Ballads and Songs of Tradition
Since he first met the Beech Mountain, North Carolina-native Frank Proffitt at the 1961 Chicago Folk Festival, Sandy Paton, his wife Caroline, and Lee Baker Haggerty have sought out traditional singers to record their songs and ballads. Paton, Paton, and Haggerty have spent the better part of a lifetime scraping and scrimping to fund the next trip to the Appalachians, Ozarks, or upper New York state, making time to edit the tapes, writing and printing the unusually thoughtful notes that marked their records and tapes, and selling the successive releases that made Folk-Legacy a recorded resource of Anglo-American traditional songs and singers second to none.
In all of the releases, there have been some choice recoveries of the muckle ballads thought long-since dead: Sandy Paton lists among them Sara Cleveland’s Queen Jane, a version of The King’s Daughter Lady Jean (Child 52) never previously recorded in the United States; Frank Proffitt’s Bonny James Campbell (Child 210); Jeannie Robertson’s superb Twa Brothers (Child 49); and Joe Estey’s Hind Horn (Child 17), of which there have been but seven other versions reported in the New World.
If nothing else, the Patons and Haggerty have proven these great song-stories are not dead at all—an oral tradition survives. In fact, Sandy Paton notes, the songs of the parents are preserved by the singing of the children. Frank Proffitt, Jr., sings his father’s repertoire; Colleen Cleveland sings her grandmother’s. As it was, so it is; time without end.
Which brings us to Ballads and Songs of Tradition, the first of a planned series of anthologies of traditional songs and ballads Folk-Legacy is to release. Here are 21 ballads by 13 singers recorded in North Carolina living rooms and Scots croft kitchens. They have been culled from the Paton archives. Many of them are previously unreleased—all of them are choice.
The Patons being comparative folklorists at heart cannot resist a touch of gentle scholarship in their choices. They provide contrasting versions of three ballads: Gypsy Davy (Child 200), The House Carpenter (Child 243), and a British 19th-Century broadside (?), which IS new to me, The Old Arm Chair. Of the 21 tracks, it is difficult to select favorites, but Scots housewife Lizzie Higgins’ My Bonnie Boy is a marvel of delicately ornamented phrases. (Ms. Higgins comes by it naturally; she is the daughter of Jeannie Robertson and Donald Higgins, a master of the Highland pipes.) Her mother’s Twa Brothers (Child 49) is truly gripping: six and one-half minutes of blood-drenched drama. Similarly, Marie Hare of Strathadam, New Brunswick, retells the grim fate of Lost Jimmie Whalen (Laws B 1); her sheer artistry compels attention, no matter how familiar or inevitable the story.
All of which, I think, is the point of this anthology. Paton, Paton and Haggerty are intent on demonstrating that folk singers do possess an aesthetic sense. It is surely different from that of the classically trained or popular singer, but nonetheless it is real — and underappreciated. Voice, instrument, even self are subordinated to the words, to the narrative. That is the anything but simple artistry of the 13 traditional singers presented in this excellent first collection of a promised series of anthologies drawn from the Folk-Legacy archives.