The Canal Songs, and other Upstate Folk Music: Anglo and Indian

I figure there are some songs ingrained in our brains since birth; and I couldn't tell you which or why, but they're the ones that even if you only know a line- you know the melody, and probably classify the tune in the weird realm of "children's songs." Fortunately, most of those songs are homegrown American folk, of course influenced by the Anglo folk melodies and imagery of Ireland and the British Isles- but still telling American stories.

I came upon the American Folk Series of recordings by the Lomax brothers, that's now the most popular part of the Library of Congress (LOC) audio record (probably because it holds everything ever recorded by Leadbetter) when I was in high school. I figure most people who are interested in the old folk recordings, probably are because they listened closely to Bob Dylan (an Upstate resident for a long time, but that's a different topic.)

Anyway, a personal anecdote; it amazes me how much little kids know, and I like to give them little quizes about the names of animals and stories and such... So I was playing guitar and singing a few of the "kid songs" for my girlfriend's seven-year-old sister. I played her "Buffalo Girls" (which Folkies figure is a variant of the song "Louisiana Girls", but we'll say it's an Upstate song anyway) and she knew the melody and some of the words and said she knew the song, so I said 'I bet you don't know this one,' and started with the simple "I've got a mule, and her name is Sal." and she more or less screamed the refrain back at me "Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal."

Now that song was written in the 20th century, well past the canal heyday, but there is an important tradition in our folk music that is known as the Canal Songs. "As the Erie Canal was essentially the nation's only school of engineering, many who worked on the original waterway went on to help construct other canal systems, roadways and even railroads. These individuals took with them the music of the Erie..."[1]

A few of the Canal songs that I could come up with, that I don't think are in the Library of Congress Field Recordings Archive: The Raging Canal, Afloat, Low Bridge!, The E-ri-e, Boating on Bullhead, The Good Ship Calabar From Buffalo to Troy... Someone wrote a book about the New York canal songs, but you'd have to look it up.

Here's a video of Bruce Springsteen singing either Low Bridge! or Buffalo Girls, I can't remember which.

My interest in the LOC folk Archive was really just Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, but I did discover Songs and Ballads of the Bituminous Miners as opposed to Songs and Ballads of Anthracite Miners... Which were unfortunately mostly Pennsylvanian and W. Virginian in origin.[2]

But there is the other side of the coin here in Upstate, besides for our Anglo-based Canal songs (ok, there's afro-american strains in there too) we have the recordings of the Iroquois: Songs from the Iroquois Longhouse, and Seneca Songs from the Coldspring Longhouse. One can obtain any of these LOC recordings for nine dollars, or in packages from private sellers. The Iroquois recordings were made in the early 1940's by a guy named Fenton, and I haven't heard the Coldspring recordings but I have heard most of the Iroquois Longhouse. The Tracker's Boasting Chant, Song of the Hunchbacks or False-Faces, and Marching or Dream Song for the Winds are great surreal sounding tracks.

This is the most important record of Folk recordings after the Library of Congress audio archive:

By Joe

No comments: