Folk Songs of Old New England

This book, compiled in 1939 when there were still plenty of people to be found in New England who’d lived through the 1800s, is a great resource. As you’d expect, many ballads are included, ranging from the comic to the tragic to the comically tragic. Some of the ‘standard’ folk songs, like ‘The Elfin Knight’ and ‘Frog Would A-Wooing Go’, appear in this collection with different verses I’ve never seen anywhere else.

But there’s a lot more to this compendium. Sea chanteys (with notes on which chantey went along with which specific shipboard task), ‘kissing games’, and even fiddle tunes and dances. I didn’t know the difference between a ‘line’ or ‘contra’ dance and a quadrille (square dance) before reading this book, but now I do! And I didn’t realize that lumberjacks had their own tale-telling and musical tradition–although, if you think about it, how could they not?

There’s a section with short biographies of the singers and callers, and notes about their family history, that is well worth reading as well.

In short, this book is a cultural treasure, a snapshot of a time when old traditions, though waning, still survived in an unbroken line–as opposed to being revived, as they are today (or so I hope).

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