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20 December 2022

52. Appalachian trail

     “‘The trail,’” dictated Wimsey [to journalist Salcombe Hardy], “‘breaks off at the crucial point. How did the razor get into the hands of Paul Alexis?  If once I could be satisfied of that, the answer might at once set at rest all my doubt.  If Paul Alexis can be proved to have bought the razor, I shall consider the suicide theory to have been proved up to the hilt.  But until that missing link in the chain of evidence is reconstructed, I shall hold that Paul Alexis was foully and brutally murdered, and I shall spare no efforts to bring the murderer to the judgment he has so richly deserved.’  How’s that, Sally?”
     “Not too bad.  I can work that up into something.  I shall add, of course, that you, knowing the enormous circulation of the Morning Star, are relying on the wide publicity it will give to this statement to etcetera, etcetera.  I might even get them to offer a reward.”
     “Why not?  Anyway, pitch it to ’em hot and strong, Sally.”
     “I will—for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer.  Between you and me, would you be satisfied it was suicide if the reward was claimed?”
     “I don’t know,” said Wimsey.  “Probably not. In fact, I am never satisfied.”

Dorothy L. Sayers:  Have His Carcase (1932), chap. XI

In about 1908, Mrs. Olive Dame Campbell by chance heard a student at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky sing the old English ballad “Barbara Allen,” and she thereafter began canvassing the Appalachian region for remnants of other folksongs from the British Isles. Upon meeting Campbell and seeing her work, English folklorist Cecil Sharp at once recognized that Campbell had “tapped a mine which if properly and scientifically explored would yield results—musical, historical, literary, etc.—of the first importance.” (I quote this from a very useful 1999 article by Michael Yates, “Cecil Sharp in America: Collecting in the Appalachians.”) In the following years Sharp went on three extensive collecting trips with his amanuensis Maud Karpeles. In their 46 weeks in the field, they collected 1612 specimens, publishing their findings as English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1917), with an expanded second edition in 1932. The map below appeared in that second edition.

SOURCE:  scan of Frontispiece of vol. 1 of English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (2nd Ed.), collected by Cecil J. Sharp, “including thirty-nine Tunes contributed by Olive Dame Campbell” (1932)

The “counties in which the songs were collected” (and only these) are shown by their borders; otherwise, only state borders are indicated. The 1000’ contour line is given in much more detail, zig-zagging to reveal several distinct ridges.  The story told by that more detailed contour line surely regards the remoteness of the locations in which Sharp collected his specimens:  a distance that may not appear very far on the map might be separated by a considerable difference in elevation with few passable routes.  Indeed, absent from the maps in both editions is any indication of road access, even between the few cities marked.  In his introduction Sharp emphasizes that his journeys took him into very remote locations; consequently, the texts gathered in those places are relics of a tradition that has persisted and developed apart from the increasingly urbanized world down the hill.

At the same moment that Sharp and Karpeles were finishing their journeys up and down the Appalachian hills, a Kentucky boy who would have been particularly interested in their endeavors was “over there” in France.  Indeed, from his wartime experience John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) eventually published a book of soldier songs which, even with its texts somewhat sanitized, still merits its title, The Songs my Mother Never Taught Me (1928).  Returning after the war, Niles was fascinated by the findings of Sharp, Campbell, and Karpeles—and by the burgeoning interest in folk music generally.  He set about to find some treasures of his own.

     “Satisfied?” asked Hardy, as Wimsey returned from the police-station.  He had telephoned his story to Town and was absorbing a little refreshment after his labours.
    “I ought to be,” replied his lordship.  “The only thing that worries me, Sally, is that if I’d wanted to invent a story to fit this case, that is exactly the story I should have invented.”

Have His Carcase, chap. XIV

From the start, this blog has been as much about what’s on the page as about how it got there.  I’m passionately interested in the textual antecedents of whatever is in front of me.  Where did this come from?  Whose hands were on it?  What changes (small or large) were wrought?  What do such changes convey to us about how comfortably this music exists as a notated text at all?  But what about when the textual trail grows prematurely cold?

SOURCE:  scan (p. 49) from a field notebook of John Jacob Niles,
preserved among his papers at the University of Kentucky;
this image is taken from from Ron Pen,
I Wonder as I Wander:  the Life of John Jacob Niles (2010).

Here’s an example of something that clearly is not comfortably finding its way into notation.  (Apologies for the comparatively low-resolution of the scan—but I don’t think that will prevent anyone from following the rest of this post.)  It shows a page of one of Niles’s notebooks, and purports to be his earliest attempts to notate the song “I wonder as I wander,” in Murphy, North Carolina, on July 16, 1933 (starting about one-third of the way down the page).  The two following pages have further attempts.  Ron Pen, who was the Director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky, has probably given more sustained attention to these pages than anyone else in the world, and has pieced together a narrative of what these tidbits reveal about Niles’s compositional process.  Yes, I said it:  compositional.  While the inspiration of this song came out of the mouth of another (Niles noted down: “singing of a girl who calls herself Annie Morgan about 16 or maybe younger, very pretty—very unwashed”), whatever he heard Morgan sing was radically transformed before Niles published the song.  As Pen recounts, Niles’s compositional sketches from late September and early October 1933 gradually accumulate two further stanzas, and several different versions of the tune.  Those pages also have notes like “Carl E[ngel] will not take it this way (the ending is wrong).”  Engel was Niles’s publisher at G. Schirmer, and he himself wasn’t above a little textual meddling if it would make a better product in the end.  The textual trail doesn’t just grow cold at July 1933, it is non-existent; a better metaphor would be a spring emerging from the soil, flowing forth with no obvious source.  Yet I have no problem regarding “I wonder as I wander” as an Appalachian folk-song, as it flows out of a(n extrapolated) tradition, even though it is actually the calculated artistic product of John Jacob Niles in dialogue with his publisher.  In the memorable words of Thomas Dunhill, “let us disabuse ourselves of the idea that a folk-song is a song written by nobody and arranged by Cecil Sharp” (p. 246).

There is a pretty good chance you have heard Niles’s song:

I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
How Jesus the savior did come for to die
For poor on’ry sinners like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

It often shows up on Christmas concerts in all sorts of arrangements, particularly for choirs.  And it’s a good tune, often described as “haunting.”  The tune is unusual:  all four phrases begin with the same sequence of notes, but each phrases ends differently; the last phrase has both the highest and lowest pitches of the melody, with what is perhaps an unexpected final note—unresolved, lingering, making the silence which must eventually follow it seem poignant indeed.  About twenty years ago when I heard the new tune by Swiss composer Carl Rütti, I was puzzled:  as far as I’m concerned, the original tune was the best part.  Why throw it out?  

The first three lines of the lyric seem to stem directly from the encounter in Murphy, NC, but possibly not the repeat of the first line as the last line of the stanza came from Annie Morgan.  (Niles failed to continue that pattern in his other stanzas, which I think that is a weakness.)  The subject/object confusion of “like you and like I” at least provides a rhyme, but in my mind’s ear I can still hear my father’s audible wince anytime he heard that sung.  (He always had a red pen in his pocket, and I can remember him adding proofreader’s marks to Christmas letters sent by friends and relations.  You can take the professor out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of some professors.)  The strongest line is the very first:  not just the near rhymes of wonder and wander, but under too.  Nothing else in the lyric rises so high.  And I note that nothing in the first stanza really defines this as a Christmas song; but Niles and Engel surely knew it would be more marketable as such.  And so it was published as an “Appalachian Carol” in Niles’s anthology Songs of the Hill Folk (1934), and then in numerous arrangements thereafter.

Niles eventually realized that his song was a goldmine, but he then had to find ways of claiming authorship of something he had hitherto presented as collected material.  I see that the blurb about this song in The Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook strives for some mystical union of composed and folk, even below the explicit attribution “Words and Music by John Jacob Niles”:

"I wonder as I wander" (words and music by John Jacob Niles) / John Jacob Niles, the singer and collector of folk songs, said that he based his "I wonder as I wander" on a line or two of haunting music that he heard sung by a young girl in a small North Carolina town.  He asked her to sing the few notes over and over, paying her a few pennies each time, until he had jotted it all down in his notebook.  So close was the finished song to its Appalachian inspiration that Niles is often cited as arranger of the tune rather than its creator.  The melody's minor key, minor intervals and unfinished cadences, as well as the poem's questioning pensiveness, make this one of the most plaintive of carols."
SOURCE:  cropped scan of p. 206 of The Reader's Digest Merry Christmas Songbook (1981).

... whatever that means.  In that Readers Digest collection, the song is grouped in a section of “Christmas Folk Songs and Spirituals.”  In The New Oxford Book of Carols—a splendid resource to which I have turned before in these posts—the tune is allocated to the “Traditional Carols” section, not the “Composed Carols.”  Yet I think we could make a pretty good case that some items in the “Composed Carols” are far less composed than this one.  (“In dulci jubilo,” anyone?)  Wasn’t it Will Rogers who said something like All music is folk music.  I never heard no horse sing?  (Probably not.  Whoever it was, we get the point.)

The problem with this question of attribution is that, rather like the boy who cried “wolf,” the deception involved in “I wonder as I wander” makes it hard to trust anything that Niles has claimed anywhere else.  He said that he paid Annie Morgan six quarters to sing the song a few times as he tried to write it down, and Pen believes that one can see those efforts on the pages of the field notebook.  In any case, the $1.50 Morgan received was nothing compared to the profits that Niles brought in by appropriating her unattributed idea.  Pen quotes Ellen Steckert’s perceptive remark:  “to have discovered the natural gem was then far better than to admit to having produced it artificially” (p. 156).

(Eeyore knows all there is to know
about not being satisfied.)
SOURCE: Illustration by E. H. Shepard;
scan taken from The Project Gutenberg
e-book of Winnie-the-Pooh

Niles produced a string of such discoveries (if that is what they are... which I doubt) and I notice a trend:  not only is he the only person to have notated anything resembling these tunes, but his informants are very often conveniently untraceable.  Annie Morgan was the daughter of an itinerant preacher, and they were headed out of town (with Niles’s quarters paying for the fuel).  Other singers who sang for him are identified with vague phrases like “a very willing old lady known as Granny Holcolm,” “a woman who was cooking for a preacher’s wife in Asheville, N.C.,” “an elderly woman named Mrs. Nuckols, who lived somewhere north of Yorkes, Ky.”and the like.  Niles may have been very much concerned with being compensated for his troubles, but the buck stopped with him:  his untraceable sources were useful as characters in his J. Peterman-like descriptions of how he (allegedly) collected each song, but nothing beyond that.  (Such rambling prose accounts reach their zenith in The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles (1960), the title which seems to give away the game).

SOURCE:  scan of contents page
And is it true? (to channel John Betjeman); for if it is...  then some of Niles’s findings blow one's mind.  The specimens he claimed to find of English carols surviving in the Appalachians are far more startling than anything that Cecil Sharp turned up, precisely because they seem at odds with what we know about religious traditions on the frontier.  Certainly we don't expect the Marian focus of “Sing we the Virgin Mary” (which, as the NOBC observes, “would appear to be a near-miraculous survival of the fifteenth-century English carol text ‘I sing of maiden that is makeless’ (British Library, Sloane MS 2593, where it appears without music)”).  Ah, but Niles didn’t have find Sloane MS 2593 to learn of this text, as he had the [old] Oxford Book of Carols at hand already, which included Martin Shaw’s tune for it.  When Niles published his version (“I took down this song in Mayfield Ky., in 1933, sung by members of the Mathers family, who were said to be tenants on a near-by farm”), he comments that “in comparing the verses below with the original, we observe a similarity that goes beyond mere chance.”  I won’t argue with that:  Niles left nothing to chance.  (I’m reminded of the exchange in the W. C. Fields film My Little Chickadee (1940):  “Is this a game of chance?” / “Not the way I play it.”)  This pamphlet, The Anglo-American Carol Study Book, reads as one-upmanship against the by-then-deceased Cecil Sharp.  Anything you can find I can find a more curious example.

More curious still is the putative survival of the “Corpus Christi carol” (also found in the Oxford Book of Carols and a number of other sources Niles knew), and with a visceral eucharistic text that to my mind is more haunting than anything in “I wonder as I wander”:

SOURCE:  scan of pp. 126–27 of The Oxford Book of Carols (1928).

I won’t go into the extremely complicated story about Niles’s “discovery” of this one, as David Reed Parker has already done a masterful job at that.  (See his “John Jacob Niles and Revisionist Folklore:  The Corpus Christi Carol/‘Down in Yon Forest’” in Southern Folklore 49/2 (1992), pp. 147-56.)  It is worth tracking down Parker’s article, even if he is a little more willing to accept Niles’s word than I am.  Ron Pen, too, is generally willing to give Niles’s documentation the benefit of the doubt:  “To conceive of creating such fraudulent sketches [of ‘I wonder as I wander’] would require prodigious foresight and an unbridled imagination for forgery” (p. 152).  Exactly.  As Lord Peter almost said, these are exactly the sketches I should have invented.

But is there some aesthetic legitimacy in such deception?  Don’t we hear it differently if we think it is not just Niles’s creation, but something that has been passed through oral tradition up in the Appalachian hills?  I am reminded of Fargo, the great film by Joel and Ethan Coen (which has spun of a television series exploring the world in which the film takes place).  It opens with this notice:

SOURCE:  screenshot from the film, borrowed here from https://creepycatalog.com/true-story-movie-fargo/

And yet, if you watch the final credits all the way to the end, you get the standard disclaimer:  “No similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.”  The story is entirely made up, but we are instructed to watch it as true—and (I would contend) that makes an important difference in our reception of it.  We are enabled to enjoy it in a different way than if we approach it as fiction.

Maybe there is something similar going on with Niles’s “Appalachian carols.”  But one thing is clear:  John Jacob Niles forged a trail.  In one sense or another.