On The Trail Of Negro Folk-Songs
How often have I overheard alluring snatches of song, only to be baffled by denial when I asked for more. Kindly black faces smile indulgently as at the vagaries of an imaginative child, when I persist in pleading for the rest. "Nawm, honey, I wa'n't singing nothing — nothing a-tall! " How often have I been tricked into enthusiasm over the promise of folk-songs, only to hear age-worn phonograph records, — but perhaps so changed and worked upon by usage that they could possibly claim to be folk-songs after all! — or Broadway echoes, or conventional songs by white authors! Yet cajolements might be in vain, even though all the time I knew, by the uncanny instinct of folk-lorists, that there were folk-songs there. And even when you get a song started, when you are listening with your heart in your ear and the greed of the folk-lorist in your eye, you may lose out. If you seem too much interested, the song retreats, draws in like a turtle's head, and no amount of coaxing will make it venture back. And there is something positively fatal about a pencil! Songs seem to be afraid of lead-poisoning. Or perhaps the pencil is secretly attached by a cord (a vocal cord?) to the singer's tongue. It must be so, for otherwise, why has it so often happened that when I, distrustful of my tricky memory to hold a precious song, have sneaked a pencil out to take notes, the tongue has suddenly jerked back and refused to wag again? Yet that is not always the case, for sometimes the knowledge that his song is being written down inspires a bard with more respect for it and he gives it freely.