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Recentering Anglo/American Folksong

Recentering Anglo/American Folksong: Sea Crabs and Wicked Youths

Roger deV. Renwick
Copyright Date: 2001
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    Recentering Anglo/American Folksong
    Book Description:

    A wealth of texts of British and Anglo/North American folksong has long been accessible in both published and archival sources. For two centuries these texts have energized scholarship. Yet in the past three decades this material has languished, as literary theory has held sway over textual study. In this crusading book Roger deV. Renwick argues that the business of folksong scholars is to explain folksong: folklorists must liberate the material's own voice rather than impose theories that are personally compelling or appealing.

    To that end, Renwick presents a case study in each of five essays to demonstrate the scholarly value of approaching this material through close readings and comparative analysis. In the first, on British traditional ballads in the West Indies, he shows how even the best of folklorists can produce an unconvincing study when theory is overvalued and texts are slighted. In the second he navigates the many manifestations of a single Anglo/American ballad, "The Rambling Boy," to reveal striking differences between a British diasporic strain on the one hand and a southern American, post--Civil War strain on the other.

    The third essay treats the poetics of a very old, extremely widespread, but never before formalized trans-Atlantic genre, the catalogue. Next is Renwick's claim that recentering folksong studies in our rich textual databanks requires that canonical items be identified accurately. He argues that "Oh, Willie," a song thought to be a simple variety of "Butcher's Boy," is in fact a distinct composition. In the final essay Renwick looks at the widespread popularity of "The Crabfish," sung today throughout the English-speaking world but with roots in a naughty tale found in both continental Europe and Asia.

    With such specific case studies as these Renwick justifies his argument that the basic tenets of folklore textual scholarship continue to yield new insights.

    Roger deV. Renwick, a professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author ofEnglish Folk Poetry: Structure and Meaningand of the supplement toThe British Traditional Ballad in North America. He has been published inJournal of American FolkloreandSouthern Folklore Journal.

    eISBN: 978-1-62103-664-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)

    This book explores a topic that not too many years ago was favored in folklore scholarship but that has now declined significantly from its privileged position: Anglo/American folksong.¹ To my mind the most lamentable corollary of this decline has been a waste of the huge data banks of anglophone folksong texts and tunes that serious field-collecting built up in the British Isles over the two hundred or so years before 1950, in North America over the first fifty years of the last century. Because these data could not easily be fit into the ʺnew directionsʺ that post-1970 theoretical models demanded,...

    (pp. ix-2)

    ʺI have yet to find an approach to folksong from which I have not learned something,ʺ D. K. Wilgus first wrote over thirty-five years ago (1964: 39). Only someone who found folksong deeply absorbing would have made that claim, and Wilgus indeed was such a person: he possessed a huge collection of field tapes and sound recordings of Anglo/American folksong that he seemed to know intimately and exhibited just as much detailed familiarity with published collections. He also labored for years constructing two thorough, wide-ranging databases, one of anglophone Irish ballads, the other of ballads from the whole British/North American...

  5. 1 On Theorizing Folksong: Child Ballads in the West Indies
    (pp. 3-24)

    As folklorists increasingly attempt to address their current crisis of identity by, for example, adopting the terminology of other disciplines (we seldom seem to ʺcollect folkloreʺ any more, for instance, but instead ʺdo ethnographyʺ) and by striving mightily to be considered progressive (so that insistent ʺtheorizingʺ of every aspect of our discipline is all the rage), we find ourselves paradoxically becoming less respected rather than more. It doesnʹt make sense. After all, if weʹre employing the same terminology (ʺdiscourse,ʺ ʺrepresentation,ʺ ʺsite[s] of contestationʺ), addressing the same issues (ʺauthenticity,ʺ ʺsexuality,ʺ ʺpowerʺ), and drawing upon the same sources of intellectual inspiration (Foucault,...

  6. 2 From Newry Town to Columbus City: A Robberʹs Journey
    (pp. 25-58)

    This chapter offers a study which avoids weaknesses that arise when we draw too restricted a set of boundaries around folksongʹs textual subject matter. It accepts the premise that a songʹs whole tradition—its life history, so to speak—is an important context within which one must see any single version. To say that is not to deny the obvious individuality of each singer, the uniqueness of each performance event, the special nature of an oikotype; it is simply to assert that enough continuity in any songʹs life-history exists that drawing boundaries that are too parochial or too arbitrary often...

  7. 3 The Anglo/American Catalogue Song
    (pp. 59-91)

    A survey of the more significant studies of Anglo/American folksong published over the last decade or so would reveal the ballad to be still by far the genre of scholarly choice (see, for example, Cheesman and Rieuwerts 1997; McCarthy 1990; Toelken 1995), even in the present postformalist age when text-determined topics usually take a backseat in folkloristsʹ worldview to ethnographically determined ones; when the current taste of cultural theorists for instability, indeterminacy, relativism, anti-essentialism, and so forth regards the concept of a bounded ʺtypeʺ as far too rigid and reifying, a distortion of the real world; and when categories derived...

  8. 4 “Oh, Willie”: An Unrecognized Anglo/American Ballad
    (pp. 92-115)

    The most important step in the establishment and legitimation of folksong as a scholarly field was to amass a substantial body of data. In Britain, proponents of the emerging discipline ʺdid fieldworkʺ as early as the mid-1700s, meeting with and listening to men and women who sang songs organically related to ongoing social life, both in when they were sung and in what they were about, their topics ranging from ordinary, quotidian experiences (songs of work or conviviality, for example) to rarer, life-critical ones (ballads of love relations telling ordeal-filled tales of courtship and perhaps marriage). The visitors recorded these...

  9. 5 “The Crabfish”: A Traditional Storyʹs Remarkable Grip on the Popular Imagination
    (pp. 116-150)

    At the address, an internet surfer will find the website of the Pikeʹs Peak, Colorado, chapter of the Hash House Harriers, an organization with branches all over the world whose core membership has historically been composed of British expatriate and British Commonwealth citizens. Even in the present dayʹs more globally interconnected world, that membership still generally shares an orientation that could be described as Anglophile, even when a chapter is as far away from Britain as Colorado Springs, where the Pikeʹs Peak group makes its home. A social club, the Hash House Harriers emphasize outdoor activities, especially long-distance communal...

    (pp. 151-152)

    D. K. Wilgus was actually one of my teachers when, in 1969, I enrolled in UCLAʹs graduate folklore program and learned a healthy respect not only for texts but for lots of them. Eventually, I earned my M. A. and departed for the doctoral program at Penn. There I was inundated with new folklore paradigms like ʺethnography of communicationʺ and ʺstructuralism,ʺ to which, like everyone else, I was attracted, for they helped me expand my understanding of Anglo/American folksong; but I tried to make sure that they did sowithoutcompromising the integrity of those songs as represented in our...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 153-164)
    (pp. 165-176)
  13. Indexes
    (pp. 177-183)