U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Look who’s singing over there: Ballads, Social Music, and Songs

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. The next 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. Smith wasn’t referring to tempo or melody, however, 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.

Smith’s anthology was received and had its greatest influence during that particularly hairy stretch of the Cold War when the top of the pops 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.”

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Nice post! Seems to me you are seizing on Smith’s Anthology and it’s inlfuence to notice the complex imagining and enacting of both individualism and collectivity. This took place through new configurations of self and group and society I’m the activities clustered around “reviving” traditional sounds and styles in the postwar decades. I’d only say the story might not line up quite as cleanly as premodern=community and modern=Individualism, but more dynamic efforts to reshape both individuality and community in the wake of transformations of twentieth century. That remix might be what made Smith, Dylan, and others so captivating to many listeners to (and makers of) music and culture (and politics) for a period of time. Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good remains the best work on this to my mind (full disclosure: he was my grad teacher).

    • Thanks, Michael – yes, the overly schematic presentation needs to be checked. It’s just that I had trouble seeing how the distant narrative and the church/fiddle music for contra-dancing evolve with an equivalent acceleration/proliferation as do ‘songs.’ … And yes, When We Were Good crossed my mind. Will have to revisit it.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.