Notes 59.2 (2002) 369-370
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The Music of American Folk Song, and Selected Other Writings on American Folk Music. Edited by Larry Polansky with Judith Tick. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 2001. [210 pp. ISBN 1-58046-095-X. $45.] Music examples, illustrations, indexes.
In 1941, the Macmillan Company published Our Singing Country, a compilation of American ballads and folk songs collected by John and Alan Lomax and transcribed from phonograph recordings by Ruth Crawford Seeger, who was credited as "music editor" (reprint, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2000). The anthology, a sequel to the Lomaxes' 1934 American Ballads and Folk Songs (New York: Macmillan), was intended as both a folkloric document and a musical score that would encourage middle-class urbanites to learn folk music. Seeger's 8-page "Music Preface" helped facilitate the latter goal by giving tips on performance practice and explanations of the musical notation. It was a drastic abridgement of an 80-page typescript that Seeger had intended to serve as either an introduction or an appendix but whose inclusion the Lomaxes had vetoed due to its length and scholarly detail. (See Judith Tick, Ruth Crawford Seeger [New York: Oxford, 1997], ch. 16, for further details.) Seeger's unabridged typescript languished in drawers —one version sat in her daughter Peggy Seeger's attic for twenty years—and remained known to only a handful of scholars, until editor Larry Polansky and the University of Rochester Press published this document, under its original name, The Music of American Folk Song.
The volume begins with three forewords —an anemic four lines by stepson Pete Seeger (the only disappointment in the book), and more satisfying remembrances by children Mike and Peggy Seeger. Judith Tick's "Historical Introduction" succinctly summarizes the nuances of Seeger's transcriptions, her intellectual influences, the social and political goals of the New Deal activists with whom she worked, and the ways in which her thinking about folk music influenced her own compositions and the work of her husband Charles, as well as that of their children. Polansky's "Editor's Introduction" covers sources, provenance (there were several nearly complete versions of Seeger's monograph), recordings, and technical conventions. Polansky's meticulous commentary on The Music of American Folk Song appears in endnotes; most of his remarks concern differences between versions, identification of songs and recordings, Seeger's place in the intellectual history of transcription, and connections to pertinent primary and secondary sources. Like Seeger, he brings a composer's sensibility to his analytical tasks, a performer's love of the folk songs under consideration, and a scholar's thoroughness that prevents the reader from being left dangling when the author is vague or the sources unclear. The volume concludes with Seeger's additional, short writings on American folk music, an index of songs, and a general index.
Ruth Crawford Seeger's transcriptions were meant to represent one specific recorded performance, and therefore this book is most rewarding when read with Our Singing Country and the recordings at hand (most of these are in the Library of Congress Archive of American Folk Song collection and Alan Lomax's Deep River of Song series, both available on Rounder Records compact discs). Part 1 of the monograph, "A Note on Transcription," deals with "just where 'the song' can be said to end and its singing to begin" (p. 11). Seeger illustrates this dilemma by providing transcriptions of varying complexity for the same song, ranging from most complete (complex) to skeletal (simple). The task she sets for herself as transcriber is "to follow a course midway between these extremes: to catch a just balance which will convey as much as possible of the rich complexity of the folk singer's art, yet in simple enough terms to allow ready grasp by the interested amateur" (p. 13, emphasis in original). This role of transcription as a bridge between the folksinger and amateur musician should, in her view, meet one further ideal: The writing of oral tradition should [End Page 369] "foster rather...