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Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History.

Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History. By Robert V. Wells (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009. xii plus 245 pp. $65 hardcover and $25 paper).

Historians are trained to work carefully within usually narrow areas of professional competence and we rarely venture outside our comfort zone. The risks of doing so are obvious, but the move can also allow for fresh insights piqued by perspectives not always enjoined from within the field. Robert V. Wells book on folk song is such an example.

Wells, a well regarded scholar of early American history with particular expertise in demography, in this book indulges his life-long passion for folk song--and does so to the delight of those of us nurtured on many of the songs whose histories he recounts. Wells was caught up in the folk revival of the 1950s, and by the late 1960s, while already teaching at Union College and established as a colonialist, realized he could lecture on how folk songs of early America provided a window on the era's sensibilities. From there, he expanded his love of folk songs to entire courses that regaled students with the history of folk song over the course of America's history and the social context reflected in their lyrics. This book, appropriately published in Illinois's series Music in American Life rather than in a mote explicitly historical series, is Well's gift to students and general readers who share his love of American folk songs.

Wells' has eschewed an organization of the book into chronological chapters. In an extended coda subtitled "thinking about songs" he offers a reader's guide to such topics as "music," "voice" and "narrative structure" and invites students to think about the performance of a song. The guide is an extension of his "primary focus ... on the songs" for which he avers "a topical organization should prevail." (199) And based on this logic, which I do not find as clear cut as he, Wells organizes the book's chapters thematically.

Wells begins with a very brief introduction that lays out his four criteria for folk songs: oral/aural transmission; unaffected style; non-commercial art performed for self-enjoyment; alive and part of an ever-changing tradition. He then moves quickly into his texts, the songs he lovingly details. Wells names his chapters for well-known and illustrative folk ballads, and is most at home detailing the history of older songs from the colonial and early national period. Thus the first of his chapters on song, "Careless Love," recounts the folk songs on courtship, marriage and child-rearing, while the second chapter: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," moves from religious songs like "Amazing Grace" to patriotic songs like "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," whose origins are often obscure to many American children and adults. A much later chapter picks up the religious topic in African American spirituals, although the latter, of course, take on new meanings in the modern era around much broader social movements for social justice. Indeed, chapters demonstrate, as Wells acknowledges, just how porous the lines of the thematic treatment can be. One chapter tegales readers with songs of work (i.e., "The Ballad of John Henry"), the next moves on the songs located around transportation (ships, rails, and like "Tom Dooley," the M.T.A.), and then focuses on travelling men, whether those on the rails or "Home on the Range." All these themes of course overlap yet again within closing chapters on labor (and radicals), a broad subject of its own. The Industrial Workers' of the World's "Little Red Songbooks," whose songs he barely touches upon, for example, can fill several books on their own. Many of these songs, like those in Rebel Voices, Joyce Kornbluh's 1988 classic anthology of the many memorable IWW songs that resonated in New Deal strikes, post war civil rights and New Left protest movements, became the voice of the mid-century folk revival, of what Pete Seeger and Sing Out magazine popularized as "songs of social significance."

"Life Flows On" builds on this tradition, although not in a sustained way. Still, it is a lovely read with fascinating origin tales of many songs readers will delight in remembering. It is not, however, a history of folk songs as folk songs. Wells concludes with an autobiographical chapter on Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) and Woody Guthrie, but his focus remains on the songs they wrote and sang, less on the folk revival that swirled about them. Anecdotes are lively, engaging and fascinating, but the analysis tends to treat texts literally, as documents mostly of the moment they are written. Two of Wells' own criteria for folk song--their aurality/orality and the embedded (and invented) traditions of song--are deeply historical processes of transmission and change, and the thematic chapters strain to illuminate those characteristics. Wells occasionally notes how new lyrics emerged with different times, but it is never at the core of his project, which is more descriptive than analytic. He is at his best when he acknowledges the songs often have subtexts, irony, and reflect the carnivalesque, and I only wish for more such analysis. But as his too-brief Introduction forecast, this is not a theorized discussion of the folk as an invented tradition, or of the revivals that championed some songs and not others, or of the people who sang them and the values and attitudes they may have brought to them. Yet, like I, readers will enjoy tales of the origins of many of the songs we still sing variously as lullabies, patriotism and protest and begin to think of how those meanings resonate (or not).

Daniel J. Walkowitz

New York University
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Author:Walkowitz, Daniel J.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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