Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants by Joanna Brooks (review)
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Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants. By Joanna Brooks. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 213, acknowledgments, introduction, epilogue, notes, bibliography, index.)

Joanna Brooks uses her penchant for discovering alternative views of history to answer the question “Why did my relatives and thousands of other nameless immigrants come to America?” Briefly, she concludes that many who voyaged to America did not so much come to America as run from England. Brooks theorizes that as their home country betrayed them, immigrants found America not as a land of opportunity but as a place to escape to. Theirs was a story of dislocation in England more than one of relocation in America. They were colonized in their own country during the catastrophic economic and societal upheavals in the sixteenth [End Page 110] and seventeenth centuries even before England colonized outside its borders. Over two centuries, subsistence workers were deprived of land that had afforded them livelihood, forced into a wage-based economy, crowded into towns, and then criminalized for vagrancy. As such, these subsistence workers were ignored within their own country, blotted from the pages of history, and left without any literature that told their story. As a literary and cultural historian, Brooks faced the challenge of discovering the appropriate archive to tell her ancestors’ story.

She discovered that archive in her epiphany in the “basement of the college library in San Diego” (p. 13) as she held a set of vinyl LPs, Folk Music of The United States: Child Ballads, Traditional in the United States. She spent months listening to multiple versions of these ballads sung in clear, unapologetic voices by twentieth-century rural American balladeers. As she listened, the voices of her immigrant ancestors emerged. These ballads became more than simply an ethnographic collection of folk songs sung in rural America; they were the oral living history of a people who sang their stories and the archives of a nameless people.

Brooks’s research is extensive into both the ballad genre and the history of England’s internal and external colonization. Chapter 2 traces the cultural shift in sixteenth-and seventeenth-century England from a subsistence to a mercantile economy. It suggests that the improved economy for the new class of merchants was a deep betrayal of the peasant population. Brooks’s historical study gives a context for the creation of the ballads she studied. In turn, the ballads put face and flesh onto this skeleton outline of history. The people whose stories were untold in historical texts sang their stories in the ballads created in England and carried to America.

The four ballads analyzed by Brooks: “Edward,” “Two Sisters,” “The Golden Vanity,” and “The House Carpenter” underscore the deep and growing betrayal experienced by a people displaced on two continents as the treachery against them became more widespread and virulent. These family stories are biblical in proportion. They span horrors ranging from sibling rivalry to the abandonment of whole groups in plots that oftentimes kill the very souls of the protagonists. Brooks’s reading of the ballads is clear-eyed, persistent, unrelenting—reminiscent of the way the songs are sung. She adopts no sentimentality in analyzing these stories and finds no need to subject the works to deeper psychological or political meanings. Instead, Brooks uses “surface reading” (p. 52) to understand what is said and what is meant, and she challenges readers to immerse themselves in this history of a people. Her analysis forces readers to listen to the ballads without flinching and to see in them the wrenching stories of a distressed people. Thus, “Edward” need not be searched for images of incest as some scholars have done. It is Cain and Abel in the sixteenth century, brother killing brother over the destruction of a tree, the source of the family’s livelihood. It recounts the familial betrayal that is provoked by the larger betrayal, the deforestation by the gentry who usurped land once used by subsistence peasants. The story of betrayal in “Two Sisters” is both personal and global. The longing for a beaver hat leads to sibling rivalry and a young woman’s death...


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