By TROY SHERMAN
Richard Polenberg is the Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History Emeritus here at Cornell. During his academic career, he taught about and wrote books on political and legal history, but when he retired a few years ago, he decided to pursue a topic much closer to his heart: American folk music. The Sun had a chance to sit down with Professor Polenberg to ask him some questions about his upcoming book, Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and Other Traditional American Folk Songs, as well as talk about his personal history with, and love of folk music.
The Sun: Would you mind talking a little bit about how the book came to be and why you wanted to write it?
Richard Polenberg: Well, while I was teaching at Cornell I wrote a number of books which dealt with American political history and legal history; I wrote a book on the first amendment, and then I became interested in biography and wrote a book on Franklin Roosevelt, but I had always loved folk music.
I play the guitar and the banjo and I always used to sing my kids to sleep when they were little and play with friends as well. So when I retired I thought, “Why not move into an area that I love and that I know something about.” That was folk music. In Hear My Sad Story, many of the chapters deal with legal cases — men who were tried or convicted would work their way through the courts — so to some degree I was able to write about legal and constitutional history. But of course there’s much more in the book than that.
All of the stories are very interesting, about men like Jesse James or Railroad Bill, and many of the songs are really tragic; A lot of people got killed and a lot of people got murdered [around the turn of the 20th century]. It just sort of happened that I could write about all of these interesting things that I wanted to write about. Whether or not I’ll write another book after this I don’t know, but this is a book I’ve been thinking about for a long time and it’s the one I’ve really been wanting to write.
Sun: That’s great; something closer to home. In the preface you talk a bit about your personal history with folk music. Could you go into that a little bit more?
RP: Well when I was in college I learned to play the guitar and the banjo. I took some guitar lessons from a number of very good [musicians], and then I began to play and sing with friends of mine. In 1957, when I was 20 years old, I took a trip to North Carolina with my best friend — he was a medical student and I was an undergraduate — and we packed up our instruments and we went to Asheville, North Carolina where Bascom Lamar Lunsford was running the Mountain Folk and Dance Festival. We got to hear and meet a lot of great people and musicians on that trip. We met Aunt Samantha Bumgarner, who in the 1920s was the first woman to make a recording with the 5-string banjo. We just drove up to her house and asked her if she would play with us, and she said she could. It was very easy to meet people in the 1950s; You’d go to a farmers’ meeting and there would be people with guitars and banjos and you’d ask them if they had any time to play for you and they’d invite you over and cook you dinner and play music. That was a very, very wonderful and memorable summer for me.
Sun: That sounds like an amazing experience. Now, to get into the book, one of the things that I noticed about a lot of the stories is that, often, an event would occur in one way and then the song would take over and change some of the facts and the morals.
RP: Yes, that’s a very shrewd comment. Many of the songs describe events, but the interpretation of the individuals in the songs can be quite different. Jesse James murdered a lot of people when he was robbing banks, and the songs give a very favorable account of who he was. Many of the verses of the songs actually capture reality and describe what happened in a way that no other account does, but that’s not always the case. Often the songs describe characters who were a lot better or worse (depending on the situation) than the person actually was. So the songs can’t be taken as the last word or a necessarily true account of some individual. It was interesting to pick the verses that I included in the text because there are often different interpretations of the events by different people. I tried to pick verses that were historically accurate and that would describe what happened rather than just provide one point of view or another, but you can’t always do that; the songwriters were going to be biased in one way or another. People would make what they wanted out of these songs.
Sun: Why do you think that happens in some cases?
RP: It’s hard to say. The songs are usually written soon after the event occurs, but whoever is writing the song doesn’t have all of the information about what’s happening, so the songs are not always 100 percent true. In the book, I try to explain what the actual events were, and I use the songs to illustrate the events. But sometimes you have to point out that the song doesn’t actually portray what had happened. Either way there’s no doubt that maybe millions of people have sung and known these songs, so the songs always have lives of their own. After the fact, people aren’t thinking about what happened to Jesse James at a certain point in time; they’re just thinking about Jesse James as a character. When you hear the words to that song, your heart goes out to James; he was murdered by a “dirty little coward” and he had a wife and children who mourned for his life!
Sun: I got the sense that when a writer didn’t have the full story to round out the song’s edges, they injected their own personal and cultural views into it. Which I guess is why folk music is important: it serves as a vessel for cultural views.
RP: In fact, the Jesse James song ends with “This song was made / By Billy Gashade / As soon as the news did arrive.” The person who supposedly wrote the song put himself into it! Sometimes there was good evidence and the song could be based on that, but sometimes people made it up. They would have heard the story but then write their versions of events often exaggerating some facts and minimizing others. And so you can find verses that just spin tales and are not true to what happened. But they’re songs, and songs aren’t meant to be accurate historical documents. They’re inventions. They may not be true to the actual events but they express something of the singer’s feelings and the community’s feelings as well. It’s very rare that you’ll find a folk song that expresses some idiosyncratic view; often these songs represent community values and the values of a society. That’s why they’re sung year after year; lots of music that was once sung during WWII — people don’t sing those songs anymore. These songs people still sing — even today there are many thousands of people still discussing these songs; you can lose yourself in discussion of these events.
Sun: I guess that could be one reason as to why these songs are enduringly important. They paint a picture of another America that can still affect America today.
RP: That’s true. There were coal mine accidents, there were violent flare-ups because of strikes and labor experiences, there were race issues and issues with prison conditions. A lot of unfortunate things ended up happening, but the thread is that all of these events had songs that were written about them! There’s something about singing about a tragic event that makes it easier for an individual to come to terms with it. When you sing a song about prison conditions, or the titanic going down, or labor strife, people aren’t glum or sad or depressed or unhappy. With the singing of the song there is a release of energy and pent-up emotion. It allows the singer to come to terms with and transcend any number of terrible events. Even 100 years later, the singing of these songs allows people to cope with things that have happened in the past and things that are still happening. There can be a cathartic experience that comes with songs like these. It’s one of the ways that music can have a powerful effect on people.
Troy Sherman the Assistant Arts and Entertainment Editor. He can be reached at [email protected]