For those of you with access to Jstor who enjoy "geeking-out" with 19th century popular music the way that I do, please find the following article: John Spitzer. 1994. ‘Oh! Susannah’: Oral Transmission and Tune Transformation. Journal of the American Musicological Society 47, no. 1. (Spring): 90-136.
For one of my graduate school course assignments I was given the task of identifying a prize winning journal article and analyzing its claims. I selected Spitzer's article, which won the Society of American Music's Irving Lowens Memorial Article Award (http://american-music.org/awards/PreviousLowensAwards.php) (accessed October 25, 2009).
Here is the author's abstract:
Early prints of "Oh! Susanna" by Stephen Foster transmit versions of the tune that differ strikingly from one another [30 versions from at least 16 publishers]. It is likely that these variants arose as "Susanna" was orally transmitted among minstrel-show performers. Variant readings are compared in order to establish a stemma that shows not only the filiation of sources, but also the ways in which oral and written aspects were mixed in the transmission of "Susanna." The variants in versions of "Susanna" demonstrate four general tendencies of oral transmission: (I) a tendency to alter rhythms in order to clarify the beat; (2) a tendency to pentatonicize the melody; (3) a tendency for a salient harmony to draw the melody to the chord root; and (4) a tendency to eliminate differences between parallel passages. Analysis reveals that the four tendencies are also present in the transmitted versions of other songs from the repertory of nineteenth-century American minstrelsy.
(end author's quote)
As one who thrives on systematic approaches to most everything, I was very pleased to read this article. I felt as though the author's conclusions should hold meaning to our community of interpreters of 19th century popular music, not just the readership of the AMS journal. What I think is most relevant about this article to my own approach in interpreting and arranging period music for banjo is that this is a great example of how academic inquiry can be meaningfully repurposed into my "interpretive tool box." On some levels, there is a real common sense to what Spitzer presents. It also adds weight to my personal attempts at being as intentional as possible with all that I do (from strict emulation of the written page to flexible variation in a performance context). For those who have a more vernacular or oral approach to period music, you may find that Spitzer's claims align with your personal conclusions gained through years of experience! Perhaps, in the end, you will agree that this is an important instance where scholarship and personal, experiential interpretation successfully intersect.
Anyhow, I am enthusiastic about looking at this music from multiple perspectives. I wanted to share that with you.