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  • The Ballad Collectors of North America: How Gathering Folksongs Transformed Academic Thought and American Identity ed. by Scott B. Spencer
  • Jim Griffith
The Ballad Collectors of North America: How Gathering Folksongs Transformed Academic Thought and American Identity. Ed. Scott B. Spencer. American Folk Music and Musicians 15. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2012. Pp. 237, notes, index.)

This book contains 12 essays by 10 authors (Guy Logsdon and Paul J. Stamler wrote two apiece). The subject is a little narrower than the title might lead one to believe: the emphasis is on collections made before 1940, and any collections in languages other than English receive only passing mention. Editor Spencer leads off with a historical background sketch and a preview of the volume’s contents. Erika Brady follows with a thoughtful essay on Franz Boas’ impact on collecting and the varying approaches in the field to use of cylinder recordings. It seems that women were the pioneers in the use of this new technology—a good early introduction to the continuing importance of women as songcatchers.

The essays then move to regional collections and collectors, beginning with Norman Cohen’s excellent treatment of the Ozarks. After discussions of Henry Belden and Vance Randolph, Cohen turns to a group of six who collected folk songs as a part of MA thesis projects. He then runs through a list of lesser-known collectors, giving the whereabouts of their collections and manuscripts when known, and ends with the octogenarian ex-postmaster Fred High.

Guy Logsdon covers cowboy songs and ballads, with due emphasis on such giants as John Lomax and N. Howard “Jack” Thorp, but with fascinating material on such lesser-known collectors as Ina Sires and Charles Siringo. In a second essay, Logsdon deals ably with other Western traditions. The great Mormon collections find their place here, as does the work of Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin in California’s migrant labor camps of the 1930s. With collectors, and collections such as these, we can note an expansion of what was considered folk song. Logsdon’s articles take us into the occupational lore of cowboys and forty-niners, the lore of religious communities, and recently composed songs by and about Dust Bowl refugees.

James Leary’s essay on the Midwest moves from Missouri’s Henry Belden, mentioned earlier, through the prolific Louise Pound in Nebraska, to E. C. Beck and his work with Michigan lumberjacks and Ivan Walton’s collection of Great Lakes songs. Curiously, these two genres were often collected from the same singers, who would change jobs with the seasons. After writing of Alan Lomax’s Upper Peninsula [End Page 227] recording project of 1938, which netted about a thousand songs, Leary leaves us with the charming vignette of Helene Stratman-Thomas sitting in her car while her assistant recorded bawdy lumberjack songs—another example of the dedication of these collectors.

The northeastern corner of North America has been rich in songs, singers, and collectors. Most of the great singers have passed on, but thanks to the enthusiastic work of two women, many of their songs remain for those who wish to study, enjoy, or sing them. Fannie Hardy Eckstorm collected in Maine and published two collections. Unfortunately, her notes and cylinder recordings are, at the time of publication, lost. Helen Hartness Flanders worked all over New England, but especially in Vermont. Her collection of almost 4,500 songs and fiddle tunes from nearly 500 singers and musicians from all over New England now reside in Middlebury College and in the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. The essay on her work and that of Fannie Eckstorm was written by her granddaughter, Nancy-Jean Ballard Seigel.

I. Sheldon Posen introduces us to four collectors in eastern Canada: W. Roy Mackenzie, Elisabeth Bristol Greenleaf, Maud Karpeles, and Helen Creighton. Each brought different interests and skills to the task. One impressive passage recounts a session in which Creighton sang a stirring ballad about a rescue to a group of men who were involved in the incident, recording their comments and interjections. This example shows that folklorists have come a long, long way from the collecting of antiquarian...


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