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Listen to the Mockingbird: American Folksongs and Popular Music Lyrics of the 19th Century

— Anthology —

Edited, with an Introduction by Douglas Messerli

SALE PRICE: U.S. $9.95
— Anthology —
Listen to the Mockingbird: American Folksongs and Popular Music Lyrics of the 19th Century
Series No.: 130
ISBN: 1-892295-20-2, Pages: 128
American Literature, Music

In this important new collection, editor Douglas Messerli has collected 78 lyrics of American folksongs and popular music from the 19th century. Some of these songs, particularly the African-American spirituals, the chanteys, and the cowboy songs, are beautiful paeans to the American way of living. But the vast majority, especially the minstrel songs and the Civil War ballads, are often perverse in their racial humor and sexual undertones. These lyrics reveal that some of our favorite American song classics are highly representative of the wild and open wilderness--both energizing and more than a little frightening--of the American landscape. From the patriotically conceived "America" of 1832 to the rebelliously insistent "I'll Marry the Man I Love" of 1897, the songs in this volume reveal the vast range of the American people and their ways of living.

Book Review(s)

UTNE READER, January-February 2006

by Sarah Wash

It’s odd to find "Red River Valley" and "Oh Susannah" in a volume bound for libraries, bookstores, and literary analysis. Nevertheless, archiving American cultural history is important in its own right, and this book offers some unusual glimpses into our country’s playful—and often sordid—collective imagination. From the infrequently sung mocking verses of "Jingle Bells" to the hilarious "Jeff in Petticoats" (Confederate president Jefferson Davis escaped soldiers in his wife's coat) to the disturbing "minstrel tunes" sung by whites in blackface, these folk tunes, many of which are now treated as children's songs, are anything but innocent. Tales of abuse, alcoholism, prisoners, war, starvation and incest provide some context to reality TV and America's enduring profane/sacred split personality.

BOOKFORUM, XIII, no. 3 (September-November 2006)

by Stacey Levine

The introduction to Listen to the Mockingbird suggests that American popular music of one hundred years ago was not sunny, charming, or naïve, as is sometimes assumed. While some songs in this pocket-size volume are benign or comic, such as "Bought Me a Cat," which is related to "Old MacDonald's Farm," most describe war, poverty, familial relations, death, and slavery. The blowsy characters and coarse motives running through these old tunes form a link to the careening American cultural present and to our fascination with bad luck and sordid domestic situations.

Though "Clementine" may no longer be familiar to anyone under thirty-five, its more obscure verses are likely unknown even to those who can recall its memorable chorus. The song is a subterranean-sounding tale of a miner who returns from work to "caress" his daughter Clementine, who is his "favorite nugget." He eventually mourns her after she falls to her death in the "raging brine." A later variation of the verses sees the miner forgetting Clementine after kissing his younger daughter. A curious, similarly themed number from 1892, "After the Ball," describes a man broken-hearted after discovering his beloved kissing another; years later, never having married, he finds out that the man was his fiancée's brother. Even the holiday favorite "Jingle Bells" rings with bizarre malice. Written by James Pierpont, a New Englander who relocated to the South, the original version contains two rarely heard verses that imbue the song and its famous chorus with sarcasm. In one, a man lies on his back in the snow beside his tipped-over sleigh, while another man glides past, laughing at the accident.

Many popular songs from the nineteenth century were written for performance groups such as the Christy Minstrels, a blackface troupe formed in Buffalo, NY, in 1843. Editor Douglas Messerli includes the original lyrics, in transliterated slave dialect, from "Jim Crack Corn," "Dixie," "Ring Dem Heavenly Bells," and others, observing in his introduction and footnotes that, given the era's pervasive racism, even those with antislavery tendencies were susceptible: Liberal, abolitionist composer Stephen Foster (as famous in his day as Andrew Lloyd Webber is in ours) wrote lyrics containing stereotypes and white haughtiness.

The other piece of misery reflected in these song lyrics is the Civil War. Some army songs from the era reflect soldiers' misery and uncertainty. Composer George F. Root's "Tramp! Tramp" Tramp!" refers to dying Union men in the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, GA, and in Root's "Just Before the Battle, Mother," a soldier notes earnestly that, for "The Battle-Cry of Freedom," he might "nobly perish." Messerli offsets such solemnity with the inclusion of "Jeff in Petticoats," a romping, broadly mocking number that recounts Confederate president Jefferson Davis's rumored attempt to flee Richmond (and pursuing Union soldiers) in his wife's clothing.

Although the world of riverbanks, blackface, Indian chiefs' daughters, and North-South split is blurrily distant across time, this collection of historical lyrics should remind readers that our current cacophony and chaos, along with our unmanageably disruptive cultural struggles, have always been with us.

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