Folk Singing: Sibyl with Guitar

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Song will get an unmatchable focus on the fine detail of American history. What is more, the folk songs bring it back alive. The West, for example:

Oh, don't you remember sweet Betsy

from Pike Who crossed the big mountains with

her lover Ike, With two yoke of cattle, a large yellow

dog, A tall Shanghai rooster and one spotted


Something called Kansas Boys offers the discouraging word about prairie architecture that Home on the Range left out:

Come all young girls, pay attention to

my noise, Don't fall in love with the Kansas

boys . . . Some live in cabins with a huge log


Nary a window in it at all, Sandstone chimney and a puncheon


Clapboard roof and a button door . . . People who squatted on Government land were engaged in a clumsy bet against bureaucracy, but they sang:

Hurrah for Lane County, the land of

the free, The home of the grasshopper, bedbug

and flea.

I'll sing loud her praises and boast of

her fame,

While starving to death on my government claim.

If they did not happen to be in Lane County, they were usually bright enough to substitute their own whereabouts.

Cowboys liked to think they were beholden to no one. The Lone Star Trail is full of defiance in the saddle:

I'll sell my outfit just as soon as I can;

I won't punch cattle for no damn man.

But they frequently ran out of guts when

the sun went down and, according to

Poet-Anthologist Carl Sandburg, stood

around in circles with their arms draped

across one another's shoulders, moaning

Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie

Where the wild coyotes will howl o'er me,

Where the rattlesnakes hiss and the wind blows free.

Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie.

So it went for every other part of the country as well. Anyone within earshot was invited to

Drop a tear for Big Foot Sal

The best damn cook on the Erie Canal, and the timber drover Bigerlow was lofted into song as the Old Ironsides of all Great Lakes barges. Labor songs, in fact, not only chronicled the building of the nation but also played a part in the actual work, from the winch-hauling shanties of New England sailors to the rhythmic songs of the free-swinging lumberjacks of the great Pacific Northwest. There was even a song that helped people put up rail-and-post fences. And in the most often repeated labor song of all—wherein John Henry, the Negro Paul Bunyan, works himself to death trying to compete with a steam hammer—the onslaught of the machine makes itself felt as it never could in a thousand pages of conventional history.

Battles & Skirmishes. Folk singing today is a multilateral practice. It is on one hand art, on another entertainment—terms which are not mutually exclusive, except to the purists. In the purists' severe canon, which holds that it is not art unless it is faintly boring, there are three categories.

The Commercial category—also labeled the Impures or the Popularizers—is led by the Kingston Trio, which is probably the most scorched threesome since Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. Humbly describing themselves only as "folk-oriented" singers, they crack jokes and sing songs that only vaguely resemble the

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