The Songs I Sing
A folk song is a way of singing out the news -- of a wedding, a murder, good times or bad, good people or bad. It is one way of making a record of memorable things that happened. In the days before newspapers, and among people who could not have read them even if they had existed, the folk song was a kind of chronicle and running commentary on the times. Many folk songs have lived for hundreds of years, while nothing is more dead than yesterday's newspaper.
Folk songs and story ballads were not the most accurate history, of course, because once the event had been recorded, generations of singers went on elaborating and changing the song. They smoothed it out, or shaped it up to suit their own ideas of how the event might have happened. Often, the event which started the song was blurred or lost as time went on. The song then took on its own independent life. Aristotle said that art is truer than history because it shows what SHOULD have happened, rather than simply what DID happen. Art is true to its own inner necessity rather than to the accidental historical event. In this sense, the song is certainly true, because however much the actual event which inspired the song might be changed, the song was always a true record of the attitudes and feelings of the generations.
Here then is a collection of such songs. Here are tall tales and story ballads of the early west. The cowboy has been defined as a man with a hat on one end, and a horse on the other. He added little in the way of original music to his songs, probably because there was not much room on a horse for musical instruments. Sometimes he packed along a harmonica. Occasionally there was a guitar around the campfire. The cowboy recorded the hazards of his occupation using old tunes, often from the south, but sometimes using fairly new tunes as well. Occasionally we are struck by the literary language in the songs of the cowboy, when he put into them high-falutin' phrases that he might have read in a book or heard in some music hall on one of his infrequent trips to a large town or city. Mostly the songs are direct, often droll and full of wry humor, frequently based on the use of considerable exaggeration. This quality of exaggeration found in the tall tale, such as the Paul Bunyan stories, is one of the distinctive additions we Americans have made to "folk songs."
There are famous southern ballads here, such as Poor Howard, Bed on the Floor, and John Hardy. There are songs with symbolic language, as in Old Riley who walked the water with his long clothes on. (Here, perhaps, you should be let in on the meaning of this: his "long clothes" refer to his chain gang prison garb. When an inmate tried to make a break for his freedom, he would run up the river bed through the shallow water, to lose his scent to the blood hounds who were in pursuit. This was called "walking the water." You will also find songs of the southern farmer, who speaks with humor of his troubles with the boll weevil.
"Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" and "St. James Infirmary" are two of the greatest gambler ballads you'll find anywhere. The transcontinental railroad, said to have been built from the east by the Irish and tea, and from the west by the Chinese and rice, is one of the last great romances of labor. It was a quick way of traveling -- it meant escape, or it meant the high road to adventure and to new parts of the country. It meant distance and loneliness as well. For generations, the side door Pullman car was the symbol of wandering, because for a long time, we were a nation of wanderers. The railroads are represented here with "Drill Ye Tarriers" and "Pat on the Railway" as tributes to the hard-working men who built them. The headlight of the "Midnight Special" was a symbol of freedom to the convicts in a Texas chain gang.