In 1938, as a sort of hobby on their month-long annual vacations, Anne and Frank Warner began to collect folk songs from original sources -- people in the Appalachians, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Tidewater Virginia and even closer to home in New York, who had received the words and music through oral tradition. The hobby grew into something more, as Frank Warner began to appear on radio and television, became president of the New York Folklore Society and recorded seven albums of songs with annotations by his wife. The Warners were pioneers in the art of recording folk music in the field, according to Alan Lomax, who is usually placed first in that category. They began this book together, and Anne brought it to completion after Frank's death.
They collected nearly 1,000 songs about the lives of ordinary people -- sailors, miners, lumberjacks, but no cowboys; they stayed close to the East Coast (roughly, the 13 original colonies) and picked up, instead, a lot of material brought over centuries ago from Europe. There are sentimental ballads, songs of long-ago wars and political campaigns, songs commemorating notable murders, train wrecks, natural disasters real and imagined, and even new technologies. Some have roots that stretch back to medieval England, Scotland or Scandinavia. Others seem quite up-to-date in a 19th-century sort of way:
Oh, dear me, the world's on fire,
News sent around on a telegraph wire!
Lord a-massy, only think,
News sent to Mexico, quicker'n a wink!
Oh, dear, what shall I do,
Every year brings something new.
That one has an urban feeling and may have originated in a music hall, but its origins are lost and it was incorporated into the folk tradition, which has a way of polishing and refining what it handles. Other songs in this collection probably first saw the light of day on broadsheets printed and sold on street corners like newspapers. Some may have been first imagined in a mountain cabin, by an unknown poet impressed by an unusual incident. Many originated in events that are otherwise unknown, but some can be corroborated by court documents or newspaper clippings.
Whatever their origin or current form, these songs contain the stuff of daily life in our country, stretching back almost to its origins, and in other countries where America had hardly been imagined. Still, amid the old ballads of universal flavor, there is a strong American accent. The collection includes a campaign song from the 1840 election, and the original version of "Tom Dooley," brought to light by the Warners, which put folk music at the top of pop recording charts a quarter-century ago.
The Warner folk music archive is one of the richest in the United States, and the publishers note that, "Understandably, it was not possible to publish the whole collection in this volume." This scholarly apology is followed by a five-page list of omitted material, with references to places where some of the songs can be found. Room was made in this volume for the words and music to 195 of the most notable songs in the collection, together with introductions, notes and photos of performers. Most folk song collections classify their material in categories such as work songs, love songs, narrative ballads, songs of the sea, etc. This collection is grouped by the regions where the material was collected and, within each region, by the singers who were the sources. This is a due tribute to the people who preserved and transmitted the material, and the book is rich in details about their lives and personalities as well as photos of them -- usually in the somewhat stiff poses of people unaccustomed to cameras. Sometimes, this arrangement of material provides a striking variety of subject and style from one page to the next. It also reflects the splendidly random quality of folk transmission.
A good many of the songs ("Barbara Allen," for example, or "Lord Randall") will be familiar to devotees of folk music, and other versions are duly listed for almost all the songs in the collection. The Warners were constantly running into interesting variants and encountering familiar material in unexpected places. For scholars, their collection is indispensable. For ordinary readers (who should approach it prepared to make music as they browse), it will do nicely as a highly miscellaneous collection of songs that are quaint, compelling, fascinating or just plain good. The communication process functions in these ages with a curious intensity.
In his introduction (which constitutes a highly authoritative seal of approval), Alan Lomax states succinctly the raison d'e tre of this book: "If it hadn't been for stubborn old codgers like those the Warners found, and for song-hunters like the Warners themselves, we would certainly have lost the best of our past -- the tales and tunes and lore that made life worth living back yonder." This material, while keeping us in touch with "back yonder," can still give more depth and meaning to life today.