Wednesday, March 6, 2019

A Patriot in Song

Professor Francis James Child (1825-1896)

The sense of the word “hero”—once limited mainly to famous warriors, explorers, and self-sacrificing patriots--has apparently expanded so considerably as to include any member of our armed forces and most civilian “first responders”, at least the ones who are not racist pigs, another category of the lexical growth industry.  I do not begrudge the generous instinct to create more heroes.  Indeed, I want to add yet another subspecies: the academic hero.  That is the category to which one could plausibly assign Audubon, to whom I devoted a recent post; and it is certainly the category for Francis James Child.  Child was born in Boston in 1825.  The Republic was not yet half a century old.  Though he would become a famous Harvard professor and the bosom companion of Brahmins like William James and Charles Eliot Norton, he was born into modest circumstances and was a product of those democratic and meritocratic impulses that continue to animate our higher education at its best.  I, of all people, can “relate” to a nation that values the pursuit of old Germanic philology as well as the pursuit of the almighty dollar.  If you can believe Thomas Jefferson, he was not less proud to be president of the American Philosophical Society than to be President of his country!

Child was of a scholarly generation that treasured the primary text.  That is, literature itself was more important to him than the ingenious prolusions of professors upon it.  Therefore he was first of all an editor.  But it was impossible to do groundbreaking editorial work on Chaucer from America in 1850.  He therefore brought out five annotated volumes of Spenser—no trivial task.  Then, both as scholar and as patriot, he designed a vast project of unique American significance.

Most of us know something of the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England.  We tend to be less knowledgeable about succeeding generations of British immigrants, mainly from the North of England, from Scotland, and from Ulster, the so-called “Scotch-Irish” whose arrival antedated the large Catholic immigration of the potato famine.  They were mainly no-frills Protestants used to very plain living, and they swarmed westward through Tidewater Virginia and the Carolinas to the Appalachians and the Cumberlands, into the Ohio Valley and the lush forests of Kentucky and Tennessee.  These pioneers travelled light: a Bible, a gun, agricultural tools, spindles and sometimes even a spinning wheel.  More than a few, though, had musical instruments, and practically all carried within their memories an invisible inner treasury of popular song passed on to them by family elders and hayseed bards from the time of the War of the Roses to the Battle of New Orleans.  In the Faerie Queene Spenser had deployed one kind of epic.  In his huge edition of the transplanted English and Scottish Ballads (8 volumes, 1857-59, later 5 volumes of larger format) Child laid out another: the epic poetry of the young American republic a-making.

The cultural importance of folk music, real folk music, not its pallid contemporary simulacrum, is impossible for us to understand today.  The commodification of popular music, and the big business that generates and distributes it, were unknown before the Civil War, and hardly known before the twentieth century.  Child, though a polyglot, was a native speaker of American English and a scholar of early English dealing primarily with printed texts; but his enterprise inspired, and sometimes provoked, those field-workers who eventually would be called ethno-musicologists to try to preserve native Amerindian traditions and to study the musical archaeology of large and disparate American populations of African and Iberian origin, among others.  The English musicologist Cecil Sharp, an early twentieth-century heir of F. J. Child, went ballad-hunting in Appalachia during the First World War, recording a vast repertory of songs to be returned, marvelously preserved, to the crofts and cottages whence they had migrated a century earlier.

The old ballads are about everything under the sun: battles, sea voyages, hunting parties, public executions, country fairs, and supernatural events galore.    Chevy Chase, based in a half-remembered anecdote about an obscure fourteenth-century battle as reduced to a brawl between two great Border chieftains, is a tale of a great slaughter of deer that turned into a great slaughter of men.  Yet what power it has.  It was already old in the sixteenth century, when one of that age’s most elegant poets, Sir Philip Sidney, said this about it: “Certainly I must confess mine own barbarousness; I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style; which being so evil apparelled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work, trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?”

But mostly the old ballads are about the two great themes of world romance: Love and Death.  “Would you, my lords”—so begins Bédier’s reconstruction of the medieval Tristan and Isolde—“would you hear a fine story of love and death?”  And, boy, do we get one.  “Set me as a seal upon thine heart,” says the Song of Songs, “for love is as strong as death”.  My grandfather Fleming used to sit on his porch in Arkansas half mumbling, half crooning “Barbara Allen”.  I wish I had paid more attention.  “Barbara Allen” is apparently the most recorded song in musical history.  I could wish to have added to the repertory.  I don’t know whether any two singers have agreed as to its words.  Like many old ballads it is an at times inchoate verbal quilt.  Yet a discernible plot forces its way like a red cord through the song’s peripheral incoherencies and shifting points of view; and it is the plot of tragic love.  Cruel Barbara Allen makes all the lads sing “well away” or “lack a day” or, presumably, any trisyllabic bit of verbal stuffing that could rhyme in -ay.  All that is the noise.  The signal is that cruel beauty must come to know the everlasting sorrow of love and death, must find indeed that they are the same.  “My true love died for me today,” she tells her distraught mother. “I’ll die for him tomorrow.”  Though she spurned him in life, they will lie till Judgment Day in contiguous graves in the old churchyard; yet even now the bard is not finished, for “out of his grave grew a red, red rose, and out of hers a briar.”