The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #80912   Message #3858153
Posted By: GUEST,Bob Coltman
31-May-17 - 01:55 PM
Thread Name: Origins: Wandering (Early and Late)
Subject: RE: Origins: Wandering (Early and Late)
Excuse the length of this. I hope it may spark further discussion.

After some thought and poring over Sandburg's American Songbag I advance this very tentative idea.

If true, it puts Sandburg at the intersection of the inception of a few important folk "art songs" in a "cabaret style" (to borrow Rag-Time Review's 1917 phrase). The songs are set apart in mood and style from Sandburg's usual reporting of traditional songs, and from traditional songs as a whole.

American Songbag contains a significant few songs, later very popular (especially among art singers) that are based on tradition but very non-traditional in performance. In each case Sandburg is the first (as far as I know) to publish them. Sandburg is careful to credit these songs to acquaintances or contributors, but the circumstances of their origin remain otherwise murky. Let's look at them.


"Wanderin'" - credited separately to Arthur Sullivan of Rochester, NY (learned on an American Relief Expedition to the Near East) and Hubert Canfield, Pittsford, NY. Sandburg presents this as if each wrote, or learned, separate verses of the same song. Style: brooding, intense, non-traditional.

"He's Gone Away" -   Heard by Charles Rockwood of Geneva, Illinois in "a mountain valley of North Carolina." A brief extract from the traditional song "Ten Thousand Miles," but much changed in presentation: slow, haunting, with flatted 6th and other marks of art song.

"I'm Sad and I'm Lonely" - another flatted 6th songs, slow, mournful, dramatic, from "a Dallas Texas woman who got it from Tennessee folks."

"Lonesome Road" - the alternative sophisticated and somewhat spooky-sounding uptown version: "Look down, look down, that lonesome road, Before you travel on" etc. As learned from Lloyd Lewis of Pendleton, Indiana. Flatted 6th again!

and perhaps "Times Gettin' Hard, Boys" - from Rebecca Taylor, evidently a spiritual singer, from Columbia, South Carolina. Worked over from a fragment of a traditional tobacco-hand banjo song. Magnetically lovely and very nearly traditional-sounding, but has a pop feel.

I could have added several of Sandburg's spirituals, notably the atmospheric, memorable "I Know Moonlight" (later a folkie campfire favorite) and "Jesus Won't You Come By'm By."

Though several are based on traditional song fragments or concepts, as "high concept" performance songs they seem to stand outside American tradition altogether. They foreshadow the concert performances of John Jacob Niles and other classical-leaning folk art performers.

These have in common that they are ideally tailored to Carl Sandburg's own performance style: moody, brooding, lingering over phrases as a poet would, using flatted 6ths in a couple of cases, all working toward a kind of folk art-song style unique in music then and now.

All these songs are first reported, in this form, in Sandburg's American Songbag.

Here goes:

I propose that along with Sandburg's wonderful song collecting, he, and/or certain of his friends and acquaintances, casually remade certain examples of traditional song. Partly using dramatic arrangements, partly varying melody and mood, they created a sophisticated kind of folk-inspired art song notably continued by John Jacob Niles ("Black Is the Color," "Rosy Peach," "I Wonder As I Wander" etc.)

This kind of song was covered by popular folk singers, most famously Burl Ives, and influenced pop singers, notably Jo Stafford in the 1950s, to create orchestrated cover versions of their own. A separate strand on the folk tree.

Secondly, I think the songs' relatively theatrical performance styles stem from first, Sandburg, and afterward those created during the 1920s and 1930s by Vernon Dalhart, Frank Luther and other popular singers who recast tradition to fit a mellow, meditative mold that appealed to uptown audiences. (Yet, as I can testify from collecting door to door in the South, their records also sold very well among the southern mountain people, who admired them for their fancy style.)

To summarize, a few sophisticated intellects were working on the colorful imagery of American traditional songs to produce a new type of folk art song. For this kind of song Carl Sandburg, in The American Songbag and in his own recorded performances, was an important point of junction, if not origin.

I've struggled to make sense of this (and perhaps it shows). But I think it is crucial to understanding the "high road" and "low road" of American folk / folk-pop singing in the last century.