While researching the Dorothy Scarborough book On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs, I ran into a genre of music that Scarborough discusses in-depth: folk songs in America that are associated with black singers, but have their roots in European sources. These songs were originally European folk songs of different genres that came over with European immigrants and then were passed down and re-appropriated into black American culture. Generally, these songs were written down in Scarborough’s book and the source told her they learned it from their black mammy. Below is a map of the transmission of songs from England and Scotland to the U.S.
Clearly, there are many songs that ended up in the Northwestern part of Virginia – which also happens to be a place where John and Alan Lomax, along with Dorothy Scarborough, recorded tons of American Folk Songs. The map below demonstrates this.
There has been a fair amount of research in the sometimes dubbed “white spirituals” in the musicological canon. In particular, George Pullen Jackson, American musicologist, spearheaded research in “white spirituals” (also known as “fasola” singing). Fasola singing (literalla “fa, sol, la” singing) uses shape notes in the Sacred Harp singing tradition to teach music in singing schools in Appalachia, where many of the songs above seem to be appearing. Click on the video below to hear testimony about modern shape note singing in Appalacia and the Sacred Harp tradition. While these are largely seen as white spirituals, they still were published in a book of black American music, and were documented as being sung often by black people in Appalachia at the time. In an adjacent vein, scholars like Dena Epstein and Nicholas Temperly have looked at the transmission of European music to the slaves of the late 18th century, and how that has played out in christian and religious spaces in particular. Watch the video below for more information! It even discusses how the Scottish tradition of lining out verses of songs has passed from Scotland to Southern black American music. So, not only the song content, but some performance practices seem to have been adopted as well.
More interesting could be the fact that black mammies were the ones in the mid to late 1800’s preserving these songs. How songs originally sung by 14th c. English archers later were put in a new context by black people in America is an interesting topic that definitely deserves further explanation. And what can we draw from the two maps above?
Perhaps there is a stronger link between European folk music and black American music than we thought. While I would not go so far as to say that there are “white spirituals,” I would hesitate to ignore the very strong data suggesting that the legacy of black American music is not so far removed from white folk music as we sometimes like to believe.
For further reading:
Jackson, George Pullen. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands: The Story of Fasola Folk, their Songs, Singing, and “Buckwheat notes.” New York: Dover, 1965.
Jackson, George Pullen. White and Negro Spirituals, their life span and kinship : tracing 200 years of untrammeled song making and singing among our country folk, with 116 songs as sung by both races