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TEACHER/Romw/ws Linney IN SUMMER, 1952, 1 was having the normal nervous breakdown of a confused young actor who didn't see commercial stardom in his future and didn't know what the purpose of his life could possibly be besides summer stock. I went to Appalachia to spend the summer like Hans Castorp, on a magic mountain. The town was Boone, North Carolina, a popular place now, in the fashion of Woodstock, but then still the small town that had been even more remote a generation before. I had lived there between the ages of one and four, in a large, white house on a hill in the center of the town, with my father's relations all gathered together to escape the ravages of the Depression. Now, twenty years later, I had come back. As I said, I was having a nervous breakdown, but it didn't last long. Shortly after I arrived, I was told by my favorite cousin, Margaret Coffey, who ran the house, to stop sitting on the porch brooding and do something. There was a college in Boone; why not take a course? I did, and my blundering about in folklore began, launching me directly into the life I have since led. I saw in the catalogue a course marked Old EngUsh and Scottish Ballads. I registered and showed up. A small, quiet, impish man in middle age was the professor. His name was Gratis WUUams, and he had come from the even more remote mountains of Kentucky when he was very young, gotten through high school, then worked his way through a college, then through graduate school at NYU by teaching courses like this one. In time he became one of the most respected scholars of Appalachia, conceivably in part because the administration building in which he had been storing notes for his magnum opus burned down, thus preserving his reputation from the tarnishing many such academic life works inevitably receive. He is known today as the father of Appalachian studies. We began this course in a scholarly manner, with the Child Collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (a descendant of Percy's Relics) and a description of how the serious study of folklore proceeds, such as Stith Thompson's folk motifs in many volumes. But soon Cratis Williams was doing something else. He was illustrating what folklore was, not with academic analysis or showy erudition but with the Aeolian harp he could magicaUy become. Because he knew, had heard sung in childhood, the ballads of England, Scotland, 168 ยท The Missouri Review Scandinavia and elsewhere, in Kentucky and North Carolina, and he knew where they were still being sung, in what versions. He could tell us not only how old a Child ballad was in the United States, but where and in what version he had heard it, and how he himself dealt with it. And tell us quietly but with authority. He was an artist, disguised as a professor, but a happy one, who loved teaching and students. Ballads, this little man told us, were stories before songs, starkly delivered, unvarnished by minstrelsy. This was news to me: I was at that time (and still am) a lover of Burl Ives and Richard Dyer Bennet. But Cratis Williams said that while their interpretations were all very well, the art of the minstrel clouded the deeper drama of a great ballad. Real ballad singers not only didn't sing beautifully, but purposely never trained their voices. They sternly avoided anything that sounded like music, beauty, or, God save us, culture. A ballad was the stripped-down essence of life, sung over and over for thousands of years, in country after country, changing, but not much, as the different balladeers performed it. This was my first taste ofthe vast world of illiterate magnificence. He sang to us what he considered to be the best of the ballads, "Edward," to a tune that was simple but elusive: How come that blood on your coat my son, O my son tell me, It is the blood ofmy good gray hound, That led the chasefor me, me, me, That led the chasefor me. The blood...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 168-175
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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