"The House Carpenter (The Daemon Lover)"
LaRue, Custer. Custer LaRue Sings the Daemon Lover. DOR-90174. Dorian Recordings, 1993. CD 7033

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Ballads: Curst Wives & Daemon Lovers

Up until the late 1800s, American folk music traditions survived and flourished exclusively among rural whites and African Americans. Folk music existed on the fringes of society, largely unknown to middle and upper classes. However, spurred by the fervor for nationalism sweeping across Europe, American antiquarians and academics started to search for an authentic folk heritage.

The first explicitly historical collection of folk songs, A Collection of Old Ballads, had been published in England in 1723, becoming one of the most popular books of the period. This book and the collections that followed sealed the quaint ideas of "folk." English and American folklorists and scholars, such as Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, and William Newell, relied on the inspirations of German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder for this romantic folk vision. Herder proposed the primacy of folk culture as a reaction to the rationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. He even coined the term volkslieder, or folk song, to describe the works in his 1778 song collection. As result of Herder's immense influence, scholars of all nations set out to amass evidence of their country's unique cultural heritage.

In America, this search became confined to Anglo-American culture. In spite of the fascination with black musical idioms, as seen in the popularity of minstrelsy, and in spite of the growing knowledge of African-American folk music traditions in the post-Civil War period, early folklorists and collectors fastened exclusively on the Anglo-American ballad tradition to define the national folk music heritage.

Percy, Thomas, ed. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Vol. 1. London: Printed for J. Dodsley, 1765. 3 vols.

From the Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History.

English clergyman Thomas Percy claimed that his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry came from an old manuscript which he had rescued from incineration just as a friend's maid was about to light a fire with it. In reality, the collection drew on old broadsides and the seminal 1723 Collection of Old Ballads. Such a romanticized background for Percy's Reliques befitted a book which influenced Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.





Photograph of Francis James Child. From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Francis James Child, the first professor of English at Harvard, established a masterly canon of English folk ballads, setting the standard against which all other American collections were judged. Uninterested in the music, Child culled his texts primarily from books and manuscripts rather than from oral sources. Ironically, the rigorous standards of his scholarship could not overcome his Victorian sensibilities, and Child had no qualms about excising bawdy material.




Newell, William Wells, ed. Games and Songs of American Children. New York: Harper, 1883.

William Newell, a Harvard student of Francis James Child's, produced the earliest systematic collection of American folksongs. In contrast to Child's methods, which concentrated on obtaining material from old printed collections and broadsides, Newell went out into the field to gather his specimens.




Campbell, Olive, and Cecil J. Sharp, eds. English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1917.

Bequest of John Powell.

The first to document the breadth of Appalachian folk songs, Sharp and Campbell compiled over 1600 different versions of 500 songs, almost all of British origin. In his preface to this book, Sharp romanticized the mountain folk as heirs to the pure English ballad tradition. However, he denied a place in his canon to the thirteen percent of the Appalachian population who were of African-American heritage.




Smith, W. Eugene. "Banjo and Harp." Photograph published in "Folk Singers." Life 20 October 1947.

On loan from the University of Virginia Art Museum.
Gift of Dwain G. Fuller.



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