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American Folklife Center



Women Collectors
arrow graphicAmerican Folk Song
Ex-Slave Narratives
Folk Music Revival
Duncan Emrich Autograph Album Collection
The Local Legacies Project Collection
Field Documentation Projects
Collections Available Online



American Folk Song
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Zora Neale Hurston interviewing musicians Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown. Alan Lomax, photographer. 1935. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ61-1777 DLC (b&w film copy neg.)

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Although “American Folk Song” is not the title of a collection, the Archive of Folk Culture includes premier collections of this genre, which is rich in gender-specific themes. Beginning in 1928, and for nearly fifty years, folk song and folk music were the focus of many collectors who both worked at the archive and contributed to its collections. The Library's Recording Laboratory was established in the 1940s to make these field recordings available to the public, and the series that resulted, Folk Music of the United States, is legendary.

Noted elsewhere are the songs collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell for the WPA California Folk Music Collection (see Women Collectors) and religious and secular music of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado collected by Juan B. Rael (see Collections Available Online). The collections also hold songs portraying women in a negative way, as in a number of misogynistic and scatological songs performed at the Library of Congress by Jelly Roll Morton in 1938 and recorded by Alan Lomax.

The texts of folk songs provide a wealth of cultural data on men's attitudes toward women and on women's attitudes toward men and toward themselves. Examples from the center's large collection of Anglo-American ballads include “The House Carpenter,” in which a young woman is lured away from her husband and baby by the entreaties of a romantic (sometimes demonic) lover:

“If you'll forsake your house carpenter,
And come and go with me,
I'll take you where the grass grows green,
To the lands on the banks of the sea.”
She went 'n' picked up her sweet little babe
And kissed it one, two, three,
Saying, “Stay at home with your papa dear,
And keep him good company.”

“The Farmer's Curst Wife,” another such ballad, tells the story of a scolding wife whose husband offers no resistence when the Devil comes and carries her away. But the woman makes such a nuisance of herself in Hell that the Devil brings her back:

This is what a woman can do:
She can outdo the Devil and her old man too.

There's one advantage women have over men:
They can go to Hell and come back again.

A sentimentally romantic treatment of love and death is portrayed in the famous ballad “Barbara Allen,” which ends with traditional symbolism:

Sweet William died on a Saturday night,
And Barbry died a Sunday.
Their parents died for the love of the two;

They was buried on a Easter Monday.
A white rose grew on William's grave,
A red rose grew on Barbry's;
They twined and they twined in a true-lover's knot,
A-warnin' young people to marry.

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