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Why We Left

Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants

2013
Author:

Joanna Brooks

Why We Left

The myth-busting truth behind early English immigration to North America as told through traditional folk ballads

Joanna Brooks reveals the harsh realities behind seventeenth- and eighteenth-century working-class English emigration—and dismantles the idea that these immigrants were drawn to America as a land of opportunity. Brooks follows American folk ballads back across the Atlantic, uncovering an archaeology of the worldviews of America’s earliest immigrants and a haunting historical perspective on the ancestors we thought we knew.

Why We Left draws creatively on early folk ballads of England and America to make a surprising, bold, and altogether brilliant contribution to our understanding of why people crossed the Atlantic to live in a strange new world. Haunting voices sing to us across the centuries a rich and disturbing ‘history from below.’

Marcus Rediker, author of The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

Joanna Brooks’s ancestors were among the earliest waves of emigrants to leave England for North America. They lived hardscrabble lives for generations, eking out subsistence in one place after another as they moved forever westward in search of a new life. Why, Brooks wondered, did her people and countless other poor English subjects abandon their homeland to settle for such unremitting hardship? The question leads her on a journey into a largely obscured dimension of American history.

With her family’s background as a point of departure, Brooks brings to light the harsh realities behind seventeenth- and eighteenth-century working-class English emigration—and dismantles the long-cherished idea that these immigrants were drawn to America as a land of opportunity. American folk ballads provide a wealth of clues to the catastrophic contexts that propelled early English emigration to the Americas. Brooks follows these songs back across the Atlantic to find histories of economic displacement, environmental destruction, and social betrayal at the heart of the early Anglo-American migrant experience. The folk ballad “Edward,” for instance, reveals the role of deforestation in the dislocation and emigration of early Anglo-American peasant immigrants. “Two Sisters” discloses the profound social destabilization unleashed by the advent of luxury goods in England. “The Golden Vanity” shows how common men and women viewed their own disposable position in England’s imperial project. And “The House Carpenter’s Wife” offers insights into the impact of economic instability and the colonial enterprise on women.

From these ballads, tragic and heartrending, Brooks uncovers an archaeology of the worldviews of America’s earliest immigrants, presenting a new and haunting historical perspective on the ancestors we thought we knew.

Why We Left

Joanna Brooks is professor and chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She has authored or edited five books on early American literature, history, and culture, including American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures and Transatlantic Feminisms in the Age of Revolutions. She is also the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith.

Why We Left

Why We Left draws creatively on early folk ballads of England and America to make a surprising, bold, and altogether brilliant contribution to our understanding of why people crossed the Atlantic to live in a strange new world. Haunting voices sing to us across the centuries a rich and disturbing ‘history from below.’

Marcus Rediker, author of The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

Joanna Brooks compellingly recreates the lives of British peasants who came to the New World. She traces their collective memories through the folk ballads sung by their descendants and collected diligently by scholars and revivalists. Riveting, harrowing, Why We Left will forever change the way we listen to ‘folk music.’

Charles McGovern, College of William and Mary

Why We Left is an insightful, penetrating, sad, and yet delightful history of English migration to colonial America.

Journal of American Ethnic History

A remarkable achievement, Why We Left is a story of the grim costs of modernity that left remnants in cultural artifacts - a fascinating journey through unique and creative readings into the lives of the early Anglo-American poor, indentured servitude, the Atlantic world, balladry, and the personal upheavals wrought by the earliest pushes of European colonialism.

The Register

I would recommend [Why We Left] to anyone interested in looking at the “other side” of colonization.

Journal of Folklore Research

Why We Left

Contents


Acknowledgments

Introduction: Brave Men Run

1. No Land of Opportunity: Folk Ballads and the Story of Why We Left

2. Murder the Brother Who Killed the Tree: Fratricide and the Story of Deforestation

3. Two Sisters and a Beaver Hat: Desire and the Story of Colonial Commodity Culture

4. To Sink It in the Lonesome Sea: Betrayal and the Story of Indentured Servitude

5. Seduction of the House Carpenter’s Wife: Abandonment and the Story of Colonial
Migration

Epilogue: Ballad of the Laboring Poor


Notes
Bibliography
Index