by Rika Ruebsaat
and Jon Bartlett
When you hear a good joke, you want to pass it on. You don’t know and likely don’t care who made it up. Often as not, after a few tellings, you have even forgotten who told it to you. It is unlikely that you will pass it on exactly as you heard it. Perhaps someone else knows the same joke and tells it differently, but it is still the same joke. Sometimes a joke will make sense only to a particular community. A joke that leaves a group of engineers howling with laughter may be incomprehensible to someone else.
Like jokes, traditional songs were not learned from written sources but were heard and passed on orally within the context of particular communities. The sensibilities of those communities — be they villages, ships’ crews or logging camps — were reflected in the songs whose authorship was unknown and irrelevant. George Lyman Kittredge speculates about their authorship:
These authors were not professional poets or minstrels, but members of the folk… [The singer] is not, like the artistic poet among us, an exceptional figure with a message either of substance or form. He takes no credit to himself, for he deserves none. What he does, many of his neighbours could do as well… He utters what everybody feels, — he is a voice rather than a person… There is the closest emotional contact between him and his hearers, — a contact which must have a distinct effect on the composer, so that the audience…have a kind of share in his poetic act.
The close contact between singer and listener make it likely that the song will be picked up and passed on. When this happens over a period of time and through a wider geographic area the song undergoes changes and the name of its composer is forgotten. It is thus that we find widely different versions of “The Golden Vanity” (the ballad about the cabin boy who sinks the Spanish ship) from Scotland to Newfoundland to Appalachia. The melodies and texts and even some aspects of the story vary widely but it is still recognizably the same song. It has survived because it spoke to the communities in which it was sung.
In our highly literate, media-saturated culture, we no longer pass on songs orally. Jokes, urban folktales (e.g. the story of the ghost hitch-hiker or the story of the stoned babysitter who puts the baby instead of the turkey in the oven) and perhaps skipping rhymes are the few forms of oral culture left to us. Songs are no longer sung and passed on onboard ship or at village get-togethers. The only reason we know they exist is because collectors visited singers in communities and gathered their songs. These collectors recognized the songs as a cultural treasure, which had been passed on and honed over generations. Like a stone worn smooth by centuries of wave action, traditional songs have been “smoothed” by centuries of singing.
The various folk song revivals during the 1900’s were an attempt to revitalize this centuries-old musical culture. The songs were no longer being passed on orally, but the folk song collectors provided a written repertoire, which could be learned and sung by literate revivalists. We are the inheritors of this legacy and we hope we can do it justice.