Primarily an impression of Kentucky music

Posted by | October 23, 2012

Loraine Wyman, accompanied by Howard Brockway, a composer and arranger, was among the first persons to systematically search for folk songs in the Southern Appalachians.

The musical adventurers traveled hundreds of miles on horseback and on foot through an inaccessible world to which radios, roads and cars had not yet come. They made friends in isolated log cabins, and transcribed some 200 song treasures, some of which they published in complex arrangements in two books that are now out of print and rare: Lonesome Tunes: Folk Songs from the Kentucky Mountains (1917, New York), and Twenty Kentucky Mountain Songs (1920, Boston).

“In publishing this collection of Folk Songs, we wish it to be primarily an impression of Kentucky music,” says Wyman in the preface to Lonesome Tunes, “that is to say, songs reproduced as nearly as possible as we heard them sung by the people, regardless of their extraneous origin or defects. To correct these melodies and to perfect the poetic versions would give them a totally different character. Our main effort has been to give this volume the simplicity and the naivete which is the great quality of these mountain songs.”

Loraine WymanBy the time 31 year old Loraine Wyman made her way to Kentucky, she already had a strong training in, and knowledge of, many of the original English folk songs that Kentucky’s early settlers had carried in with them.

Wyman was born in Evanston, IL on October 23, [1885?]. When their parents separated, Loraine and her sister Florence accompanied their mother’s move to Paris. There she studied singing with Blanche Marchesi. Wyman spent much of her adolescence in France, and there began her career as a professional singer, studying voice with Yvette Guilbert. She developed an extensive repertoire including classical and romantic lieder and chansons, opera and English and French folk songs.

Around 1910, Wyman moved back to the United States and became a popular recitalist, giving performances in New York, Chicago, Montreal, Cleveland, Newport and many other cities. By 1916 she was eager to expand her repertoire, and Kentucky beckoned. Wyman and Brockway only spent a total of 6 weeks gathering Appalachian songs. But in doing so and publishing and performing the results, they helped the world see the value of preserving these amazing songs, many of which might otherwise be lost to subsequent generations.

Here are the lyrics of “William Hall,” a typical song from Lonesome Tunes:

As William crossed the briny ocean
And landed safe on the other side,
Says “If Mary’s alive and I can find her
I’ll make her my lawful bride.”
As I went walking up Cold Iron,
There my mind was on my girl;
Cool drops of rain fell as it happened
My true love I there did meet.
“Good morning to thee pretty fair one
And how would you like to fancy me?”
“O my fancy’s placed on a brisk young farmer
Who has lately crossed the sea.”
“Come describe your sweetheart unto me,
Describe your lover unto me;
Perhaps I’ve seen some sword pass thro’ him
On the ground your love did fall.”
“He was both tall, both neat and handsome
And he had pretty blue eyes withal,
O he had black hair and he wore it curly
And his name was William Hall.”
“I saw a French cannon ball shot thro’ him,
Upon the ground your love did fall;
O he had black hair and he wore it curly
And his name was William Hall.”
She wrung her lily white hands saying
“Lord have mercy, what shall I do!”
“O now to prove my story to you,
Here is the ring that I gave you.”

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