Review: A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains


A Song Catcher in Southern Mountains: American Folk Songs of British Ancestry, by Dorothy Scarborough, Columbia University Press, 1937.

Playing dulcimer has led me to deeper interest in the older songs. This book is a collection by one of the song catchers, Dorothy Scarborough, who collected them in Virginia and North Carolina in 1930. It’s focused on songs that originate in England, Ireland, and Scotland.

Scarborough has sympathy for folk music (“Folk songs are fast dying of civilization.”) and seems to have resisted the urge to re-shape the poetry or polish rough edges off the tunes. (That polishing has been irresistible to some collectors.) The commentary is sometimes marred by a “hipster-ist” attitude peeking in, e.g., “One is impressed with the suddenness by which disappointed love or remorse could kill in those days, and also by the almost instantaneous haste in burying the deceased.”

But the snarky commentary is overwhelmed by a solid collection of songs (lyrics and tune in separate sections): 9 variants of Barbara Allen, 6 of Lady Alice, 6 more of Pretty Polly, etc. At a guess, there are 150+ different songs or variants, in 475 pages. If this subject interests you at all, I’m sure you’d enjoy this book.

I have to close with an editorial. Lately I’ve been trying to obtain books published in the 1930s and early 1940s. The used copies show up for serious $$ (e.g., this book – $100 for the cheap copy, $2000 for the only other copy for sale). With inter-library loan, you may find that there are only a few copies left in any libraries. (For this one, I believe I was told there are 15 copies in the US.) If I’ve interpreted copyright law correctly, this one will go into public domain in 2032. I hope there are still copies left to release. Copyright changes made some companies and estates happy, but they are gutting our culture.