Wednesday, November 28, 2012

On The Instantaneous Creation Of Great American Folk Songs

As I wrote about in a not-too-long-ago post, I spent a fair-sized chunk of my life traveling to different countries for dance festivals.  This, of course, gave me a good deal of exposure to folk music, and I learned a good deal about how other people view America's folk culture.
One thing I learned was that the song most closely associated with the USA is not "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "America, The Beautiful."  Nope.  It's "Oh, Susannah."
In any parade in any country, when our bluegrass band struck up that tune, people would smile, clap along, and start to sing.  Well, at least they'd sing the words, "Oh, Susannah."  Most of them didn't know much else.  (And let's face it; phrases like "a buckwheat cake was in her mouth" are not what folks learn in their English classes.)
I've heard that song sung by Poles and played on a leaf.  I've also heard it sung in Mandarin Chinese.  Odd.  (I wonder how they translated "buckwheat.")
But, truth be told, the song "Oh, Susannah" isn't a folk song in the sense that it's been sung for so many years that no one knows where it came from.  No, "Oh, Susannah" is a folk song in the same way that Peter, Paul, and Mary's "If I Had A Hammer" is a folk song.  "Oh, Susannah" was a popular song written in 1848 by Steven Foster (who gave us other great tunes like "Old Kentucky Home"), but it had a folksy feel to it, and it became an "instant" folk song.
Still, for our dance group, sometimes "Oh, Susannah" wasn't enough.
Most of us could sing as well as dance, and several members of the group had been in various community and church choirs, so it was no hardship for us to sing.  Besides "Oh, Susannah" in parades (and in one pioneer round dance number), we frequently sang "She'll Be Comin' 'Round The Mountain" (to which our director, George, would add extra verses in countries where English was not commonly spoken -- I've had to sing such lyrics as "Oh, we'll lock her in the basement when she comes" or "Oh, we'll make her clean the attic when she comes."), and, in performances, it was sometimes "Amazing Grace."  (We had one bizarre instance when we were informed the night before a long day of performing that we were expected to sing in Mass in a tiny town in central Italy.  As "Oh, Susannah" was hardly acceptable, we decided on "Amazing Grace."  It was beautiful as we sang it, but it was still America's most popular Protestant hymn -- sung in a Catholic church by a bunch of Mormons, former Mormons, and one Russian Orthodox member.  Oh, and it was accompanied by guitar, fiddle, string bass -- and washboard.)
And then there was "The Hokey Pokey."
This was mostly my fault, really.  It was 1996, and the festival in Birmingham, England began something they called The Ball of the Nations.  The idea was that all the festival dancers would have an evening together --without an audience -- wherein they taught each other simple dances.  It was a fantastic idea, but our group stressed over whether or not we could teach our easiest recreational dances in our allotted time.  Also, some of our favorites were either too reliant on singing ("Charlie Is A Miller Boy") or possibly offensive in a community that understood all the words ("Cotton-Eyed Joe").  I was the one who suggested that we teach "The Hokey Pokey."  And I was the one who got stuck teaching it.  In England.  Later in Austria and Hungary.  In Spain.  And, finally, in China.  (Yeah, I just admitted that: I taught "The Hokey Pokey" in China.)
But the instant folk song that really stays in my mind was one we created in Sweden.
It was a beautiful summer evening in June, and our group had been treated to a night out in a lodge used by the Swedish dance group hosting us.  They'd fed us all herring-packed food (ever had scrambled eggs with herring?  salad with herring?  potato casserole with herring?  I have.  It's not all that great.), and it was time to go.
It was getting dark, and as we stood outside, waiting to board our bus to go back to the city and the dorms where we were staying, the Swedish group lined up along the walkway and sang a lovely folk song.
A smile plastered rather too tightly on his face, George, our director (who could speak fluent Swedish), whispered to those of us next to him, "It's a farewell song.  They'll expect us to sing back.  What can we sing?!"
My mind raced.  I didn't know a single farewell folk song other than "Aloha Oe," which hardly seemed appropriate.  Plus, it had to be something that our whole group knew.
Fortunately for us, this was 1991, and I was the youngest member of the troupe because, in those few very awkward seconds of silence that followed our polite applause of the Swedes, came the sound of Bart, one of the best dancers in the group and a member of the Salt Lake Men's Choir.  He was singing a farewell song that ALL of us knew:

Yep.  Lawrence Welk to the rescue.  Presto: instant folk song.
YouTube didn't exist in those far-off days, and the Swedes hadn't had much experience with American TV variety shows of the 1970s.  They had no idea that what we sang was only a TV theme song; it sounded like a folk song, and it fit the occasion.
But it was all we could do not to burst out laughing afterwards when George muttered under his breath, "Thank you, Bobby and Cissy."


  1. Ah, a song I remember so well! Thanks for sharing your travels, they always make me smile!

  2. Great post. I enjoyed your stories.