cover image Why We Left: Untold Stories & Songs of America's First Immigrants

Why We Left: Untold Stories & Songs of America's First Immigrants

Joanna Brooks. Univ. of Minnesota, $22.95 (232p) ISBN 978-0-8166-8125-9

Brooks (American Lazarus) makes an intriguing case that, rather than a land of opportunity, colonial America represented a harsh sanctuary. Drawing upon the archives of colonial ballads, she describes the circumstances that propelled 400,000 English across the Atlantic in pre-Revolutionary times. Like today's country music, lyrics of that era relate tales of murder, rivalry, false promises, and cheating hearts. Brooks also uses her own lineage to illustrate the hardship of life circa 1770. With unprecedented population growth and an economy that shifted from subsistence to exports, 18th century England produced a new class of landless laborers, which included her forefathers. The old songs were kept alive by 20th century folk singers such as Davy Crockett Ward, his wife Lina, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, Attie Crane, and Horton Barker. In the 1930s folklorist Alan Lomax moved his School of the Air radio show to Virginia to collect the traditional tunes now stored at the Library of Congress. That collection includes the ballad of Two Sisters and a Beaver Hat, which concludes: "Then young men have a care/of painted curled Locks. For such, though faire above, below may have the Pox." These ballads may be the best surviving records of what brought so many here. (May)