Every six weeks or so, my wife and I meet with several other couples for “Record Club.” Whichever couple is hosting that night provides dinner and chooses a theme. Everyone comes with music, and we go around the circle, listening to the songs we brought and relating them to the theme. Tonight’s meeting will be at our house, and the theme is “Ballads, Social Music, and Songs.”
In 1952, the Anthology of American Folk Music was released on Folkways Records, compiled by the artist, experimental filmmaker, and all-around New York eccentric Harry Smith. The anthology consists of 84 recordings taken from Smith’s collection of 78s, all made between 1927 and 1932, the first boom in commercial recordings aimed at a general audience. Smith organized the selections into three categories of two discs each. His categories were “Ballads,” “Social Music,” and “Songs.”
When I first studied the anthology years ago, Smith’s categorization fascinated me. I was delighted that “Social Music” meant religious music and dance music. It seemed altogether fitting that these two types of music were classed together, though I’d been raised to believe they were on opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Of course, even among Protestants, there is disagreement on this question. Some sects let the music move them; others don’t allow any music at all.
The “Ballads” category was also unexpected. By ballads, today, we mean big, slow love songs, with the emphasis on melody rather than the beat. I like a good ballad as much as anybody, but if you’re playing in a bar band, you don’t want to put too many ballads in one set. But Smith wasn’t referring to tempo or melody or even to subject matter. He meant narratives, story songs, most told in the third person. Many of his anthology selections were American versions of the so-called “Childs ballads,” a group of centuries-old sung stories from England and Scotland that had first been chronicled by Francis James Child in 1860. Others had a strictly American provenance, including African-American (“Gonna Die with My Hammer in My Hand,” “Stakalee”), though Smith, a forward-thinking individual, made no racial distinctions in the liner notes of the accompanying booklet. Americans were Americans, when it came to making music, which is pretty much the way musicians look at it.
The “Songs” category was the most intriguing. Song is the generic term for all such music–at least when there are lyrics involved. So how could it be a sub-category? Greil Marcus helped me out with this. In his 1997 book, The Invisible Republic, he writes:
Songs are ‘folk-lyric’ songs, made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationship to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners, pieces of eight. Harry Smith guessed the folk-lyric form came together sometime between 1850 and 1875. Whenever it happened, it wasn’t until enough fragments were abroad in the land to reach a kind of critical mass–until there were enough fragments, passing back and forth between blacks and whites as common coin, to generate more fragments, to sustain within the matrix of a single musical language an almost infinite repertory of performances, to sustain the sense that out of the anonymity of the tradition a singer was presenting a distinct and separate account of a unique life. It is this quality–the insistence that the singer is singing his or her own life, as an event, taking place as you listen, its outcome uncertain–that separates the song, from which the singer emerges, from the ballad, into which the singer disappears.
Marcus gives us a lot to chew on here. If ballads tend to be in the third person, songs tend to be in the first. If the singers disappears into the ballad, the singer steps out in the song. What ballads shared, Smith suggests in his notes, is their “narrative unity.” This posits some distance between the making of the lyrics and the singing of them. A story not only occurs in a distant time, it must also be prepared, its beginning, middle, and end worked out, prior to its performance. Songs may be no less prepared, but the impression they are meant to convey is one of immediacy. This song is “taking place as you listen.” The singer’s individuality and the immediacy of the performance are the point. The singer is the center of the song, the chief character who feels the song as it’s performed, and who the listeners are urged to identify with so to experience their own individuality.
What strikes me about this passage is the way it underscores Smith’s project not only as ethnography but as history. His categories become analytical tools to historicize the development of a genre that is ubiquitous today. The song is arguably the most prominent genre we currently have to express what it is to be human, and if not the most prominent, surely the most democratic. One doesn’t have to be a trained musician or even all that talented to create and perform a two-minute song. And given that Smith’s ‘song’ category–a performance that conveys individuality and immediacy–is practically the present standard, the history of that genre is worth contemplating. Such contemplation leads one to realize that the performance of music wasn’t always like that, that ‘songs’ weren’t always songs as we know them, and that this genre, with its essential individualism, is therefore particularly modern.
If it’s true that songs, as I’ve used the passage in Marcus to help me describe them, did not exist prior to the modern, then their emergence must have been accompanied by the discomfort we typically associate with a dawning modernity. It’s the discomfort of moving from the accepted pronouns “we” and “us” to the more audacious “I” and “me.” In ballads, what’s important are the stories we’ve inherited as a folk. Their spacious and oft-repeated renderings allow for the variety of interpretations that tell us who we are, collectively, and that help us understand the roles we’ve been assigned to play. In social music what’s important is that we’re all together, relating to each other in ritual movements, or performing the same liturgies together and proclaiming the same doctrines of belief. That’s the ballad; that’s social music.
But songs? They must have come as an affront. What does it matter who you are and what you’re feeling right now–apart, that is, from the rest of us? I can’t find my copy of Blues People just now, but I seem to remember Leroi Jones making a similar point about the development of blues–how it was foremost an expression of individualism, apart from the community-made musics of the church and the field. What I’m describing here are the growing pains of the individual emerging from community, a hallmark of the modern if there ever was one.
Aside from discomfort, such a performance must have been imagined, desired, and felt as somehow necessary before a genre existed to enact it. I can imagine the most progressive folk artists feeling this need, reaching for those fragments of lyric Marcus mentions: “I’d rather be in some dark holler, where the sun refused to shine.” “My name I’ll never deny.” “Forty dollars won’t pay my fine.” These fragments were used as place-keepers perhaps, while the tropes and conventions we have since come to know were developed over time.
Smith’s anthology was received and had its greatest influence during that particularly hairy stretch of the Cold War when what was considered the most popular music was the escapist soundtrack of domestic containment. The anthology offered an alternative. It offered a source of inspiration and material to the folk and blues revivalists of the fifties and early sixties. “In that music is the only true, valid death you can feel today off a record player,” said Bob Dylan in a quote cited by Marcus.
Bringing up Dylan again raises the issue of the song and its evolution. As politics, the folk revival was a call for collectivity. It directed attention to social problems, advocated for civil rights and peace, and eschewed the commercial as corporately designed to distract us from the troubles we share. Dylan tipped his hat to the collective and gave the movement two or three of its greatest anthems, but then got busy advancing the song in the direction it had been going for a least a hundred years: the ego in the moment. Dylan, it shouldn’t surprise us, may have been listening more closely than most to the actual music in Harry Smith’s compilation–in any case, to the two discs of “Songs.”
A shorter version of this post appears at the Society for US Intellectual History.