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Book Review — WHY WE LEFT: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants

Why We Left

WHY WE LEFT: Untold Stories and Songs of America’s First Immigrants. By Joanna Brooks. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2013.

Folklorists have long studied the ballad (defined as a folksong that tells a story), but much of the scholarship has leaned towards either literary interpretations that explore ballad variation and classification or performative interpretations that examine singing styles and music. From an American Studies perspective, some of the more notable contributions have analyzed the ballads (or corridos) found along the border with Mexico that celebrate outlaws such as Gregorio Cortez, escapes from la migra while crossing into the United States, and even a sub-genre known as narcocorridos. But relatively few scholars have used the ballad tradition to address historical and social questions about the peopling of America by immigrants from the British Isles.

Joanna Brooks’s Why We Left is therefore a most welcome addition to ballad scholarship, thanks to her discerning analysis of four Anglo-American ballads that were collected by such notable folklorists as Alan Lomax, Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr., Duncan Emrich, and Maud Karpeles between 1932 and 1950. A professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University, Brooks is descended from seventeenth-century British immigrants who arrived in America as indentured servants, and eventually found places of their own. Brooks argues convincingly that many of the ballads sung by other descendants of Anglo-American immigrants may offer clues into why their ancestors left.

For instance, on a basic level, the ballad “Edward” tells the story of a man who has killed his younger brother for cutting down a tree, and then flees in shame by ship to America. In Brooks’s hands, however, the ballad not only “points to the role of environmental destruction, particularly deforestation, in the displacement and outmigration of hundreds of thousands of peasant English” (53), but also to the way in which the new settlers “set bounds, imposed borders, and instituted a rational system of land appropriation, doing unto indigenous American people what had been done unto them in the centuries before” (74).

Brooks demonstrates similar insights with three more ballads: “The Two Sisters,” another tale of sibling rivalry, in which two sisters fight over a luxurious beaver hat, leading to the murder of the youngest; “The Golden Vanity,” which tells of a young sailor who single-handedly sinks an enemy ship, but then is denied the reward promised by his captain and finally left to drown at sea; and “The House Carpenter,” in which a young woman abandons her husband and children in England, only to drown when the ship sailing to her lover in America strikes a rock and sinks.

Missing from the book—albeit for understandable reasons of economy—is a music CD that would have allowed readers to hear the extraordinary singers of the ballads themselves—Davy Crockett Ward and Horton Barker from Virginia, Bascom Lamar Lunsford from North Carolina, and Attie Crane from Tennessee—all vividly described by Brooks. Fortunately, similar recordings can be found online through the English Broadside Ballad Archive at the University of California Santa Barbara, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and even YouTube. Reading Why We Left in tandem with hearing the ballads is delightful.

James I. Deutsch, Smithsonian Institution

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