Folk Songs in Print: Text and Tradition

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  • Folk Songs in Print: Text and TraditionAuthor(s): David AtkinsonSource: Folk Music Journal, Vol. 8, No. 4 (2004), pp. 456-483Published by: English Folk Dance + Song SocietyStable URL: .Accessed: 12/05/2014 04:50

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    singers. 8 There is no reason to think that in this regard such songs are in any way exceptional. And not only are the texts of folk songs printed on broadsides often not readily distinguishable from those taken down from singers, but different broadside printings of the same song (even by the same printer) can display just the same kinds of textual variants as arise between versions recorded from different singers.9

    English folk songs, therefore, largely exist not just as the transient products of oral performance but simultaneously as the products of a process of 'textualization', whereby a work of verbal art becomes a written or printed 'text', and acquires characteristics associated with the condi- tion of being a 'text'.10 These character- istics include, most significantly, a degree of fixed spatial and especially linear arrangement, which provides the potential for the exact reproduction over time and space of the work of verbal art, even of the precise arrangement of words on the page and the shape of the letters, potentially without limit. This diachronic reproduci- bility in turn imparts a profound appear- ance of permanence and stability, and consequently of an authority that resides in the printed text itself and which is also vested in the author who lies behind it. In light of the sorts of figures quoted above, English folk songs have to be considered as to some extent actually characterized by their susceptibility to transfer into, and out of, textual form. Even the relatively small proportion of songs of similar kind that are not known to have circulated in cheap print must be regarded as retaining this same potential for textualization.

    In practice, and probably necessarily, the characteristics of textualization accrue to words most simply by virtue of their being transferred in some form to a physical medium. 1I For English folk songs, this can

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    be writing in the form of either manuscript or print - most especially cheap print of the broadside and garland kind - and/or, at a later date, audio recording in its various formats from wax cylinders onwards. Writing, print, and audio recordings are all 'textual' media. Although they differ in terms of precisely what they can reproduce (witness the controversy surrounding the introduction of the phonograph in folk-song collecting, with Percy Grainger championing the new technology and others, like Sharp and Anne Gilchrist, more concerned about its limitations),1 2 for the present purpose, the crucial common factor is that they preserve the physical presence of a verbal text in its sequential form, which is apparently permanent and could be repro- duced exactly over and again. The result is a song that is seemingly text-bound, and in sharp contrast with the essentially evanes- cent oral performance of a song which has gone once its singing has ended.13 At the root of the present discussion, then, is the apparent dichotomy between what has often been perceived as the stability of print, and the variability that is character- istic of folk singing - the paradox of the fundamentally textual nature of 'tradi- tional' songs when they have for so long been held to represent a quintessentially oral tradition.14

    For Sharp has been by no means alone in maintaining the essentially oral nature of folk songs. G.H. Gerould, for example, defined folk song by 'the moulding processes of oral transmission', and described the ballad as a 'completely oral' phenomenon. 15 The entry (by George Herzog) for 'song' in the Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend states: 'Folk song comprises the poetry and music of groups whose literature is perpetuated not by writing and print, but

    through oral tradition.'16 In 1954 the International Folk Music Council, meeting in Sao Paulo, adopted a resolution com- mencing 'Folk music is the product of a musical tradition that has been evolved through the process of oral transmission', drawn up by a commission that included Cecil Sharp's co-worker Maud Karpeles (and her brother-in-law and English Folk Dance and Song Society director, Douglas Kennedy), who always upheld Sharp's evolutionary theory and its oral basis.17 Representative, perhaps, of more recent scholarship is Philip Bohlman's textbook on folk music in the modem world, which describes the coexistence of 'oral tradition' and 'written tradition' as a 'blatant paradox'. 18 The dialectic of stability and change characteristic of folk song is specifically equated with 'oral tradition', at the same time as literacy ('one of the most consistent contexts for folk music in oral tradition') and the printing of songs are acknowledged to feed into that dialectic, but it seems implicit that 'written tradition' is more or less second- ary to the essential prerequisite that is 'oral tradition'. In contemporary ballad and folk-song studies, 'orality' and 'oral tradi- tion' - terms used, sometimes a little imprecisely, to stand for a whole complex embracing oral performances, the process of oral transmission, and a corpus of what is deemed to be 'oral literature' - remain paradigmatic. The talismanic adjective 'oral' runs through so much of the published scholarship that it would be superfluous to attempt to cite examples here.

    Even Francis James Child, whose atti- tude both to ballads circulating among singers in his own day and to ballads in print can appear inconsistent, was increas- ingly being guided by the idea of oral tradition by the time of his 1860 edition of

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    English and Scottish Ballads.19 Child (reflect- ing received opinion which can be traced, for example, in Herder and Grimm) termed the ballads 'popular' and envisaged the emergence of this sort of 'popular' or 'folk' literature as the direct consequence of a pre-literate social environment.20 'The condition of society in which a truly national or popular poetry appears explains the character of such poetry. It is a condition in which the people are not divided by political organization and book- culture into markedly distinct classes, in which consequently there is such commu- nity of ideas and feelings that the whole people form an individual.'21 Later, when the imagined classless, stateless, pre- literate community gave way to 'increased civilization, and especially the introduction of book-culture', a situation was reached where 'the popular poetry is no longer relished by a portion of the people, and is abandoned to an uncultivated or not over- cultivated class - a constantly diminishing number' .22 With rather greater clarity, Child's former student William Wells Newell, co-founder of the American Folklore Society and first editor of the Journal of American Folklore, explicitly defined folklore at large as oral tradition: the formerly universal customs and beliefs of the whole community, now largely restricted to the conservative and less educated classes, which are best character- ized by their oral transmission and represent a counterpart and complement to written literature.23 And more than a century later, a recent survey of the state of folklore as an academic discipline still admits the critical importance of 'orality' as an 'organizing concept' for the field.24

    Child's designated successor, G.L. Kit- tredge, wrote of his mentor's 'complete understanding of the "popular" genius, a sympathetic recognition of the traits that

    characterize oral literature wherever and in whatever degree they exist'.25 Professor Child is generally credited, too, with having laid the foundations for the study of oral literature at Harvard, represented in subsequent generations by the enor- mously influential work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord on the 'Homeric Ques- tion' and on South Slavic epic poetry.26 Later still, the ballad scholar David Buchan would write, 'Child possessed a remark- able capacity for distinguishing the stylistic traits of oral - or as he would call it, popular - balladry.'27 Buchan's own work in The Ballad and the Folk endeavoured to demonstrate the amenability of Scottish ballads to oral-formulaic re-creation on the Parry-Lord model. In brief, the argument is that the true oral ballad singer, like the singer of epic tales, does not memorize an entire text but re-creates or 'improvises' it anew at each performance, drawing on a common stock of stories, episodes, struc- tural techniques, and a formulaic vocabu- lary and 'grammar' which are peculiar to oral artistry, and that the impress of this process remains in the form of distinctive verbal and structural patternings in ballad texts.

    In England, the folk revival has long been driven by the idea of oral tradition. As Vic Gammon has noted in regard to the Victorian and Edwardian collectors, 'The factor which differentiates the English folk song movement from earlier interest in old and popular song is the insistence that both tune and text should be taken directly from oral tradition. '28 This preference reflects a variety of different impulses related to aspects of the prevailing social and intellectual environment. Among these were the Victorian interest in 'popular antiquities', for which W.J. Thoms coined the term 'folklore' in 1846; the founding of the Folklore Society in 1878, and the

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    emergence of a widely accepted theory of cultural evolution whereby folklore at large was equated with the sporadic 'survivals' of the culture of a largely superseded period of social evolution.29 Also important was a reaction against the sort of literary antiquarianism exemplified by the ballads and songs printed in Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry and Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. A reaction, too, against social and cultural modernity encouraged early col- lectors, many of whom were musicians first and foremost, to seek out folk melodies that could represent an indigen- ous, English musical idiom (an exercise in Romantic nationalism which can, ironi- cally, be compared with that of Percy and Scott).

    The manuscripts of Sabine Baring- Gould, for example, give the impression that he rarely missed an opportunity to note when singers appeared 'illiterate'. Lucy Broadwood has been criticized for seeking to create the impression that singers such as Henry Burstow of Horsham in Surrey, who stated quite clearly that he learned songs from print as well as from other sources, had always learned them by ear, from singers who could not read.30 And later, the American collector James Madison Carpenter (a protege of Kit- tredge's at Harvard), who recorded folk songs in Britain between 1928 and 1935, would regularly note against song texts 'never saw in print', information he presumably encouraged his contributors to volunteer. Singers like Harry Cox appear to have picked up from collectors the idea that a good memory would be more highly prized than an extensive collection of songs in print.31 Bob Copper, too, who recorded singers in southern England for the BBC in the 1 950s, has remarked that he liked meeting those who

    were illiterate because he knew that they had the songs in their hearts as well as their heads, and that they had not learned them from a book.32 Examples like these could certainly be multiplied, but should be sufficient to demonstrate the primacy accorded to oral performance and trans- mission. More recent students of the subject - A.L. Lloyd, for example, and especially R.S. Thomson in his ground- breaking thesis on the broadside trade and its impact on folk-song transmission - have begun, gradually, to redress the balance in terms of recognition of the broadsides so disparaged by Sharp and his contempor- aries.33 But within this specifically English context, as among folk-song studies at large, it is still fair to point to the defining idea of oral tradition, in academic and more general discussions alike.34

    Yet the kind of society that folk-song collectors encountered in mainly rural England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was certainly nothing like pre-literate, classless, or homoge- neous. Accordingly,...