The Songcatcher, by Sharyn McCrumb

Having been involved with traditional music and dance for some years, I was looking forward to reading one of Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad novels. This one, set in Tennessee and North Carolina, centers around a ballad brought from Islay in 1759 by a young sailor. The book meanders between the story of that sailor and his present-day descendents, particularly a young folksinger named Lark. Unfortunately, it also dips into the stories of several neighbors, four intermediary descendents, a rival folksinger, a hostel owner in the next state, and a young 911 volunteer.

Yes, yet another book muddied by too many main characters. We do usually stay with each one for a full chapter, and certainly they are vividly drawn. The afterword gives a clue: apparently, the historical characters are the author’s own ancestors. I heard that a review of Small Island (see the entry for this blog from 19 February) complained that the story suffered from the author’s decision to stick closely to historical events. I think this book has a similar problem. The story of the original sailor—Malcolm—interleaved with the present in interesting ways, but the intermediary descendents were unnecessary and distracting.

The scenes from Malcolm’s time are vividly brought to life. From his childhood on Islay to his life on board ship and his adventures in America, I was pulled into another world. I know Morristown, New Jersey, pretty well, but I had never considered its role in the Revolutionary War until Malcolm explained its strategic location. I felt his discomfort in society, even the small society of his family, and his desire to strike out for more and more remote places. I understood his recognition, when he saw the mountains in what is now Tennessee, that this was where he belonged.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the mountain culture, particularly the changing roles of the songs and the singers. The contrast between the traditional music and professional country music interested me: Lark’s reflections on what makes a career successful, sailors exchanging songs to pass the time and make the work easier, cousins singing on the back porch. I appreciated the irony that the tradition of singing together almost died out over the need to have a performance-quality voice, while with today’s technology, a good voice is no longer so much of a necessity for a professional country singer—it’s gone full circle.

This story was not the first time I have heard the complaint that collectors of traditional music—songcatchers—paid the local men and women who sang the songs for them little or nothing, and then went on to copyright the songs as their own. Legal, yes, but not right. However, knowing what I do about Cecil Sharp, the collector who started the whole thing back in the early 20 th century, I have to agree with the character in this book’s assessment that he was not out for financial gain, but was motivated primarily by a desire to preserve the songs. I am so glad that he did.

What are we missing today that ought to be preserved? It’s odd knowing that people are writing histories about events in which I participated, such as the revival of morris dancing in the latter half of the 20 th century, the second revival. I wish now that I had paid better attention, kept better records. What we were doing didn’t seem all that significant.

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