Tuesday, July 28, 2015

How Songcatchers Dashed Hopes

I have always been drawn to the vocation of people who have become known as "songcatchers."

These are people who traversed many a mile through the backwoods, mountains, and hollers of our country to collect the traditional folk songs of the United States.

They would find people in villages and towns who were the local singers then ask/beg/hound these people to sing for them.

As the people sang the songcatcher would record the performance.

Often, later, transcriptions of these recordings were made on musical staff paper.

As technology progressed (and budgets allowed) machines that recorded the singing voices on cylinders first then later on magnetic tape were brought into the hills.


As a young adult most of my knowledge of these songcatchers was from stories my grandparents and parents told me as well as movies and television programs.

As a music scholar I learned about John and Alan Lomax, John Jacob Niles, Cecil Sharp, Francis James Child, and many others.

I have sung many of their collected songs and have committed most of them to memory.

I valued what they each contributed to the preservation of the musical legacy of the United States.

As a music scholar I believed their pursuits could only have had a positive impact.

However, I've now to consider the other side of the story.  The story of the people whose songs were collected and preserved.


Recently I read the story M.C. Higgins, The Great by Virginia Hamilton (winner of the Newbery Medal). It is a story about a young boy who lives on a mountain and one of these songcatchers arrives to record his mother's voice.

This story is written from the young boy's perspective, not that of the songcatcher.

M.C. is thrilled beyond measure that this man wishes to record his mother singing.  He believes that this man has the ability to make his mother famous which would enable his whole family to leave the mountain and live in luxury.

This is not the case, as M.C. sadly realizes.  While his mother might leave the mountain to record some songs in a music studio somewhere off the mountain, she would return and life would resume its daily drudgery.


Out of the thousands of songs that have been collected over time, how many of those singers thought that by making those recordings their lives might be changed for the better?

I had not really thought of it that way.

Have you?

As a folk song researcher I can understand the passion and enthusiasm demonstrated by the song catchers as they heard a new song (or variant) or discovered a unique voice.

I can see how they might make their recordings then hurry back down the hill to transcribe/duplicate it and share it with other music lovers.

What about the singers - the people themselves - who sang the songs?

They were left on the mountain and sometimes forgotten far sooner than their songs.

They may never have known the value of the contribution they shared in their songs.

Why not?

Did they have hopes that what they had to offer - their songs, their music - might somehow change their lives?

Did anyone ever ask them?

I don't know.

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