Songs and Ballads

    Contributing Editor: Paul Lauter

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students immediately ask, "Is it literature?" The songs raise all of the issues about "popular culture," including their "quality" as literary texts, their changeableness from version to version, their audience, their relationship to music. Can they be, should they be, studied in a literature classroom rather than in a music classroom?

    It is useful to play versions of the songs and ballads--especially the spirituals. Surprisingly few students have ever actually heard such a song, and they often find them powerful. But this can be overdone-- after all, the musical vocabulary is, on the whole, even more remote from student culture than are the texts. A less inhibited or more skilled instructor may wish to involve students in the singing; indeed, some may be able to lead a class, and that experience can pay off significantly when one gets to the question of audience.

    It can be important to confront directly the question of what constitutes the domain of "literature." Who decides what is included there? And on what basis? If these texts are, as some are, extraordinarily simple, does that remove them from what we think of as significant literature? Are questions of audience and function involved? What are--and have been--the functions of such songs? Who sings them, and when, and why? Are these significant literary questions?

    Another issue best confronted directly is the question of the mutability of such songs. Is it a good thing or a bad thing that people change them?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Obviously, the spirituals draw deeply on the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Many are built on a fundamental analogy between black slaves and the Hebrews. They can also be read ethnographically, for they express a good deal about the character and functions of religion and other forms of culture in the slave period.

    Both the songs of black and white communities interestingly focus on everyday experiences of work, courting, religion (as well as on eschatological visions).

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    The headnote points to a number of formal features, like refrains and repetitions, qualities of language, characteristic patterns of imagery, the ways in which songs are taken up, reframed, renewed. It can be useful to discuss how these songs are similar to and different from more "formal" poetry and also from one another.

    Original Audience

    The most interesting issue may be how, in the origins of such songs, the distinction between creator/singer and audience did not, on the whole, exist. The end of the Introduction to the period considers that issue. Raising this problem allows a class to explore the difference between culture as a commodity produced by persons other than oneself, and culture as an integral part of human life, serving a variety of functions, including discharging grief, inspiring hope, and offering opportunities, in the singing, for physical and psychological expression. The song, Bernice Reagon has pointed out, is only the vehicle or perhaps excuse for the singing.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    This unit is designed to allow, indeed, encourage, comparisons between varieties of poetic texts from very different cultures.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. (a) How are these songs similar to/different from more formal kinds of poetry?

    (b) What patterns of imagery, features of language, do you notice?

    (c) What are the structural features common to some or all of these songs?

    2. (a) Make up an additional verse to . . . . (Useful since it helps students see the formal features of a text, and also to overcome their wariness of "poetry.")

    (b) Should such songs (or other forms of popular culture) be taught in literature courses?


    The first chapter of Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness offers important insights about the functions and structure of spirituals.