Songs from the past

I sometimes get a kick when people say they like the oldies, speaking about music from the 80s, when I listen to some songs from the 1600s.

Back when I made communism my entire identity, I started listening to a lot of the old union songs, spread by the IWW in early 20th century America. A good number of these songs were parodies of popular folk songs and gospel music of the time. This was an effective way to spread the popular talking points for unionization in a catchy and easily digestible manner while also protecting themselves from dubious charges, since after all they were just singing and it ain't a crime to sing. The phrase "pie in the sky" actually comes from one of these parodies by the great songwriter Joe Hill, "The Preacher and The Slave", a parody of the salvation army hymn "In The Sweet By-and-By". A great deal of these songs were written by Joe Hill and he served as a great influence for future folksingers like Woodie Guthrie.

Well along the way I ended up listening to a lot more of the music that these songs were parodying as well as other artists of the era. As well I started looking for songs that we used to sing around the campfire at a summer camp I went to as a child. Those years at that summer camp were some of the most formative memories of childhood and I would not be the same person today if it wasn't for that magical place. Lots of the songs were more contemporary, like Country Roads by John Denver, You Ain't Going Nowhere by Bob Dylan (though we did the Byrds version), and Pack up Your Sorrows by Richard FariƱa. However a number of them were older like Red River Valley, The Hammer Song, and Oklahoma Hills. Pretty soon I realized the connection between the two. Although many of the songs we did sing at the camp were more of the 1960s-70s folk-revival music, they still shared their roots in the simple tunes and story-telling of their musical ancestors.

Last year I was on a big 60s folk-revival kick, but along with their own music, many of the singers I listened too like Joan Baez followed in the rich history of folk music and sang more historical songs. The first one that really caught my ear was Baez's cover of Barbra Allen. This didn't sound like a lot of her other music and so I decided to look up the song. Sure enough versions of the song date back to the 17th century. This also then introduced me to Jean Ritchie and more of the folk music of Appalachia. It was around this time where I stopped caring how twangy a singers voice was as to not be labeled a country music enjoyer, and I started mixing in more bluegrass songs.

For me folk music and the genres that are linked to it are uniquely beautiful. These songs were passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years, immigrants bringing along these songs in their journey to the new world. Each song having various different variations and many of them, each reflecting the ever-evolving language of the era. It also reflects a much harsher way of life, of murder, of cheating, of true love, of hanging, of riding horseback, of pure good, and of pure evil. These songs were not written only to be able to be performed by the most talented of singers, they were written for regular people to sing, often together in group settings. Some of these songs were sung while working to keep in rhythm and to set pace. Some are tales warning to live a honest life, coming from a person who didn't and faced the consequences. You'd hear these songs as a child, sing them your whole life, and teach them to your son or daughter, for them to do the same. These were songs of ordinary people. They were played on whatever instruments were around.

I listen to these songs and feel proud, proud of my ancestry. I feel connected to a rich tradition, singing along to the songs. It makes me want to learn a stringed instrument and learn this music so I could share in this tradition.

The Preacher and the Slave
Barbara Allen - Jean Ritchie
Jean Ritchie sings "Shady Grove" and "Jackero"
Pete Seeger - Red River Valley
Alice Stuart - Seven Daffodils

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