An Alabama Songbook: Ballads, Folksongs, and Spirituals

Apr 26, 2005

An Alabama Songbook is a thorough collection of ballads, folksongs and spirituals. The music displays a rich history of some of the state's lesser-known arts.

An Alabama Songbook: Ballads, Folksongs, and Spirituals

This volume has been a very long time in the making.

In the summer of 1945, Byron Arnold, of the music faculty of the University, made his first trip around Alabama, by bus and, later, in 1946 and 1947, by car. He visited three districts of the state, the Tennessee Valley, the Black Belt, and around Mobile, listening to folksongs and writing them down, words and music, in his notebooks, and recording them.

In the north he found mainly English and Scottish ballads, in the Black Belt spirituals and folksongs based on minstrel shows, and in Mobile, not French but English ballads, spirituals, and play party songs, for a total of 258 songs the first year, a three-year total of 1,000.

Arnold left Alabama for California in 1948, and at his death in 1971, the collection came back to Alabama.

Robert Halli, the editor, explains his methods in a clear, concise introduction and defines the subsets of folksong.

Ballads, for example, tell stories: love?s triumphs, tragedies, and disappointments, humor, crimes, and criminals, including the infamous "Stagalee," who doesn?t care if the man who stole his Stetson hat has three little children / And a dear little lovin? wife?he shoots him anyway.

Another ballad, one of the oldest anywhere, "The Frog He Would A-Courting Ride," is still well known, though it was first registered at a printer in England in 1580.

These folk songs are transmitted orally, often without being written down. Over time, they get shorter, not longer. Women rather than men have usually been the preservers of song in Alabama.

Arnold records his encounter with Mrs. Julia Greer Marechal of Mobile who, at 90 years old, blind and frail, recorded 33 songs in a row for him, from memory, over a period of three hours.

A side note: Arnold, like all college professors, grossly underpaid, kept careful track of his expenses. His salary for a full summer term was $325.00. He records one day in Tuskegee that breakfast was $0.35, dinner and supper were $0.85 each, and he took a guest to dinner for $0.75.

Since ballads tell stories, they are the easiest and the most fun to talk about. Most seem to be about love in some form, usually inappropriate, and often ending in suicide or murder of one or both lovers.

Socio-economic class is a surprisingly common problem. A poor girl is expected to marry a rich man if possible, and sometimes a girl can lose her boyfriend to a rich older woman:

Then came along a sour old maid
Who wore her wrath in gold
She wore false teeth, she wore false hair:
She was 45 years old.

Many ballads describe the evils of drink and were used to promote temperance.

In "Drunkard?s Song," the man does Drink, while wife and child do starve / And ruin[s] [his] own poor soul. Often the drunkards repent, but not always. When the drinking man is rejected in ?I?ll Have No Drunkard to Please,? he replies,

Madame, I?ll take my very fine horse,
For he pulls my buggy well;
I?ll drink my dram and throw my cards,
And you can go to hell, hell,
And you can go to hell.

There are, of course, a great many spirituals, which, as Halli notes, are a tapestry of sound, generating strong emotions, not narratives. It is, however, neat to notice how Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders knew them well and wove the lyrics into sermons and speeches: "Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I?m free at last."

This book is a rich collection of 216 songs, with words and music, and in its odd way, a good read. The best moments for me were when I could hear, in my mind?s ear, Joan Baez singing "Barbara Allen" or Harry Belafonte singing "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" These folk songs came back as popular music in the 1960s, and I bet they?ll be back again.