The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #10506   Message #2165054
Posted By: GUEST,Bob Coltman
06-Oct-07 - 08:44 AM
Thread Name: Lyr Req/Add: If I Had a Ribbon Bow
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: If I Had a Ribbon Bow
Niles was first to report the song and claimed it as his, I'm certain -- though I haven't the documents to hand. He certainly did publish the song under his copyright.

It's important to note that its true title is the one Joe cites: "Ef I Had a Ribbon Bow," because that will help you find it in indexes.

My guess is that at most a phrase or two of the song MAY have been something Niles heard from a Kentucky singer (how I wish we could hear his sources!!!) -- but that he composed the bulk of the song himself.

From what I've heard, Niles' notorious deceptiveness about what was and was not traditional usually broke down into serious treatment of a copyright claim when it came to royalties. He liked to pretend that each song was a hoary mystery heard from some elusive primitive at a time when Appalachia was indeed isolated, seemed wild and strange to outsiders, and had few "made roads."   (In a way he was right about the mystery -- haven't others of us felt it too?)

Niles was of his time in that he looked on the "naive, untutored" styles of mountaineers as raw material for art. He couldn't bridge the gap to respect for the WAY they sang. That was left for future generations, us.
Some other early collectors -- Jean Thomas is one -- "fixed up" the songs they found, more or less, from then till now. (Thomas even "fixed up" Blind Bill Day to the extent of parading him as Jilson Setters.) But that was the passion of the times, and needs to be understood in its context. We're fortunate that a few like Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp believed in reporting the songs and their sources reasonably straight, rather than dressing them up for the public.

All this should not obscure the fact that Niles was one of the earliest collectors on the scene in the Appalachians (began 1907, I think?), knew his territory well, and found many fine songs.

For me, his arty, precious style, hard to listen to as it is, is a fascinating example of an educated, sophisticated man's reaction to the deep mystery of Appalachian folksong. Niles' vocal response was bizarre, but I heard it at an early age, and though traditional style and presentation is my strong favorite, I still get a chill hearing him sing. "Like" it? Not sure. But like Yma Sumac, it's one of those things that sticks like a burr. A world gone by, but an early landmark in the history of how the idea of folksong mutated over time. I think he deserves a lot of credit, one way and another.

I understand Ron Pen has a Niles biography in the works. I, for one, am looking forward to reading it.

Bascom Lamar Lunsford, by the way, was a difficult man to record at his best. Some of his later records are mediocre for various reasons, including unsuitable accompaniment, which is a whole other story. But he made some fine early 78s, and the Folkways LP Smoky Mountain Ballads is a gem. And he was another early collector who gathered many rare songs and fiercely defended of the old ways and the dignity of Appalachian people and singers.