- Songs of the North Woods as Sung by O.J. Abbott and Collected by Edith Fowke
Songs of the North Woods is a collection of sixty-six songs sung by O.J. Abbott, one of the late Edith Fowke's most prolific and admired informants. In addition to the musical transcriptions of the songs by Hungarian ethnomusicologist László Vikár (melodies) and music educator Jeanette Panagapka (texts), which represent the bulk of the book, there are introductory essays by Panagapka and Vikár on the genesis of the book and musical transcription procedures, respectively. Following the songs are a brief biography of Edith Fowke, an interview between Panagapka and Richard Johnston, one of Fowke's musical collaborators in the 1950s and 1960s, an interview with Panagapka and Frank Fowke, Edith's late husband, and brief transcriptions of two stories by Abbott. The book concludes with a selected bibliography of Fowke's collections, recordings, and indexes of the repertory in Songs of the North Woods, including titles, first lines, and concordances between this collection and the approximately 120 songs collected from Abbott by Fowke in other of her published collections, notably Songs of the North Woods, Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, Lumbering Songs of the Northern Woods, Traditional Singers and Songs of Ontario, and Ring around the Moon, as well as on Folkway Records and in the archives at the University of Calgary and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
In the history of English-language folklore in Canada, Edith Fowke stands out for her prolific career, both in terms of collecting and disseminating her work through publications, radio broadcasts, and teaching. An avowed socialist, Fowke was especially interested in what folk songs represent in historical and social contexts, and she tended to focus on functional as well as narrative aspects of songs in much of her work. As explained in Vikár's introduction, it was Edith Fowke's wish that this volume's organization be based on musical rather than textual subject order as in her other publications; therefore, the songs have been arranged 'from simple to complex melodies as determined by range, scale and meter.' In promoting musical aspects of traditional song in this organizational process, the approach is weakened by an arbitrary Eurocentric bias in terms of decisions about simple and complex determinants. For example, this kind of exclusionary hierarchical ordering does not allow space for important contextual stories about the songs in the collection. One is also left with unanswered questions about potential analytical contexts and linkages with respect to the musical analyses, which consist of listings of song ranges, scale types, and metrical observations. These reservations notwithstanding, users of Songs of the North Woods will certainly learn about the kinds of situations, experiences, and feelings of Abbott's world, through reading the song texts and singing the songs.
With its musical emphasis, Songs of the North Woods may be considered along with two other publications by Edith Fowke that have detailed musical analyses; these are Lumbering Songs of the Northern Woods (1985) [End Page 182] with transcriptions and analyses by Norman Cazden, and A Family Heritage: The Story and Songs of LaRena Clark (1994), with transcriptions and analyses by Jay Rahn. In my view, with their emphases on contextual as well as musical approaches, these volumes serve as valuable complements to Songs of the North Woods. This trio of publications also demonstrates the importance of focusing on individuals as representatives of traditional life experience.
Songs of the North Woods is the first major collection of songs collected by Edith Fowke that has been published since her death in 1996. Her participation in the book's early stages and the collaboration of an ethnomusicologist and a music educator make this a work that, in many interesting disciplinary respects, should appeal to multiple audiences. As much as Songs of the North Woods tells us about the rich life experiences of O.J. Abbott through his world...