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  • Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants by Joanna Brooks
  • Michael Cody (bio)
Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants joanna brooks Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013 214 pp.

Joanna Brooks begins the story of Why We Left remembering her studies with Laguna Pueblo author and scholar Paula Gunn Allen. Allen challenged her understanding of the English colonists who, throughout the seventeenth century, arrived in the New World on—and like—the Atlantic waves. They were not all Bradfords and Winthrops or Bradstreets and Taylors. And although a significant number of them arrived in the American South, they were even more so not Byrds. They were poor and uneducated and generally either indentured or indigent. Lending greater significance to the “We” of her book’s title, Brooks counts her ancestors among this multitude and periodically uses them as representatives of the similar immigrants who, in history and literary textbooks, are largely invisible. The traditional narrative of early colonial America tacitly suggests that these poor came for the same New World opportunities that attracted Walter Raleigh and others, but Brooks wishes to tell a different story.

She describes her Brooks forebears as “Laborers. Almost entirely landless” (5). Once arrived on the shores of the New World, perhaps they worked off whatever agreements of indenture or servitude they might have made—that, or simply struggled to survive for a time—and then “followed work further and further west” in search of their own place until they eventually arrived in California sometime in the mid-twentieth century. The literate among these poor were relatively few in number, and the [End Page 791] number of poets, diarists, and writers of sermons was fewer still. Thus the central obstacle to overcome in attempting to tell their story in America is, as Brooks writes, “that so very little survives that documents the Atlantic crossing from an Anglo-American peasant point of view” (9).

Anybody who can carry a tune, however, and many brave or tone-deaf folks who cannot, can participate in the circulation of song. Anyone with the requisite spark of creativity can relate or adapt a ballad lyric to a historical moment. Brooks thus turns to the ballad archives that Alan Lomax, Cecil Sharp, and others developed in the early twentieth century. Many ballads traveled from England to America with the literate and illiterate alike, and Brooks describes these lyrics “as perhaps the most useful literary archive of experiential-historical perspective on the transatlantic migration of peasant-class Anglo-Americans.” For her, they suggest how socioeconomic conditions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries “made England uninhabitable to my ancestors and thousands upon thousands of other English laboring-class migrants who colonized America” (19). Brooks proceeds through five engagingly written chapters to discuss ballad lyrics that reflect the roots and character of colonial migration, which transformed large numbers of English peasants into the American working poor.

In her first chapter, Brooks describes developments in England just before the colonial period began and during the early years of mass migration for colonization—the late 1400s into the early 1600s. Significant disruptions in how land was shared and used came about in England as feudal structures gave way to a more capitalistic system. She follows the suggestion of many historians that, before the New World became available for colonization, the English peasantry underwent “internal colonization that entailed the privatization of lands, the transformation of subsistence economies into market and export economies, the termination of traditional peasant lifeways tied closely to subsistence on the land, and the structural exclusion of newly landless poor from modern nation-states” (24). And so before these peasants set sail—voluntarily or not—as part of the seventeenth century’s great migration to the New World, they were set adrift within their own country to migrate from place to place, following food and work.

Given that the distant edge of the empire was not, for the majority of the poor who ended up there, a land actually abounding with opportunity, [End Page 792] the central question Brooks considers is why they left their country for the colonies. In chapters 2...


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