Why We Left

Why We Left

Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants

Joanna Brooks

224 Pages, 6 x 9 in

  • Paperback
  • 9780816681266
  • Published: June 11, 2024
  • eBook
  • 9780816684090
  • Published: May 1, 2013


Why We Left

Untold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants

Joanna Brooks

ISBN: 9780816681266

Publication date: June 11th, 2024

224 Pages

8 x 5

"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, 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

"Introduces an unexpected archive for American literary study: American folk ballads."—Resources for American Literary Study

A grounded, tender, and mournful reckoning with the catastrophes that launched poor, white Anglos into their role as itinerant foot soldiers for modern imperialism—now in paperback with a new preface


Joanna Brooks’s ancestors were among the early waves of emigrants to leave England for North America. For generations, they lived hardscrabble lives, eking out subsistence in one place after another as they continually moved west in search of a better life. Why, Brooks wondered, did her people and countless other poor English subjects abandon their homeland for such unremitting hardship? The question leads her on a journey through an obscure dimension of American history.


Why We Left reveals the violence and dislocation that propelled seventeenth- and eighteenth-century working-class English emigration, presenting a powerful restorying of how we arrived at our present moment of precarity and rootlessness. Following American folk ballads 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, Brooks offers a scholarly and personal account of the intergenerational traumas that shape the history of white Anglos on Turtle Island.


She shares folk ballads such as “Edward,” which reveals the influence of deforestation on the dislocation of early Anglo-American peasant immigrants, and “The House Carpenter’s Wife,” which emphasizes 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. This tenth-anniversary edition includes a new preface and develops a haunting historical perspective on the ancestors we thought we knew.

Joanna Brooks is professor and chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She is the author of the award-winning American Lazarus: Religion and the Rise of African-American and Native American Literatures as well as The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith.





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



Epilogue: Ballad of the Laboring Poor