Stories in Song: American Ballads

“Lower your heads, Tom Dooley
bow your head and cry
Put your head down, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re going to die”

It was in 1959 or 1960 that I first heard “Tom Dooley” of the Kingston Trio in the jukebox of Grady’s Café in Boonville, North Carolina, populated by about 600 souls. I don’t remember what I was eating, who I was with, or why I was there, but I vividly remember sitting in a booth staring into space and being mesmerized by this song .

This is how my love affair with American ballads began.

My siblings, my friends and I were already learning ballads and folk songs in elementary school or from children’s records. “I worked on the railroad”, “Oh! Susanna’, ‘On Top of Old Smoky’ and ‘Erie Canal’ are just a few of those classics I remember singing in class. When I was 11, just before dropping out of piano lessons, I dressed like a cowboy and performed “I’m a Poor Lonesome Cowboy” to an audience in our school auditorium. . Thank goodness no one recorded this strident performance for posterity.

Since then, I have listened to songwriters and singers as famous as Johnny Cash or as little known as my brother deliver these stories in song. When my kids were growing up, we used to listen to recordings like “Wee Sing America”, and to this day they can still sing some of the songs they heard. Hearing one or more of them sing the chorus of “Goober Peas” always makes you laugh.

Let’s take a look at some of those songs, old and new, that have done so much to shape American culture.

Roots of the Ballad

“A ballad”, states an online dictionary, is “a poem or song telling a story in short stanzas”.

That’s about as succinct and brief a definition as we’ll find.

The ballad is centuries-old, dating back to medieval minstrelsy. Rarely written or printed at this time, ballads were passed down from generation to generation, an oral tradition also often practiced in America throughout the 19th century.

Settlers, especially from the British Isles, brought these song stories when they immigrated to America. “Danny Boy”, “Annie Laurie” and other pieces have become part of the American repertoire, and sometimes entire cities and regions reflect this heritage. In southern Appalachia, for example, the Scots and Scots-Irish who called those mountains home kept their music alive, and it remains popular to this day.

Here’s another example of this transatlantic cultural enrichment: Johnny Cash recorded “Sam Hall,” the story of a convict on the gallows, and I heard a few guys roar the words with Cash. This catchy song comes to us from England.

Sometimes, too, old country songs are dressed in new clothes. Folk-rock band Steeleye Span, for example, took old British folk songs and ballads and put them to rock music. American musicians have also transformed old tunes and even song lyrics.

American originals

In their Introduction to “American Ballads and Folk Songs,” John and Alan Lomax, who spent years researching sources and collecting this music, wrote this about the soil of the American ballad:

“The cowboy, the miner, the tramp, the lumberjack, the Forty-niner, the soldier, the sailor, the plantation negro (and also his sophisticated city cousin)…all have songs ‘invented ‘ describing their experiences or detailing situations. …”

This father and son team also observed:

“A life of isolation, without books or newspapers or telephone or radio, begets songs and ballads. The range of human experience has been portrayed through this unrecorded (at least until recently) literature of the people. These people had no literary conventions to respect. But they were alone or sad or happy, and they were looking for entertainment.

good old songs

And that quest for diversion has given us wonderful American music.

The classic ballad “Streets of Laredo”, whose tune is taken from an English folk song, describes a dying cowboy, his regrets for having lived a bad life and his requests for his funeral:

“So beat the drum slowly and softly play the fife
Sing the death march while you carry me
Take me to the green valley, there lay the grass on me
‘Cause I’m a young cowboy and I know I did wrong.

Alan Lomax at the Mountain Music Festival, Asheville, North Carolina, early 1940s. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. (Public domain)

Then there’s John Henry, a black ‘driver of steel’ who pitted his muscles and hammer against a steam-powered drill in a contest to see if man or machine could drill deeper into stone. . John Henry won the contest, but died of exhaustion. A version of the song known to many Americans begins as follows:

“Well, John Henry was a little baby
Sitting on her daddy’s lap
He picks up a hammer and a small piece of steel,
And shouted, “Hammer’s gonna be my death, Lord, Lord
Hammer is going to be my death”

In “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” we meet a woman who displays the rugged spirit of the American pioneer.

“Have you ever heard of Pike’s sweet Betsy,
Who crossed the wide meadows with her lover Ike,
With two yoke of oxen and a spotted pig,
A big shanghai rooster and an old yaller dog? »

When we know the original lyrics to this song about Betsy’s journey west, we find that it isn’t as sweet as we might assume. She tightens herself on the whiskey, dances around the wagon train and lifts her dress indecently high. When Ike later divorces Betsy, she sends him off, shouting, “Goodbye, fat lummox, I’m glad you backed off.”

The tradition lives on

Although we might think these song stories are part of an old America, the musicians kept bringing us ballads.

When I was a kid, if one of us sang “Born on a Mountain Top in Tennessee,” anyone within listening distance could join in on that ballad about Davy Crockett. The TV show, starring Fess Parker as Crockett, made coon-skin caps and that music as ubiquitous as our childhood fantasies of living as this rugged pioneer.

Written and performed by Jimmy Dean, “Big Bad John” became a massive hit in late 1961, and the following year Dean won a Grammy Award for Best Country and Western Recording. This song tells the story of a tall, quiet man who appears out of nowhere and gets to work in a mine. One day, when “a timber has cracked and the men have begun to cry”, Big John saves the miners’ lives by grabbing the “sagging timber”:

“And with all his strength he gave a mighty thrust
Then a miner shouted, “There’s a light above”
And twenty men escaped from a so-called grave
Now there is only one left to save, Big John.

Jimmy Dean in 1966.
Jimmy Dean in 1966. (Public domain)

Johnny Cash popularized all kinds of ballads, old and new. With Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, Cash made a hit of Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman”, the story of a brutal man whose spirit crosses the ages. One of Cash’s first compositions was “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”, the story of a girl who leaves her hometown and her boyfriend for Hollywood, where she becomes famous but ends up giving up everything for love and returns home. she.

A humorous ballad, originally written by children’s author Shel Silverstein, was met with a roar when Cash first performed it at Folsom Prison. The song, which became a smash hit, tells the story of a boy whose father, having decided to leave his wife and baby, names his son Sue so that he will have to grow up fighting and fighting. defendant. Later, the two meet in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where they engage in a brutal, no-holds-barred brawl. After Sue’s victory, her father explains:

“And he said, ‘Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna do it, he gotta be tough
And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help you
So I gave you that name, and I said goodbye
And I knew you had to get hard or die
It is this name that has helped make you strong.

Epoch Times Photo
Photo of Johnny Cash in 1977. (Public domain)

Ballads are the raw face of our culture. Most of the ballads are about ordinary men and women: workers, wanderers, outlaws, adventurers, good guys, bad guys, and downcasts. Knowing and singing these songs helps keep our past alive.

Teaching them to our children gives them paths to history that they might never have found otherwise. And from many of these songs, most of them easy to memorize and sing, our young people will also deepen their understanding of the human spirit: the difficulties overcome, the strength and fragility of love, and the beauty of longings. and dreams.

But there is another good reason to learn some ballads. They are just plain fun to sing.

About Timothy Cheatham

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