, addition or exclusion of supernatural elements, and tragic or comic outcome.
A great online collection of Child Ballads is at The Contemplator, along with a good article on Child with links. Rounder Records has just put out a two-CD set of Child Ballads recorded by Alan Lomax in England as part of the gargantuan ongoing project, The Alan Lomax Collection. I have reviewed several of the releases in this collection here.
American Folk Songs
Child restricted his collecting to songs in the British Isles, but his work was continued in the U.S. by scholars who discovered many of these same ballads, some unchanged, some altered almost beyond recognition. For instance, the tale of "Lord Randall" - who is poisoned by either his fiancée, his fiancée's mother or his own mother (depending on the version), became, according to the logic of the folk tradition, the less aristocratic "John Randall," and finally, "Darling Billy," which retains the tune, the mother-son dialogue format, and a difficulty involving a fiancée's mother, but no poisoning at all. Bob Dylan was a great student of the old traditional songs, often using ideas or stealing from them. His watershed song, "A Hard Rain's A Gonna Fall" begins:
Oh where have you been my blue-eyed son
Oh where have you been my darling young one?
These lines are lifted directly from the dialogue of "Lord Randall." But instead of being poisoned himself, Dylan's young wanderer has witnessed the poisoning of his country. His use of the ancient lyric makes the new song reverberate more deeply, makes it sting as protest while respecting the tradition (see Bob Dylan).
Hugh Blumenfeld, Editor