Q&A: Barry Lee Pearson, on African-American ballads...
As he writes in the accompanying notes, that collection’s goal is "to reacquaint the listener with a relatively neglected body of African-American folksong." He draws a distinction between these "story songs" and the blues, and defines the ballad in this context as "a song that tells a story, comes in short verses (with or without a refrain), and is sung to a short, repeated melody."
Most of the selections are African-American compositions; "St. James Infirmary" is one of four that are "adopted from British traditions." (The others are "The Gallis Pole," "Mouse on the Hill," and "Stewball.") Pearson writes that the heyday of the African-American ballad was the period from 1885 to 1925, an era of black migration from the rural South to cities from St. Louis to New York. He goes on to explain other factors that led to the neglect of these ballads as a particular form: many were covered and reworked by white singers, and many scholars were put off by "the lack of a cohesive chronological storyline ... misread[ing] improvisation as forgetfulness or confusion." But in Pearson's view, one of the great traits of these ballads is the way individual singers altered them.
Barry Lee Pearson was kind enough to spend some time on the phone recently, answering a few questions I had. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows.
Did you have specific songs in mind at the beginning of the process of putting this together?
I approached Smithsonian Folkways, wanting to do a ballads CD. African-American ballads, while they were kind of central to folk-song scholarship thirty or forty years ago, have kind of fallen by the wayside as people have become focused on blues. My constraint was that I essentially had to use the Smithsonian folkways catalog, so what I wound up using was different than some of my initial ideas.
And was “St. James Infirmary” on the list from the beginning?
I have to admit when I started I was probably thinking more of African-American compositions. But the more I thought about it, I realized it was more important to do a representation of the songs that were in the African-American repertoire. “St. James Infirmary” was strongly an African-American song, even though its earliest roots came from Britain. It was adapted so much by African-Americans. As soon as it got localized – perhaps in New Orleans – and especially after the Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong versions, big hit versions, it really resonated with the African-American community.
I first heard John Cephas sing it, back in the 1980s. It was so central to his repertoire, that song used to tear him up on stage, his version was so soulful.
I liked what you had to say in the liner notes about how some scholars would say such-and-such doesn’t make narrative sense, so that’s a problem. But those weren’t errors, it was a different context.
It’s interesting to me, the more I work on this. There’s a lot of interesting transitions from ballads to blues, from the Anglo European perspective to the African-American perspective, and the aesthetics of what constitutes a good song. But it’s pretty clear to me from the earliest writings that Anglo Europeans or white Americans did on African-American music, that they really had very little understanding of the concept of improvisation, or of suiting a song to the context. They’d always be asking people, “Where’d you learn that song? How’d you learn a song about what’s happening now?”
It doesn’t mean there wasn’t improvisation in European songs as well. But African-American tradition was so directed to group participation, and the event, it put a high premium and value on being able to come up with your own version of the song that suited the occasion. Especially for dancing audiences, being able to keep the song going as long as you could -- people wanted that.
I guess the other factor is the legal system: Someone just claims the writing credit under the law, whatever the tradition.
It’s a problem that you run into all the time. In those days, that’s just what you did, until someone called you out. For a lot of these songs, you’ll find that they have hundreds of copyright applicants. And a lot of people would claim a song because it really was their version – like “John Henry,” people would say “Yeah, I wrote that, that’s my way of doing it.” The legal system is one thing, and what happens in a tradition is another.
Clearly storytelling in song, the folk tradition, goes back quite a ways. Is that something that black musicians began doing in the context of the United States, or were they drawing on a different African narrative tradition?
African narrative songs are a little bit different. They’re a lot like what you might think of in European tradition as epic songs – really long, long narratives. There’s hundreds and hundreds of those throughout Africa.
The ballad has specific characteristics: the short verse, sung to the repeated melody, and coming in a specific stanza format. As far as I’m concerned, despite the fact that most blues artists will say a blues song tells a story, it’s a very different type of story. It’s more like a person thinking about something out loud. In other words, in a ballad, you’re going to have actions occurring. Often somebody gets killed. In a blues song, a person’s going to threaten to kill somebody if they don’t get right. But with some exceptions, it doesn’t occur. It’s a person thinking about what might happen in the future, not a straightforward description, “Here’s what happened.”
Also you’ll find a sort of more cause-and-effect format in a lot of ballads, like “Stagolee.” And the blues songs, because it’s a much more ritualistic form, it’s designed for people to think about the situation they’re in, and maybe offer potential directions – you might change, I might change – that’s where a blues song is going to end. In the ballads you have a narrative that describes something that occurred.
Does the ballad have a geographic home base, as people link Mississippi to the blues, and New Orleans to jazz?
It’s an interesting question, because you find ballads in a lot of places. Many of them are urban songs, and if I were to really look at a pathway where the tradition seems to be strongest, it would be along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. Louisville, Cincinnati maybe, and then especially St. Louis and Memphis. The river pathway seems to be one of the strongest ways these works were disseminated.
I also think piano players were important. At least at one time, they were the ones creating a lot of these narratives. Like Jelly Roll Morton, in his recordings for Alan Lomax, has one called “The Murder Ballad” –
I just heard that! It’s amazing, it goes on for thirty minutes.
Right. And that indicates to me that this was a format people were familiar with. And you find similar things with some other piano players who are more blues artists. I think this was a tradition, not unique to piano players, but at one point in time they were familiar with this idiom, so they could talk about local events, in a tavern, maybe if it was in Memphis, and a local celebrity or hero got into a scrape or whatever, yeah, they could come up with a song about it.
You also compare the ballad form to rap.
That came about through talking about it in class, especially when hip hop first came along and people complained about how violent it was. I would say, “If you want to hear something violent, listen to some of the Child Ballads.”
The real connection to me would be the connection to urban music, talking about street life, semi-improvised, using a lot of the same themes. I do think there’s a strong correlation.