american folk songs of protestby john greenway

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  • American Folk Songs of Protest by John GreenwayReview by: Sidney Robertson CowellNotes, Second Series, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Dec., 1953), pp. 103-105Published by: Music Library AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 04:49

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  • survey of the history of the American Federation of Musicians, its leaders, and its problems.

    In concise fashion we are introduced to the predecessors and rivals of the AFM, especially the old National League of Musicians. The efforts of the AFM to consolidate all performing instru- mentalists under its leadership are noted, including the conflicts with AGMA, AGVA, and the guiding spirits of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. General problems that have confronted the musi- cal profession in America are listed, with initial emphasis on the long struggle against competition from imported musi- cians, armed-services bands, and non- union players.

    The continued progress toward central- ized control and representation of all "locals" in the hands of the governing body of the AFM is equated with the viewpoints and personalities of the three presidents of the Federation: Owen Mil- ler, Joseph Weber, and James Caesar Petrillo. Theater, dance-biand, symphony; these and other of the manifold areas of musical performance are mentioned. The stimuli and attendant problems raised by the phonograph, radio, silent film, and "talkies" are passed in review. That dubious phenomenoin, the disc- jockey, gets the spotlight; so do the very real questions and disputes arising be-

    tween performer, critic, legislator, union leader, manufacturer, and others on the replacement of "live" music with the many types of "canned" music now available.

    Leiter calls attention (in refreshing contrast to many a journalistic treatment) to the fact that, with all his forceful- ness, toughness, and decisiveness, Petrillo has earned a reputation for accomplish- ment and reliability in his dealings with labor and management. As the student of music guild history will recall, spec- tacular achievements have been made by musicians in times past through unified action under determined and perceptive leadership. In every case, however, the gains have been cancelled through defec- tions on the part of the performers, apathy and indifference on the part of the general public.

    Never, before the AFM, have musi- cians come so close to controlling their own destiny. Great advances have been made, but great obstacles are yet to be overcome. The music-lover--concert- subscription in hand, long-play discs neatly ranged on the shelf, hi-fi equip- ment sensitively (and expensively) at- tuned-will do well to heed the plight of the performing musician in our time. He will do well, also, to turn to Mr. Leiter for the facts of the case.


    American Folk Songs of Protest. By John Greenway. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press; London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953. [x, 348 p.. music. 8vo; $6.75. 55/-i

    This is an account of the use of song as protest, an account well documented and intelligently organized. The author discusses various types of protest song over ;a period of several hundred years, beginning with the chant of Wat Tyler's men as they marched against London in 1381:

    When Adam delved and Eve span Who was then the gentleman?

    and moving on through American history by way of protests against imprisonment for debt, discrimination against the Irish, New York's Anti-Rent War, Coxey's Army, and the violence that accompanied the change in the United States from a

    domestic and agricultural economy to the modern industrial one. The material goes right down, in fact, to a quatrain on the theory of relativity by Woody Guthrie:

    Well I can't go east or west, And I can't go up or down, And I can't go north or south, But I can still go round and round I

    Basically the organization is historical, but when material comes more fuliy to hand, as during the last 150 years in the United States, it is grouped accord- ing to occupational origin: songs of tex- tile workers, miners, migratory workers, farmers, auto, isteel, and lumber workers, seamen and longshoremen. There is an


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  • excellent though all-too-brief chapter on Negro songs of protest which brings to- gether more information about the slave songs and signal songs than is easily available anywhere else.

    Mr. Greenway is a college professor of English, with a disciplined mind that combines with his warm human appre- ciation of what the songs mean to the singers (for he too has been an indus- trial worker) to make his comment ex- tremely valuable. The book is not propa- ganda, but many of the songs of course are. The author makes innumerable ob- servations-about how the songs came to be made, on the changes during transmis- sion, on factors that affect their differ- ence in quality, in use, in permanence, and so on. His observations illuminate the whole field of folkish song, because he has known how to combine objective scholarship with wide experience well pondered. The chapter on four living composers of songs of protest (Ella May Wiggin, Aunt Molly Jackson, Woody Guthrie, and Joe Glazer) is especially good, for it offers a factual and critical viewpoint rather than a romantically ef- fusive one. He mentions, for instance, that out of an estimated thousand songs composed (the texts, at least) by Guthrie, he found only 140 whose theme could be said to be one of protest; the other songs fit into various other conventional song categories: love songs, work songs, nursery songs, and so on.

    It is too bad that Mr. Greenway allowed his book to be called Folk Songs of Pro- test because, as he himself points out in a footnote, even after he stretched the usual definition in one direction and shrank it in another, most of the songs in his collecton still refused to settle down under its shelter. Folk song is a term that carries well-understo,od impli- cations about the historical development of tune and text. Mr. Greenway tries to apply it to material unified by content and use, and the necessity for so many pages of discussion about the definition might have shown him that it does not work. As he phrases it, his definition of folk song applies equally well to Lieder and to the cantatas of Bach; since a

    definition is supposed to define (e.g., to limit), that does not get us anywhere. I would rather see popular song used here, if one must adapt an old term to material that has only recently been taken into the field of scholarship. The group of songs Mr. Greenway presents would fall comfortably under a meaning the word "popular" did legitimately have not so long ago, before Broadway took it over: that is, "of, by, for, or about the people and their affairs"-whether ephemeral or not, whether transmitted by rote or not.

    Surely Mr. Greenway will allow that we have to have a term for traditional song that has been transmitted by rote and so moulded unconsciously by a succession of ears and voices? That term is folk song. If these two elements (rote transmission, unconscious change) are part of your definition, naturally you can't include labor songs consciously created that have not survived the struggle that gave rise to them. Nor is there a place for the ephemeral songs that well up under stress-the field hollers, the older blues, street calls, exclamatory reli- gious chants, the spontaneous creations of small children. There is *a term for this latter type of song too, though there are emotional reasons for reluctance to use it by white people, since such im- mediate music is commonest in American experience among illiterate Negroes: the term is primitive song. Comparative musi- cologists and ethnologists have used it all over the world for a long time and know what they mean by it. Perhaps we need a new word in this country to cover this kind of thing at one end of the scale and another for Mr. Greenway's protest songs at the other end, but noth- ing is simplified by changing the meaning of folk song completely and leaving the music shaped by oral transmission no- where to go. Mr. Greenway deserves sympathy, because the problem of classi- fication that becomes acute when one has to decide on the title of a collection is in a sense insoluble just now, for our terminology evolved at a time when schol- arly attitudes were very different. I feel strongly, however, that it is better to be


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  • general rather than inaccurately precis