Folksingers and the Re-Creation of Folksong

By John Quincy Wolf
Western Folklore
Volume XXVI. No. 2 April 1967
©Copyright California Folklore Society

Though the importance of the creativity or re-creativity of folksingers is no longer open to doubt, the opinions of the singers on this question have apparently not been sought as diligently as they might have been, and, when some brief comment from them has been elicited, very little effort to explore their ideas appears to have been made. Yet who more than they should be able to throw light on the subject? Many folksingers are aware of their own creative participation in folksong and are willing to discuss it fully and illuminatingly. Perhaps one reason for the neglect of their opinions is the mistaken notion that they have nothing of importance to say about it. Or more probably the notion expressed by Gerould still obtains: "The testimony of collectors is everywhere the same: that singers of ballads are quite unconscious of changing them and yet never sing them, line by line and musical phrase by musical phrase, quite like their neighbors." But, he continues, there is abundant proof that "many singers--usually, it appears, those most accomplished in the art"--sometimes alter the text of their songs. 1 I believe that, if the collectors to whom Gerould refers had persisted, they would have found that some of the singers would have admitted altering their songs and would have discussed the extent of these alterations and their reasons for making them.

As a field collector for many years, I have made tape recordings of hundreds of singers. In this paper I am reporting the information which I have gained on this subject from the most important folksingers in the area in which I have operated. This area is broadly the White River country of the Arkansas Ozarks--almost virgin territory for a field collector: of the hundreds of singers who have sung for me, only three had ever before recorded their voices or sung for anyone with a scholar's interest in folksong. Alan Lomax has said that this area, as represented by my tapes, shows wider variation in and bolder handling of traditional song than any other part of the country. But I incline to think that the difference is only one of degree, that the singers are substantially like others not only in this country but also in Canada and Britain, and that they may not differ very greatly in the respect of creativity and in the consciousness of their creativity from the singers of the sixteenth and seventeenth, as well as later, centuries.

It is true that most singers in the Ozarks, or in Carolina, or elsewhere, are inclined to deny that they make changes in traditional song, and, if the question is asked them with no attempt to provoke honest reflection, they will almost always answer in the negative. They like to feel that they are faithful stewards of an inheritance. But if they are questioned in such a way as to make it clear that they have done no violence to tradition, many of the singers whom I have found freely admit making changes and discuss them without compunction or reservation. In introducing the question to them I may say, for example, "The song you have just sung is full and complete. I've heard other singers chop up this song so much that it's hard to follow the story. What do you do if there is a spot or two that don't make sense in a song you want to sing and you know that somebody has sung it wrong?" The answer in a good many cases is, "Why, I put the sense back in the song. Somebody has got lost and I try to figure out where they missed the road and try to get back on." A second query, "If you forget a line or part of a line, do you fill it in?" often draws an affirmative answer. The question has now been opened, and we discuss it at length--if the singer is communicative.

But communicativeness has not been the basis on which I have selected the eleven singers whose opinions and practices are discussed below. I have chosen those (1) who consider their songs important, who take pleasure in singing them, and who are known as folksingers among their circle of friends; and (2) who have an important repertory of folksong acquired through oral tradition. It may be of interest to report that these eleven singers, the outstanding ones I have known, all live in rural areas and represent a grass-roots point of view or were living in the country when they learned their songs. This fact doubtless has old-fashioned implications to folklorists of the present day, but it is true. Before giving the attitude of each singer toward his songs, I shall usually give a few facts indicating the importance of the singer and briefly discuss his personality as it relates to his treatment of his songs.

Neal Morris, of Mountain View, Arkansas, father of Jimmie Driftwood, was born into a home in which parents and grandparents all were singers. It is, therefore, not surprising that he knows about a hundred and twenty-five folksongs, which he sings to his guitar, and that he has for fifty-five of his seventy-six years been known as one of the best singers of Stone County and surrounding area. His neighbors are fond of saying that he can outsing his son Jimmie.

When I asked him the direct question about folksingers editing their songs, he answered as though he had given some thought to the question--as undoubtedly he had. "No," he said, "a singer doesn't deliberately change his songs. He may forget a word here and there and put in other words, but if he remembers a song as his parents sang it, he will not change it." That Mr. Morris was making an accurate statement about his own practice is shown by some of my records of his songs. For example, when I was transcribing from my tape the words of the "Nightingale Song," I heard what sounded like this: "Play 'the old concorfit' and I'll make the violin ring." The unusual phrase occurs twice. I wrote an inquiry about it to him and received no reply. A few months later I paid him one of my frequent visits. "Yes," he said, "you heard it right, but I'm not certain about the word or what it means. 'The old concorfit' could be the name of the piece he played." In another song I was uncertain about a word, which he told me was "sugged." He was not sure what it meant, but he had not seen fit to substitute. When a singer is so faithful to tradition that he retains unique words or phrases that have uncertain meanings, we may conclude that he has some basis for believing that folksingers do not deliberately change the words of the songs handed down to them.

But the matter does not end there. Mr. Morris said:

Certainly, singers do change songs. Changes can't be avoided because of the very nature of folklore and the way the songs are passed along. You let a man teach his four children a song. When he is gone and the children have been separated for a while, there'll be four versions of the song, even though they try to sing it just like their father--unless, of course, the five sang the songs together a lot. Even then, time will bring changes. As for me, I change my songs as little as anybody. When I was younger I had a typographical memory, and I have always tried to sing the songs as I heard them.

Now here is another angle: In the old days, a folksinger respected the other singers of his community and did not borrow or steal their songs. If he sang them at all, he did so when he was by himself.

(There is a considerable amount of evidence that this custom was not peculiar to Mr. Morris's community. For example, C.C. McKown, writing in the New York Times from Glenville, West Virginia, June 30, 1957, reported that the villagers would not sing "A Few More Months" for a visitor, but directed him to Frank Kennedy. "'It's Uncle Frank's song,' they said.")

But if a singer left the neighborhood, said Mr. Morris, those who knew his songs would try to sing them. The situation was somewhat different if a stranger came into the community. He might sing a song that was new to the people, and they wouldn't sing it as long as the stranger was around. But they would try to remember it, and when he left, one or more singers would try to put it together, but they might have to do some patchwork, so the song would be changed up, maybe a good deal. And different versions of the same song would go along side by side in the same neighborhood.

Mr. Morris allows himself greater liberties with the melody than with the words. In the tape recordings of his songs which I have made through a period of several years, I notice a number of minor variations in melody, and I incline to think that he is likely to vary the musical phrases in some of his songs almost every time he sings them.

Ollie Gilbert believes that other singers change their songs, but as for herself she "never put nothin' in or took nothin' out." When I first recorded her some years ago, at her home in Timbo, Arkansas, she told me that she knew perhaps five hundred songs ("I remember ever' song I ever lernt"), a few of which have now been recorded and distributed on wax. Perhaps because she has a phenomenal memory, she appears to sing almost automatically, with no inclination to alter. Recordings of the same song sung by her on occasions several years apart show no important differences. Her subservience to memory is indicated by her comment on a line in "Lord Bateman." As I was transcribing a tape-recording of the song I was puzzled by an unintelligible phrase. She seemed to say that the Turkish lady could buy Lord Bateman's castle and all his "comridge inn." Unable to solve the phrase, I asked her about it. "Comridge inn" was correct, she said. What did it mean? I asked. She seemed momentarily puzzled that I should ask and then said she supposed it meant all of Lord Bateman's other possessions. Additional passages of the same kind from her songs could be cited. It should be obvious from the observations above that, though Mrs. Gilbert is an important folksinger, the re-creation that she contributes to song is negligible. Because of her phenomenal memory, she does not need to patch, and she is not sufficiently critical to have any inclination to edit her songs.

Oscar Gilbert, Ollie's late husband, was her opposite in most respects. He was a man of the hills, independent, bold, and outspoken. In his code of behavior, traditions were not sacred, but the love of old song was a part of his make-up; a good folksong fest drew hearty exclamations of approval from him, along with equally hearty slappings of his leg. As a folksinger, he was no zealot for precision, and approximations suited him well. He even made claims of composing parts of songs. One expected his songs to be suited to Gilbert's tastes and hence to vary widely from other versions, and one was never disappointed. Surprisingly, Oscar had a greater reputation as a singer than Ollie, although he knew less than a fifth as many old songs as she. His strong personality, resonant voice, and enthusiasm for singing doubtless made the difference.

The last time I saw the late Fred High, of near Berryville, Arkansas (died 1961), he was somewhat excited over a singing match in which he was to participate the following Sunday. A stranger who had heard of Mr. High's prowess in folksong had challenged him to a contest. It was to begin at 8:30 in the morning, and the two men were to take turns singing, with no song sung twice. The survivor was to be declared the winner. Though eighty-one years old at the time and not as alert as he had been up into his late seventies, Fred, with his hundred songs, was still a formidable singer in volume as well as in repertoire.

Mr. High's manner of singing was old-fashioned, with yodel-like breaks in his voice on sustained notes. Once launched into song, there was no stopping him as he hurtled headlong from song to song, interspersing bits of homely philosophy and comments on the songs as he went. The happy liberties which he was pleased to take with the English language mark him as an innovator who stood in no awe of tradition. "I've made three books," he was fond of telling friend and stranger alike, and he could have added in truth that these books exhibit unusual originality and independence in syntax and orthography. His personal letters, typewritten on the reverse sides of handbills and the like, show mannerisms in the use of type as extraordinary as those of E.E. Cummings. Yet Mr. High, uninhibited extrovert though he was, did not deliberately edit his songs, despite the fact that they were frequently rough-hewn in rime and rhythm. Perhaps he was too undiscriminating and too much interested in the quantity of performance to do so. A comparison of the printed text of his songs (in one of the books which he "made," a collection of about seventy-five numbers ) with a tape recording of the same dating several years later shows numerous differences, but all are minor and are apparently the result of fallible memory or momentary whim. He was well aware that his folksongs--in fact, that all folksongs--were fluid, not frozen in form. But whatever changes he made or might have made would not have been intended to improve his songs. All of them, smooth or rough, good or bad, pleased him.

Berry Sutterfield, of Marshall, Arkansas, is a memorable character. Any sensitive person who has seen his nobly rustic face, adorned with its sweeping white mustaches, and has listened to his wit and his reflections on the ways of the world will never forget him. Mr. Sutterfield knows forty to fifty excellent old songs, which he sings with care and precision. He says that he never changes a folksong and never even patches. Tapes made at intervals of several years show identical words and identical melody and therefore substantiate his claim. Furthermore, he has sung for me several fragments of songs which he could complete by patching. He is not satisfied, however, unless the song is restored to the exact form in which he formerly knew it.

Despite Mr. Sutterfield's stout resistance to change, the verbal and musical texts of his songs strongly suggest that, though he may have attempted to sing the songs exactly as he heard them, he unconsciously adapted them to his own inclinations. No other singer that I have recorded is more consistently irregular in words and music. Stanzas of varying lengths, lines with extra syllables and beats, lines with missing syllables and beats indicate that he may have learned the songs imperfectly. And certain recurrent turns of melodic phrase in several of his songs bear the mark of his own style and therefore suggest that he altered the songs when he learned them. But once he established his version of any song, he apparently froze it, and during the ensuing years all other versions have seemed spurious or incorrect to him. "'Barb'ry Allen' as I sing it has got seventeen verses," says Mr. Sutterfield with assurance, "and if you hear somebody sing it with more or less than seventeen verses, it ain't right." He sings a Civil War song with General Rosescot and the Battle of Murphysburg in it. I am sure that he would not care to change either, regardless of history. Incidentally, his wife sings with him in all the irregular turns his words and melody take--further evidence that years ago he froze the form of his songs.

Mrs. Mabel Daugherty, of Cave City, Arkansas, knows about thirty-five songs, which she enjoys singing to her guitar accompaniment and which she maintains she has never altered. She is a gentle soul who clearly remembers and greatly admires the way her aunt used to sing. Since she learned her songs from this aunt, she would not deliberately change a syllable of them. She, therefore, is the type of singer that Neal Morris had in mind when he said that singers do not intentionally change the songs they learn from their parents. Besides, Mrs. Daugherty is not at all inclined to be experimental or inventive. Her songs could use a modest amount of emendation: she will repeatedly sing the word girl at the end of a line where a word riming with grass is needed. All her songs are static and will doubtless remain so.

Mr. James Clifton Ferrell, who lives in Sikeston, Missouri, just outside my own White River area, is Mrs. Daugherty's opposite. In commenting on my question, he said, "Certainly, I believe that folksingers change songs. I know I've patched many a hole in my own when I had forgotten the words."

"Not only that," interrupted his daughter Sandra, "you change even the songs you know best. I learned all your songs [thirty to forty] several years ago, and you sing some of them differently now."

"Well," he said, "if the meter is rough or the tune has a clumsy spot or two, I smooth it out till it sounds better to me."

Evidently, this is a continuing process as he refines and re-refines his songs.

The late W.P. Detherow (died 1962), of the Pfeiffer community near Batesville, Arkansas, is more difficult of analysis than some of the singers discussed above. He knew at least a hundred old songs, and never deliberately changed any song that made good sense to him and fitted a proper musical pattern. I recall recording his version of a religious song containing the words "His track I see and I'll pursue." The proper words are "I strike, I see, and I'll pursue." I checked his words with him and he was satisfied with them: to him they meant "I set forth, I am convinced, and I follow." I did not tell him what the original phrasing was.

Detherow was a man of independent opinions, bold ideas, and frank expressions. An irrepressible letter-writer, he bombarded state and local papers with sharp comment on politics and current events. His readers occasionally tried to pin a "Red" label on him, but he was neither perturbed or intimidated. Despite his unorthodox political and social ideas, he was once elected to the state legislature, where he served with distinction. The point I make is that he was not the kind of man who sits at home during his leisure hours and sings his repertory to a guitar, nor the kind who is so much enslaved to tradition that he is inhibited from editing his songs.

I believe that the songs Detherow recorded were substantially true to the versions he heard in his early days and fixed in his memory, which was remarkably reliable. In those exceptional cases when his memory failed him, his native acumen and native command of words enabled him quickly to put together an arrangement that he felt was true to the spirit if not the letter of the original. Sometimes he remarked to me that it had been many years since he had thought of the song he had just recorded. But he never broke down more than momentarily in singing and never sang a song that he felt was incoherent or incomplete in meaning. Sometimes, in our recording sessions he would pause and ask me to stop the machine. For a few moments his lips would move silently as he worked out a stanza, and, when he was satisfied that it was substantially acceptable, he would proceed.

Detherow was not a student of folklore, but he was well aware that it should be studied and enjoyed. He was particularly fond of play-party songs and believed that if these songs should be properly presented over radio and television, a tide of play-partying would sweep over the country. He also felt that the Negro "yells" were entitled to revival and popularity. Because he felt that the songs he knew were important in their historical setting as well as in their meaning to the present, he refrained from deliberate and unnecessary revisions in both words and music. Most of the changes that he made resulted from lapses of memory, of which he suffered few, and were conscientious and intelligent attempts at restoration and not clever "improvements" of his own making. But he was no slave of tradition: he made such changes as common sense demanded, so that his songs always made good sense, were completely free of meaningless sounds and phrases, and were consistent in melodic structure. As in the case of other singers, his treatment of song stemmed from the fabric of his mind and personality.

Almeda Riddle, of the Miller community in Cleburne County, Arkansas, who, like Jimmie Driftwood and Ollie Gilbert, now makes wax recordings and sings at leading folk festivals all over the country, is by training and temperament a creative artist who intentionally and unintentionally revises her songs as a part of the art of singing. Her father was a singing school teacher and her mother a folksinger. The first time I saw her, in 1952, she made up a list of a hundred folksongs which she said she would sing for me and added that she would give me a second list of a hundred as soon as I had taped the first hundred. She does not know how many songs are in her repertoire and is occasionally reminded of additional ones which she has not thought of in several years. She has never completed the inventory of her songs, but the number runs over two hundred. When at our first meeting I asked her how she kept so many songs in mind, she said that she always sang to her cow as she was milking and constantly varied her numbers.

"All my life," she says, "I've sung for myself, my children, and grandchildren. I sing to please myself and use my judgment on what and how I sing." (Her style of singing is in the quaintest rural manner.)

I'll change any part of a song that doesn't make good sense-though I deeply respect the very old ones-and if a word doesn't make sense I'll put in a better one. Alan Lomax says that I edit my songs, but I don't do that, that is, not unless the song is in bad shape. I never change anything just to be changing, but I know that songs are supposed to make good sense.

Since she was brought up in a musical home of free and unfrozen song and is musically inclined as well as independently disposed, she would not consider herself true to her musical heritage if she permitted crudities of phrase to appear in her songs.

More than any other singer I know, Mrs. Riddle tends to create as she sings--and no songs are completely exempt from change, not even the Child ballads. I have recorded several of these at different times, and I note the changes that she makes in both words and music. To her, singing is a creative activity, and in slight and subtle ways she irresistibly makes her songs as she sings. Her entire repertory appears to be more or less tentative in form. It is doubtless possible for her to sing a given song the same way twice, but she is not likely to do so if there has been an appreciable interval of time between the renditions.

Mrs. Riddle and the other people of the Miller community often speak of the late Robert (Uncle Bob) Stark as one of the best singers in the hills. Beyond doubt he is one of the best on my tapes in quality of voice, frontier technique, and volume. "When he opened up he could be heard for at least a mile," says Mrs. Riddle. "I know, because it's a mile as the crow flies, from his house to mine, and many a time I've heard him singing while he sat on his front porch as he often did of a summer evening." More than once I have hard Mrs. Riddle and her relatives the Finches and Starks say that "Uncle Bob didn't sing like anybody else. Even the church songs--he sang them different. He said he sang them like he liked to hear them--and everybody at the church knew it and had to follow him because he had the loudest voice." Tradition meant a great deal to Uncle Bob, but he believed that singing as he pleased was a part of tradition, as well as a part of his birthright.

Any folklorist who is familiar with Jimmy Driftwood's albums should know that he edits his songs freely and inevitably. Song has always been his life. He started picking guitars when he was five, began playing a fiddle when he was six, and added a banjo when he was eight. When I first saw him in 1941 at a Stone County Folk Festival at Blanchard Springs, Arkansas, he was on the program to demonstrate backwoods musical instruments. By profession he was a history teacher and taught in the county schools of the Ozarks, most of the time in his own village of Timbo. But he lived in song. As a growing boy he memorized his father's one hundred and twenty-five songs, added those of his mother and grandparents, and eagerly learned those of his neighbors (by this time the right of possession so respected by his father was being forgotten along with the passing of the hey-day of fiddle, guitar, and five-string banjo, and of the older generation of singers). "He knows every song that was ever sung in Stone County," a resident of the community told me, "and he knows all the old folks." By 1950 the songs he knew numbered well into the hundreds, and the versions of the more familiar ones were numerous. At this time he did most of his singing to his wife and two boys, his hound dogs, his pupils at school, and now and then his neighbors. And he sang the best versions that he knew or could contrive, sometimes by a combination of lines and stanzas from several versions.

Moreover, he found it very easy to compose. Words and music came to him without effort. His subjects and style were in the folk tradition, which was a part of him. He composed songs about historical events and characters and sang them to his history classes. For years he traveled through several southern states selling educational materials, and wherever he went he turned local color, local legend, and local character into song, which he sang to please himself and his small circle of local admirers. His father tells me that Jimmie has probably made up at least a thousand songs. It is this interest and this skill which prompted J.E. Windrow, of George Peabody College, to write that if there were no tall tales in song Jimmie would invent them,2 and that led Alan Lomax to remark to me that he is "America's bard in the old sense of the word."

It is inevitable that a man with such a command of folksong, such compelling interests in folk music, and such unusual talents in composition should tend to re-create traditional materials. It is no happy accident that he framed from sketchy folk materials that national anthem of the backwoods-man, "The Battle of New Orleans." His firsthand knowledge of Ozark folksong is so wide and his days have been so full of song that it would hardly be possible for him to sing most of the songs he knows in complete fidelity to any particular source. He could perhaps approximate fidelity in songs that he learned from his parents and grandparents. Yet he told me in the summer of 1963 that his sons say he doesn't play certain fiddle tunes as he did a few years ago and have convinced him, to his surprise, that he changes even these traditional tunes. Success as a nationally known folksinger does not seem to have changed his attitude to folksong or his manner of singing, but has, in fact, given him greater respect for the old and genuine. But inevitably the songs he sings will continue to evolve even as he will continue to create and re-create.

With Jimmy Driftwood I complete my list of Ozark singers. But to give some indication that they are not unique I make brief mention of a singer from another part of the country. Mr. Ernest B. Stoneman, of Washington, D.C., is well known to students of folklore as the pioneer in recordings of hillbilly music. Though his records have all been hillbilly, he knows, so he told me, a considerable number of folksongs. He grew up in Galax, Virginia, where a neighbor, a woman whom he calls Finey Hawkins, taught him a good many songs. He has never recorded any of these, but would like to do so. I asked him if he had any scruples about making changes in the old songs, and he answered, "None whatever. I always put a story to a song." Of course Mr. Stoneman is a professional entertainer performing in night clubs and the like in the Washington area. I have met him but once (in 1962) and hence did not know him before his attitude became colored by his professional activity--if, in fact, it has been colored. For that reason I have left him out of consideration in the conclusions I have drawn below.

On the reasonable assumption that the eleven singers discussed above are to a considerable extent representative of those living in the Ozarks and possibly of a much greater company both in place and time, several generalizations of possible interest to students of folksong may be made. First, we may reaffirm the statement with which this paper began--that the collectors on whom Gerould based his conclusion were in error in believing that folksingers are unaware of changing their songs. Of the eleven singers discussed above, only three--Ollie Gilbert, Berry Sutterfield, and Mabel Daugherty--maintain that they do not under any circumstances make any alterations.

Second, there are great differences in singers, and these differences in temperament, personality, and artistic judgment determine what they do to their songs. The timid, the unimaginative, and the uninventive ones make few or no important changes and consequently harm nothing and contribute nothing except the perpetuation of the tradition. They are subservient to memory and through the years they unreflectingly or faithfully sing unintelligible phrases and rimeless stanzas in which the irregularities are obvious. Faulty memory alone prompts these singers to patch, but some refuse to do so. Such as is done is not likely to be constructive, but may on the other hand be responsible for blemishes in the songs. If several stanzas are forgotten, the song will fragmentize or be discarded. There is in some cases, however, a commendable motive for resisting change: Some singers who are not timid or uninventive are reluctant to alter words or music because of respect for their forebears who taught them the songs or because of more generalized deference to tradition. Other singers, independent and discriminating, feel free to "edit" the newer songs and, to a lesser degree, even the very old. They may even feel a kind of responsibility, a duty to tradition, to repair songs that seem to have been mangled or corrupted. And still others, the most inventive and independent, gradually adapt the songs to their own artistic judgments and/or permit the songs to evolve into what they feel to be more effective works of art. The greatest changes are likely to be made in two kinds of song: those least frequently sung, and therefore least accurately recollected, and those most familiar to a singer, who will make alterations until he has evolved a version that pleases him. Some singers of creative inclination never freeze a song into completely rigid form. It is the inventive, discriminating singers of this mind who through the years have given us the better and best versions of the songs that have come down to us.

Gerould remarks (p. 184) that "in the sense of re-creation, ballad-making has continued to be a living art down to our own times, if indeed it has wholly perished even now." There is no doubt that "ballad-making" has survived into the second half of the twentieth century. The "makers" of my acquaintance are rather numerous, and, though they belong for the most part to the older generation, they are still thriving in 1967. Southwestern University at Memphis

1. Gordon Hall Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (New York: 1932), p. 163. Back to text

2. Cover Notes for Jimmie Driftwood, Tall Tales in Song (RCA Victor LPM-2728). Back to Text

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