Folk Songs of the Catskills: A Review

Journal of Musicological Research 5 (November 1984), pp. 260-264.

Norman Cazden, Herbert Haufrecht and Norman Studer. Folk Songs of the Catskills. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. Xv, 650p., index. Notes and Sources for Folk Songs of the Catskills. 188p.

Folk Songs of the Catskills is the culmination of many years’ work at Camp Woodland near Phoenicia, New York. Though many of the songs have been published already by Cazden (1958), it is most fortunate that this very special book should at last be published. To scholars, it serves to document a cultural pocket of song tradition, which shared more with Michigan, Maine and other timber areas than with adjacent sections of New York State. To former Woodland campers, and to the many folk revivalists who grew up with Cazden’s Abelard Folk Song Book, it offers a definitive and relatively complete collection of the songs as they were first taken down, without later improvements and accretions. To regional historians and lovers of Catskill lore, it offers a glimpse of past events, local industries such as hemlock bark collecting and scoopmaking, and a lifestyle that found a place for singing, dancing and storytelling. Finally it serves as a fitting memorial to two men who, more than others, shaped the work: the singer George Edwards (1877-1949), whose repertory forms the major part of the book, and composer and scholar Norman Cazden (1914-1980), who devoted so much of his life’s work to the music of the Catskills.

In 1939 Camp Woodland, guided by the progressive ideologies of its founders, set out to conserve and document the rapidly-disappearing traditional culture of the Catskill region. For over twenty years, from 1941 to 1962, these efforts included the systematic collecting of the songs presented in this volume. Most of these were notated before 1948, when a tape recorder became available. During the early years, the authors, from practical considerations, developed novel methods, and an “emic” view of transcription which is explained and defended in the introduction. The tunes were taken down in pencil by Haufrecht or Cazden, while squadrons of campers wrote down the first (or second, third or final) line of each stanza. The results were collated and sung back to the informant for comments or corrections. Many of the informants later visited the camp, or sang at the annual Folk Festivals at Phoenicia, where the transcriptions were once again compared with performance, and changes noted, with a view toward developing a “generalized tune form” which could be learned by campers in subsequent years. The authors acknowledge that their transcriptions show less detail than those of Bela Bartók, Percy Grainger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, but they answer that

precisely because of that paucity of inflected detail, the tunes here may represent something closer to the truth. For, to the degree that musical staff notation permits a registering of sufficient detail, the more accurately a transcription renders the quality of an individual performance event, the more it becomes restricted to a report of that single performance, and in that very measure it becomes an inaccurate approximation of the next performance, even by the same singer.(p. 24)

Folk Songs of the Catskills employs a frankly prescriptive notation which is intended to show “the way the tune goes.” No attempt is made to give the absolute pitch level of a particular performances, nor do the authors favor the conceit of transposing all tunes, regardless of range, to a standardized final on G. Neither are tempo indications given. The accuracy of the transcriptions may be checked against the recordings in the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, where these are available. Yet, to the authors, the Woodland project was more than archival: “the true living recapture of Folk Songs of the Catskills remains its continued singing by the young people who learned it at Camp Woodland.”

The present collection contains 178 entries. Most are unaccompanied songs and ballads, but a handful of other forms are included: recitation, cante fable, song text without tune, accompanied hymn (voice with fiddle), and instrumental dance tune. A few songs are presented in two distinct versions, as performed by different singers. Only fifteen Child ballads are included, but fully fifty-seven of the songs find correspondences in Laws’s collections of American and British broadside ballads. The songs are divided into sixteen headings, based on somewhat inconsistent criteria (for example, Courting Too Slow, Love Meets Obstacles, Pioneer Days, Shabby-Genteel Songs, and The Catskill Scene, the last covering virtually all songs with local references). The introductions to each heading, however, attempt to provide a rationale for the categories, as well as comments on the function of each type of song in traditional culture. The most notable feature of the commentary is found in the unusually full headnotes for each song. Aware that the texts and tunes of English-language folksongs often have entirely separate histories, the authors make every effort to do justice to both, and especially to avoid slighting “the musical aspects of traditional song lore.” (p. xiii) Indeed, the transcription and headnotes average over three pages for each song, and some are much longer. Here Cazden drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of song sources, including broadsides and pocket songsters, to supply as complete a background as possible for each song. Especially illuminating are the many parallels between the Catskill texts and those published in New York by William H. Delaney and Henry J. Wehman. Such popular collections may have had the effect of crystallizing the oral tradition in this and many other areas in much the same way as hillbilly recordings were later to do through parts of the South. Some may find the commentary too exhaustive; occasionally, tunes or texts with only superficial resemblances to the material at hand are painstakingly traced. For example, it is questionable whether George Edwards’s version of “The Little Cabin Boy” (No. 58) shows sufficient kinship to the shape-note hymn tune Idumea to warrant comment. The notes to “The Maid on the Shore” (No. 75) are especially confusing, partly because a number of unrelated tunes called Driumfhionn dubh dilis (Driemendoo, etc.) are traced merely because their titles resemble Driumfhionn donn dilis (Drimendown, etc.), an air which does show relationship to Edwards’s tune. Full and entertaining commentary will be found for the well-known “Missie Mouse” (No. 142), as well as for the more local “The Knickerbocker Line” (No. 146). Especially useful is the background for songs describing the Catskill scene. Diligent readers will find methodological statements and opinions hidden among the song sources: for example, a critique of Alan Lomax’s cantometrics on page 279-280, and comments on the validity of tune families on page 297-300.

The treatment of religious songs is puzzling and beset with unnecessary controversy. Apparently the Woodland campers did not seek, or did not find, many examples of religious folk song in the region. It is not clear why two sentimental parlor songs, “Blossom Time” (No. 85) and Henry Clay Work’s “We’re Coming, Sister Mary” (No. 84) are included, unless to fill out the section. More serious is the contentious tone in the notes to the spiritual songs “Poor and Foreign Stranger” (No. 77) and “The Ship of Zion” (No. 83). The authors, like other critics of George Pullen Jackson’s “white spiritual” hypothesis, correctly point out errors and misunderstandings that led Jackson and others to assume a prior currency for these songs in white southern tradition. But does it follow, then, that one can assume that their origin lies in black tradition? The authors, perhaps for ideological reasons, saw a conspiracy at work.

The apparent and suspicious confusion of claimed dates of origin of Poor Wayfaring Stranger fits into a pattern of another sort. At best, it represents ignorance, at worst a deliberate concealment, of the origin of the spiritual text among black singers. (p. 295)

This conclusion is based upon the assumption that Howard Odum’s 1909 printing from black tradition represents the earliest authentic documentation of the text. John F. Garst (1980), however, has traced several nineteenth-century appearances of the text, one as early as 1858. They include both northern and southern publications; some imply black transmission, others do not. It appears that the authors of Folk Songs of the Catskills are as willing as Jackson to state unwarranted assumptions as fact. Their characterization of the southern shape-note compilers as “fundamentalist hymnbook pitchmen” reveals their hostility to and misunderstanding of the largely nondenominational singing-school tradition. The spiritual song tradition is neither white nor black, neither northern or southern, but American. Current theories of Afro-American influence offer a stimulating basis for further study; unsupported attempts to parochialize individual songs that were demonstrably shared by different regions and races do not.

Seventy of the songs have been published earlier in Cazden’s Abelard Folk Song Book (1958); a few more have appeared in smaller collections by Cazden, and in Camp Woodland’s annual. Readers familiar with the Abelard collection will note that Cazden there allowed himself more editorial license than in the present collection. The earlier work freely adds or omits words, alters tunes, and provides piano and chord accompaniments. Song titles frequently vary between the two collections. The Abelard Folk Song Book presented a selection of songs, standardized and adapted from the Camp Woodland tradition: in Folk Songs of the Catskills it is hoped that we now possess the entire collection as it was sung by the original informants.

The second volume, Notes and Sources, does not duplicate the headnotes to the songs; it includes abbreviated references to every published or recorded version available to the authors of each song in the collection, whether or not cited in the headnotes. These references are coded to a 63-page List of Sources. Like the headnotes, the references tend to be over-inclusive, though there are occasional omissions, for example, a recording of “The Cordwood Cutter” (No. 119) by James B. Cornett on the well-known Mountain Music of Kentucky (Folkways FA-2317). Both the references and the list of sources contain incorrect dates and typographical errors, as may be expected with such condensed tabular information. The relationship between the hardbound Notes and Sources and the softbound song collection is curious. Presumably, the publishers, hoping to avoid pricing the collection beyond the reach of Woodland alumni, folk revivalists, Catskill residents and tourists, relegated the Notes and Sources to a separate volume aimed at scholars and libraries.

Folk Songs of the Catskills fulfils one of the major purposes of the Woodland project: to present a record of a regional repertory as it existed when the camp was in session. The documentation is as complete as can be found today in any similar collection. The book is a pleasure to read, to sing, or just to leaf through. Though the circumstances under which the book was compiled are perhaps unique, Folk Songs of the Catskills is a model for regional collections, and a welcome addition to the field.

David Warren Steel
University of Mississippi

Copyright © 1984 by Gordon and Breach Science Publishers.

References Cited

  1. Cazden, Norman 1958 The Abelard Folk Song Book (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1958).
  2. Garst, John F. 1980 “‘Poor Wayfaring Stranger’ – Early Publications,” The Hymn 31(2): 97-101.

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