Doctor of Musical Arts Dissertations

Heartening Folk: Frederic Rzewski's North American Ballads as an Extension of Folk Culture

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)


Contemporary Music

First Advisor

Laura Melton (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Deborah Wooldridge (Other)

Third Advisor

Christopher Dietz (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Robert Satterlee (Committee Member)


The study of folklore has been a topic of interest in academia for the better part of 200 years, beginning in Germany and taking roots in the romantic aesthetic there. Since then, folklore has taken many shapes and has been ascribed to many different styles of art, and has even extended into politics, linguistics, and social contexts. Scholars have found many manifestations of folklore in music, and have studied folk songs extensively. Through study, research, and performance, folk music has transcended the categorical limits of a genre, and has assumed properties that govern concepts of authenticity, agency, community, and society. The partition between Western classical music and folk music is a remnant of comparative musicology that continues to hold one art form above another. Composers have utilized folk melodies in works for centuries. Perhaps their presence in Western classical music is more profound than source material. This document is focused on a set of pieces by American composer, Frederic Rzewski titled North American Ballads. These pieces are settings of folk tunes presented in Rzewski’s mercurial style that utilize many forms of music inherent to North America.

The purpose of this document is, by exploring musical motives through the lens of cultural theory and folklore studies, to establish a foundation to argue that these pieces are manifestations of American culture not only rooted in folk music, but are fundamentally folk music. Discourses of Rzewski’s North American Ballads, and contemporary music in general are often centered around performance practice. The analytical sections are mainly concerned with theoretical inquiry, and the ideological concepts are rooted in music history. In this study, there will be some of this type of analysis, but the main goal is to link theoretical musical knowledge to an in-depth understanding of folklore as it pertains to this piece, which serves as the research question addressed in this paper. Researchers are often caught either on the side of ethnography, or musical coherence, and seldom are the two sides reconciled with adequate interpretations of both. The original publication of the North American Ballads contained only four ballads, Dreadful Memories, Which Side Are You On?, Down By the Riverside, and Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. The remaining two ballads were composed later in Rzewski’s life, and are titled It Makes a Long Time Man Feel Bad, and The Housewife’s Lament. By including the latter two ballads, the research will be comprehensive, as it will provide more insight to the set as a whole.