Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sam Bayard

     In another context tonight I was reminded of Samuel Preston Bayard, a scholar who did his best to sustain music in one of the oldest ways of doing so: collecting melodies from oral tradition, transcribing them accurately in musical notation, annotating them, comparing them, tracing their origins over time and place, and publishing them. Bayard (1908-1997) wrote the annotations for the hymn-tune collections of George Pullen Jackson, the leading scholar of vernacular North American hymnody in the first half of the 20th century; he identified a number of folk tune families (that is, melodies that were similar to one another and presumably descended from a single ancestor) and named them in these annotations, in his numerous essays, and in his collections of Pennsylvania fiddle tunes (Hill Country Tunes, 1944; and Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife, 1982). Bayard taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1945 to 1973 but continued actively researching and writing about melodies and melodic origins after retirement, and became the most highly respected scholar of English, Scottish, Irish, and North American folk song and instrumental melodies of his era.

     I met Professor Bayard only once, in 1992, after he gave a lecture at Harvard University (about which more below). I was teaching at Brown at the time, having driven from Providence to Cambridge for the occasion of his lecture; and when we were introduced he asked me what I was working on. I told him I'd been visiting with Old Regular Baptists, singing along with them, and was starting to look for the origins of their melodies. He didn't waste any time. "What's your favorite tune among them?" he asked. I thought for a few seconds; I didn't have one--I had many. "Well, maybe it's one they sing for 'Guide me o thou great Jehovah,' I said. "Sing it for me." I did, knowing that there were several tunes that went to the 'Guide me' text, and he needed to know which one I meant. "Oh," he said, "that one. Very nice. That's 'Adieu Dundee.' A Scottish tune. 1600s." I wrote the name down and later looked it up. Sure enough, that was it.

     A few years earlier, I had given the problem of melodic resemblance to our computer scientists at Brown. They had sent out a bulletin looking for interesting problems that computers might solve. I thought I had one, and they did, too. At first they were confident that they could come up with an effective algorithm. Six months had gone by after I gave them some melodies that I thought resembled each other, and yet I had not heard from them. Finally I called the lead scientist. He told me that they had lost interest and were about to give up. Things that are identical are not difficult for a computer to discern, he said; but similarity--family resemblance--is a puzzle that baffles even the smartest computer. It takes a human being to know melodic differences--and similarities. Samuel Bayard had been at it for more than fifty years.

Professor Samuel P. Bayard
There weren't many music scholars researching in Professor Bayard's specific area, but every historian of American music knew what he had been up to and how much it would mean to know the origins, histories, pathways and resemblances over time and place of all those folk melodies. The lecture announcement promised that at last he would let us in on his final conclusions about the tune families. Many of the southern New England environs music scholars--professionals and amateurs--were inside that packed lecture hall waiting for him to to pass along his holy grail, or at least give us a glimpse of it. Were there really only three tune families, or were there seven major families, or was it eleven, as he had claimed at various times? How did Bayard judge similarities and on what basis did he assign melodies to particular families? No one had ever before accumulated such insight into the origins and development of folksong melodies. This was an esoteric subject, to be sure, yet to those interested in the field it was an essential area but one that few had dared explore in such great depth over so long a period. Now in his mid-80s, and long retired from teaching, the great man at last ascended the steps to the stage of the lecture hall, with the help of a cane. After initial applause that must have lasted for twenty seconds, the hall grew very quiet. And then instead of doing what we expected--that is, leading us through musical notations and detailed analysis and comparison--he sang the tune families. All of them, so we could hear them.

No comments:

Post a Comment