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Why We Left

Why We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 208
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    Why We Left
    Book Description:

    Joanna Brooks's ancestors were among the earliest waves of emigrants to leave England for North America. They lived hardscrabble lives for generations, eking out subsistence in one place after another as they moved forever westward in search of a new life. Why, Brooks wondered, did her people and countless other poor English subjects abandon their homeland to settle for such unremitting hardship? The question leads her on a journey into a largely obscured dimension of American history.

    With her family's background as a point of departure, Brooks brings to light the harsh realities behind seventeenth- and eighteenth-century working-class English emigration-and dismantles the long-cherished idea that these immigrants were drawn to America as a land of opportunity. American folk ballads provide a wealth of clues to the catastrophic contexts that propelled early English emigration to the Americas. Brooks follows these songs back across the Atlantic to find histories of economic displacement, environmental destruction, and social betrayal at the heart of the early Anglo-American migrant experience. The folk ballad "Edward," for instance, reveals the role of deforestation in the dislocation and emigration of early Anglo-American peasant immigrants. "Two Sisters" discloses the profound social destabilization unleashed by the advent of luxury goods in England. "The Golden Vanity" shows how common men and women viewed their own disposable position in England's imperial project. And "The House Carpenter's Wife" offers insights into the impact of economic instability and the colonial enterprise on women.

    From these ballads, tragic and heartrending, Brooks uncovers an archaeology of the worldviews of America's earliest immigrants, presenting a new and haunting historical perspective on the ancestors we thought we knew.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8406-9
    Subjects: History, Music, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Brave Men Run
    (pp. 1-22)

    Years ago, I had the tremendous fortune of studying with Paula Gunn Allen, a foundational scholar of American Indian literature and a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Paula had a vast, searching imagination and a terrific sense of humor. From her, I learned to appreciate the longevity, complexity, depth, and cosmological value of the oral traditions of Native peoples and their role in fostering a sense of community and identity. Paula urged her students to grasp the profound differences between traditional American Indian and Euro-American thought worlds. She wanted us to adopt the habit of at least trying to...

  5. CHAPTER ONE No Land of Opportunity: Folk Ballads and the Story of Why We Left
    (pp. 23-48)

    The Story of why we left begins in England, for if the Brooks ever belonged anywhere—and I have my doubts that we did—it was to the fens and marshes of England. If we were peasants in the fifteenth century, we may have lived on ten to thirty acres of land by copyhold agreement, paying rents to a feudal lord, enjoying land tenure rights and the ability to convey land to our children, and nominally protected against unjust or arbitrary dispossession by the force of custom. But by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries that old feudal order...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Murder the Brother Who Killed the Tree: Fratricide and the Story of Deforestation
    (pp. 49-74)

    In 1937, Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax brought hisSchool of the Airradio program to the town of Galax in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Galax, named after an evergreen Appalachian plant used by traditional Anglo-American and Cherokee doctors as a tonic and poultice, was already famous as a stronghold for traditional string or “old-time” music. Among the greatest expositors of that old-time tradition was the Crockett Ward family.

    Born in 1873 in Grayson County, Virginia, Crockett Ward—who later styled himself Davy Crockett Ward, in honor of the American folk hero—descended from an Anglo-American...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Two Sisters and a Beaver Hat: Desire and the Story of Colonial Commodity Culture
    (pp. 75-102)

    On august 15, 1932, a young and enterprising literature scholar named Arthur Kyle Davis Jr. set up his Speak-o-Phone recording device in the tiny parlor of the home of Horton Barker in St. Clair’s Bottom, Virginia. Barker had been born in 1889 in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, into a family of tenant farmers and domestic servants in a mountain mining and iron mill town; he became blind when he was just a small child. Over a lifetime of listening—to his mother, to the music teachers at the Virginia School for the...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR To Sink It in the Lonesome Sea: Betrayal and the Story of Indentured Servitude
    (pp. 103-130)

    Sometime in 1949, sixty-seven-year-old Bascom Lamar Lunsford left his home near Leicester, North Carolina, up among the foggy hardwood cove forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, and traveled to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It wasn’t the first time Lunsford had visited the District of Columbia: ten years earlier, in 1939, he had played at the Roosevelt White House for the king and queen of Great Britain. But this time, as an honored guest of the Archive of American Folksong, Lunsford gave the recording engineers a sample of the wealth of Anglo-American folk songs he had mastered over...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Seduction of the House Carpenter’s Wife: Abandonment and the Story of Colonial Migration
    (pp. 131-164)

    In october 1950, the ethnographer Maud Karpeles sat down with fifty-five-year-old Attie Crane in Limestone, Tennessee, a tiny town on the banks of the Nolichucky River, at the western edge of the Cherokee National Forest—the real-life birthplace of the American folk hero Davy Crockett. Like Crockett himself, Attie Crane was descended from early British emigrants to North America, from the great masses of common peoples dislocated by England’s economic transformation into a modern mercantile economy. What did Attie Crane know of that precipitous historical moment that uprooted her ancestors and sent them packing? What body of memory had survived...

  10. EPILOGUE: Ballad of the Laboring Poor
    (pp. 165-172)

    I gave this book the titleWhy We Left: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrantsbecause as a literary historian I wanted to call attention to the idea that stories are powerful. The stories we tell about ourselves and about those who came before us shape how we understand history and our responsibility to it. When we talk about the lives of the first mass of laboring-class English emigrants to North America, one story has dominated all others: they came, we tell ourselves, because this was a “land of opportunity.” This story, it turns out, was spun and...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 173-190)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-208)
  13. Index
    (pp. 209-214)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 215-215)