This blog post about the Arkansas writer Charles J. Finger is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits.
A series of sepia-toned photographs held by the University of Arkansas Library’s Special Collections division shows an amiable-looking young man with luxuriant hair and mustache, wearing a suit and tie with the collar loosened. In the photos, the man reads a magazine, lights and smokes a pipe, pouts, gets angry, laughs, turns his back, and disguises himself with a blanket worn as a head wrap.
Who is this roguish fellow? He gives the best clue to his identity in the first photo of the series, which simply shows his finger. It serves to identify him as Charles Joseph Finger, an explorer, writer, rogue, and hidden folklorist. I first came across Finger when I found his book, Frontier Ballads, in a used bookshop in Maryland. Frontier Ballads contains a collection of traditional folksongs, including cowboy standards like “The Cowboy’s Dream” and “The Hell-Bound Train,” outlaw ballads like “Sam Bass” and “Jesse James,” a few classic ballads like “Our Goodman” (which I wrote about here), and some broadside standards like “The Flying Cloud” and “Morrisey and the Russian Sailor.” It even a contained few sea shanties, including “Reuben Ranzo” and “Blow the Man Down.”
More intriguingly, Frontier Ballads contains a narrative explanation of where and from whom Finger heard each song. This wide-ranging tale indicated that he had spent time in South America, including Patagonia and as far south as Cape Horn, as well as in New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, and other parts of the United States. He had also spent time as a sailor, and had at least once been shipwrecked.
It certainly seemed like a fascinating book. To clinch the deal, the book has handsome woodcut illustrations by Paul Honoré, and is subtitled:
SONGS FROM LAWLESS LANDS
WITH SOME OF THEIR TUNES
HEARD AND SET DOWN
CHARLES J. FINGER
MANY HERE PRINTED FOR THE FIRST TIME
TOGETHER WITH A TRUE ACCOUNT OF THE MANNER OF
THEIR SINGING BY
GOLD HUNTERS IN THE ANDES, MEN ON SHIPBOARD, HARD-CASES
WHO WERE BEACH COMBERS, FELLOWS IN THE CALABOOSE,
SOUTH SEA SMUGGLERS, SEALERS, BARTENDERS,
AND SOME WHO HAVE SINCE ACHIEVED FAME
Naturally, the book was too appealing to resist, and after buying it, I was in for a further pleasant surprise. Doing some quick research on the author, I discovered that right here at the American Folklife Center, we have a unique recording of his singing. In 1937, Charles J. Finger visited the building where I write these words, and was recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax singing sailors’ songs in the Coolidge Auditorium. He sang three songs, and sang one of them twice, yielding four recorded performances. Of the three songs, two had been printed in Frontier Ballads. In the player below, hear one version of “The Amsterdam Maid,” which appears on page 156.
So who was Charles J. Finger? By all accounts, he led an exceptionally interesting life. Finger was born in Willesden, England, December 25, 1867. His father was from Germany, his mother from Ireland, and the family moved to a middle-class neighborhood of London when Finger was a child. As a teenager, he rebelled against the Victorian strictures of his home, spending time in the servants’ quarters and in the streets whenever he could get away. He briefly attended King’s College, London, but left without a degree. In the mid-1880s, he studied music in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His parents immigrated to the United States in 1887, but Finger remained in England, where he became involved with the labor reform movement and the Fabian Society of socialists. He moved in musical and literary circles, and his friends and acquaintances included William Morris and H. G. Wells.
In 1890, Finger set out on a vacation, but ran out of money in the Canary Islands, and joined the crew of a ship bound for Chile. Between 1890 and 1895, he traveled around South America, working as a shepherd, a cowboy or gaucho, a gold prospector, a fur trapper, and a dealer in sealskins. He and his friends were victims of robbery, and in retaliation engaged in what his ringleader described as “piracy.” In 1893, he served as an overland guide for the Franco-Russian Ornithological Expedition to Tierra del Fuego.
After a brief return to England and a sojourn with his parents in New York, Finger went to Texas in 1896, where he found a job in San Angelo herding sheep. In Texas, as in South America, he interacted with people he called “outlaws and hard cases.” He began writing newspaper and magazine articles for the San Angelo Standard, the Houston Labor Journal, Searchlight magazine, and other Texas publications. He also became a United States citizen. In 1898, he established the San Angelo Music Conservatory and worked there until 1904, teaching music lessons and arranging arranged concerts and tours. Still committed to the ideals of Fabian socialism, he also worked as a union organizer and leader.
In 1902, Finger married Eleanor Ferguson, daughter of a sheep rancher, and the two started a family. In 1904, the need to support his children brought Finger to New Mexico, where he worked on the railroad, beginning as a boilermaker’s helper in a railroad shop and ending up as auditor in the general manager’s office. In 1905, he was recruited as an auditor by the Ohio River and Columbus Railway Company, where he rose to become a director.
Finger continued working in the railway industry for another decade, but became increasingly ambitious in his writing. In 1916, he sent a story manuscript to William Marion Reedy, editor of The Mirror, a nationally renowned magazine of literature and politics based in St. Louis. Reedy rejected the story, but encouraged Finger, advising him to write “imaginative stories based on fact.” In 1919, Reedy bought three of Finger’s stories and assigned him to review several books. In 1920, in what seemed like a form of succession planning, Reedy offered Finger a job managing The Mirror while he took a trip to California, and promised him an ongoing role at the magazine after his return. Finger later wrote in his autobiography: “Reedy and I privately and tentatively planned a glorified Mirror in which we were to be co-workers in a way to be presently decided.”
On this understanding, Finger bought a farm outside Fayetteville, Arkansas, where he installed his family, then went to St. Louis to run the day-to-day operations of The Mirror until Reedy returned from his trip. Sadly, however, Reedy never did return; he died suddenly in July 1920, while still on his trip to California. Only an hour or so before his death he had written Finger a letter filled with praise for his writing and his handling of the magazine’s affairs, which Finger reproduced in his autobiography.
According to its last issue, The Mirror was bought by an investor, but it did not continue publication. However, Reedy’s widow gave her blessing for Finger to start his own publication and market it to The Mirror‘s subscriber list. Finger joined his family in Fayetteville and began All’s Well, a magazine he subtitled “The Mirror Repolished.” All’s Well was very well received, praised by such writers as Fred Allsopp and H. L. Mencken, and Finger published it almost single-handedly for 15 years, ceasing in 1935. Through the magazine he came in contact with many writers who encouraged and helped him in his own career, especially Carl Sandburg, who became a good friend.
Encouraged by Sandburg and other friends, Finger began to publish books. In the last 20 years of his life, in fact, he wrote 50 books, many of them in the Little Blue Books series, an initiative of the Haldeman-Julius Publishing Company to create low-price paperback pocketbooks to help the working class. (The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of Little Blue Books in the Rare Book and Special Collections division.) Finger’s books ranged widely, from biographies of Mark Twain, Robert Burns, P. T. Barnum, and Mohammed to compendia of outlaw stories and pirate tales, to books entitled Romantic Rascals, Valiant Vagabonds, and Courageous Companions, as well as Historic Crimes and Criminals, A Book of Strange Murders, and A Book of Gallant Rogues. (Many of these books can be found in the Library of Congress general collections. Visit Finger in the LC Online Catalog. The first link on this page should return a list of his books and other items in the Library.) Finger became one of the most prolific and well regarded authors in the state of Arkansas, and during the New Deal era, he was employed by the Arkansas Writers Program as the original editor of the Arkansas state guidebook, but he passed away before the project was completed.
As we have already seen from Frontier Ballads, some of Finger’s books were on folklore themes. The most famous of these was the 1924 children’s book Tales From Silver Lands, a collection of folktales from South America, which was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1925. Tales From Silver Lands was one of the first children’s books to feature South American folktales from indigenous peoples. Finger also included contextual information about how he heard the stories and the people who told them. For example, one story begins like this:
This is a tale that I heard when I was gold digging in Tierra del Fuego, and if you want to get to the tale and skip the introduction, you may. To do that, stop here—and pass over everything until you come to the three stars * * * and begin at “Many years ago.” But if you want information and all that kind of thing, read straight on and learn that the man who told me the tale was named Soto, Adolpho Soto. He called himself a Bolivian and said that it was a tale of Bolivia, but he had never been to that country. His parents were Bolivian, but he had been born and reared in inland Patagonia, on the east side of the Cordilleras and north of the great shallow gulf that runs inland from the Strait of Magellan. Anyway, he had heard the tale from others who knew all about the three great stones and how they looked. Certainly he had not read the story, for books meant nothing to him and he would not as much as look at a picture. And it was quite clear to me that he believed every word of the tale. Indeed, I am almost sure that he was doubtful in his mind as to the wisdom of telling me all of it, thinking that I would not believe it. Perhaps that is why he told me the tale in two parts, as if in some manner I might thus get used to the shock of it. Mind you, on the other hand, I am certain that he did not believe all that I told him, though he was too polite to express unbelief. For instance, he could not quite see how carriages went without horses, nor how men sent messages over miles of wire, nor how the sound of a human voice could come from a little box, without magic; for in the country that Adolpho came from there were no railways, no telegraphs, and no phonographs. So to the tale, or rather the first part of it, if you choose to hear it.
Another fascinating work by Finger in the field of folklore was the 1924 Robin Hood and His Merry Men, which was Little Blue Book no. 538. In his introduction, Finger alludes to the then-current folkloristic theory that Robin Hood is connected to such figures as Odin in Teutonic mythology, and that his various combats are symbolic of the seasons, but he dismisses the idea as “little less than nonsense.” Finger then presents some of the best known Robin Hood stories and ballads, including “Friar Tuck,” “Guy of Gisborne,” and “Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford,” as well as more obscure pieces such as “The Noble Fisherman,” in which Robin leaves the greenwood to try his hand as a commercial fisherman! For some tales, he prints an entire ballad text. For others, he retells the story in his own prose, and in still other cases he summarizes parts of the story but quotes liberally from the corresponding ballads to fill in the details. While of course the Robin Hood stories were available in popular editions before Finger’s, his book is notable for its inclusion of traditional ballad texts in a book intended for a non-scholarly audience.
Another publication of the Haldeman-Julius company, Finger’s 1923 Sailor Chanties and Cowboy Songs, was the precursor to Frontier Ballads and the kernel from which it grew. (Charmingly, Finger spells the plural of “chanteys” as “chanties” and the singular as “chantie,” reflecting the novelty of the genre term.) Sailor Chanties and Cowboy Songs established Finger as a very interesting figure among those who wrote down and published folksongs; there were other former sailors who collected chanteys, and other former cowboys who collected cowboy songs, but there were few people who were both! Finger’s biography thus provided him with a claim to be one of the most authentic purveyors of such folksongs to the reading public. Interestingly, also, to fit the theme of his later book Frontier Ballads, Finger cut out many of the sailor’s songs that had appeared in Sailor Chanties and Cowboy Songs, inserting them only when he remembered sailor’s songs being sung in frontier situations. The earlier book therefore includes many more sea songs and more discussion of them. One of the songs Finger sang for the Lomaxes in 1937, “Away for the Rio Grande,” was published in Sailor Chanties and Cowboy Songs but then omitted from Frontier Ballads. Hear it in the player below.
In Sailor Chanties and Cowboy Songs, Finger tells how he came to write songs down during his travels, a tale he glosses over more lightly in Frontier Ballads. According to the earlier book, the boatswain on the Seatoller, a schooner on which Finger crewed in South America, was a good singer who claimed to have sailed with John Masefield. When the Seatoller was wrecked, the crew had to make their way overland along the coast, including the singing boatswain. Finger continues:
He had a face like Mahogany, wrinkled and knotted, his hands were like hams. Gray bearded he was was and very, very profane on all occasions, but he had a plangent tenor and from a kind of habit would sing whenever we rested. […] When we finally reached civilization and the bo’s’n found himself with a glass of hot grog in hand, he told me that it was my bounden duty to set down all the sailor chanties he had sung. “For,” said he, “since steamers have come in, any clerk or beach-comber acts as a sailor and them old songs will die out like them Romans you hear tell about.” The old man went on to say that no man was, nor by any possibility could be a good sailor, unless he knew a chantie for every job on board ship.
After a while, being alone on Isla Isabel in the Magellan country, and finding time hang heavily on my hands, I did as the old salt had advised me and set down such chanties as I remembered, and later, living among the gauchos and cowboys, kept up the custom, but not so carefully as I should have done.
It was from the old bo’s’n that Finger claims to have learned “The Amsterdam Maid”:
I remember one night when we were crouched at the base of a cliff that ran at angle so as to shelter us from the wind so piercingly chill, he gave “The Amsterdam Maid,” a song not at all polite, and with references somewhat free, as most sailor songs are, and we joined in the chorus making a kind of part song of it. The old bo’s’n drilled us like a choir master and lied outrageously, saying that his father was the inventor of the melody.
“The Amsterdam Maid” also turns up in a different situation in Frontier Ballads, being sung by the Seatoller‘s crew at a wedding on a Patagonian cattle ranch after they make it safely back to civilization. So perhaps it’s appropriate that “The Amsterdam Maid” was the song Finger sang twice for the Lomaxes. On the second version, the Lomaxes and “Miss Finger,” presumably Charles’s daughter, sang along on the choruses. Hear it in the player below.
Throughout Finger’s other books there are retellings of legends, accounts of folk beliefs and practices, and other documentation of folklore. Particularly interesting are his descriptions of berry-pickers and other itinerant workers in the Ozarks included in an article called “Pariahs” in the Summer 1934 issue of All’s Well; an account of a water witch included in his book Ozark Fantasia; and various descriptions and legend accounts in A Book of Strange Murders. Finger is also considered an important person in Arkansas history and in the history of the merchant marine: there is a Fayetteville park named after him, and there was a Liberty Ship named in his honor as well.
So why do I refer to Finger as a rogue? Largely because there is evidence he stretched the truth about the way he collected folklore. This evidence suggests his principal sources for the full texts he published were other books and his own imagination, rather than the hard cases, outlaws, and “fellows in the calaboose” he so vividly describes. Guy Logsdon, one of the few folklorists to have taken note of Finger’s work, compared Frontier Ballads to what was in 1927 the only well-known book of cowboy songs, the one published in 1910 by John A. Lomax. Logsdon writes in his book The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing:
[Finger] claimed to have heard “Sam Bass” on March 1, 1897, in Texas, but his version is identical to Lomax’s except for a few punctuation marks, which is true for each of Finger’s cowboy songs. It is probable that he heard fragments and then turned to Lomax for the longer, more complete texts. It is also possible that Finger’s creative flair at story-telling provided much of the narrative that fit a song that he liked.
Similarly, in his Robin Hood book Finger wrote:
The adventures that follow I have set down as I remember them, in some cases as they were told or sung, and in other cases as I read them years ago in a great old book with badly-done woodcuts on every other page.
Like Finger’s statements about his cowboy songs, this account seems unlikely. Almost none of the tales set down by Finger was “told or sung” in oral tradition during his lifetime, and it’s unlikely he remembered verbatim the 112 lines of “The Noble Fisherman” from a book he had read years before. The only way he could have produced his Little Blue Book without having a photographic memory (which would have allowed him to give the title and author of the “great old book” he was quoting) was to sit down with a pre-existing collection of ballads such as Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads or Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood, and summarize some parts while copying out others word-for word. Yet he cites no sources except the coyly described “great old book.”
Other evidence of misleading statements comes from a unique letter preserved in the AFC archive. One of the songs of which Finger was most proud was “Annie Breen,” for which he gave two different provenances in print and a third in the letter. In Frontier Ballads, he says that a “lad” named Clay Trammel sang him several stanzas of a song called “The Coon-Can Game,” of which he then heard more stanzas from a blind minstrel. The minstrel claimed to have learned “The Coon-Can Game” “in six puncheons from noon,” a phrase which Finger said related to an unusual way of telling time by tracking the progress of the sun as it shone through a window onto successive gaps in a puncheon floor. Finger gives the version of “The Coon-Can Game” he learned from the “lad” (Trammel), completed with other stanzas from “the minstrel.” Finger then says that from “the same lad” (that is, presumably, Clay Trammel, whom he consistently called “the lad”), he learned “Annie Breen.”
Finger also sent “Annie Breen” to George E. Hastings, who published it in Texas and Southwestern Lore. Hastings reports that Finger claimed to have learned “Annie Breen” from a blind minstrel, that it was the minstrel’s composition, and that the minstrel claimed to have created it “in five puncheons to noon.” In other words, in this second version of the story, told to Hastings, Finger conflated the characters of Trammel and the minstrel from his original tale, and also included the “puncheons” detail, which referred to the time it took to learn “The Coon-Can Game” in his original story but the time it took to compose “Annie Breen” in the second version. Finger stuck to the minstrel story when corresponding with Vance Randolph, whom he told in an undated letter printed in The Washington County Historical Society’s magazine Flashback in February 1981, “I suppose you have seen my “Annie Breen” in the Frontier Ballads, which is truly Ozarkian and was, I believe, partially made up by a blind minstrel who goes about with a guitar.”
Finally, however, we come to the letter preserved in the AFC archive, the only correspondence with Finger the AFC has preserved. In this letter, which Finger wrote to Alan Lomax in 1937, he admitted the truth:
Annie Breen is a patchwork largely mine, and based on a partially remembered ballad. In fact I’ve been guilty of all sorts of crimes in this direction I’m afraid.
By that time, Finger’s “patchwork” had already been printed by Hastings as a composition of a blind Arkansas minstrel. It had also been included as a genuine folksong in the expanded edition of John A. Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, which was already in press when his son received Finger’s letter. Since then “Annie Breen” has continued to be treated by anthologists, musicians and scholars as a traditional American folksong, partly because this letter and its revelation have remained unpublished until now. Most notably, Charles O’Brien Kennedy printed it in A Treasury of American Ballads (1954), G. Malcolm Laws indexed it in Native American Balladry (1964) and gave it the number dB42 (the d indicating he thought it was doubtful the song was still current in tradition), Steve Roud gave it the number 4045 in his online index, and musician Tom Roush recorded it, calling it an “American folk song” and “a classic murder ballad” and stating that it is “better known in Europe than in the states.” (Watch his version on YouTube at this link.)
A final example of Finger’s roguishness pertains to the last song he performed for the Lomaxes on his visit to Washington in 1937, “The Old Black Horse.” Hear it in the player below.
“The Old Black Horse” is one of the songs Finger printed in Frontier Ballads, claiming there that he learned from a cowboy named Turner, who professed to have written the song and to have “popularized it in a roundup at Cheyenne.” In 1937, on the disc recording in the AFC archive, Finger tells John Lomax that it is “a fo’c’sle song,” that is, a song sung by sailors in their off-duty hours. In fact, it’s neither a cowboy classic nor a fo’c’sle ditty but an English music-hall song written by Corney Grain (1844-1895) as “The Old Black ‘Oss.” Grain was an active singer and pianist on the London music-hall scene during Finger’s London youth, in a period when, according to his autobiography, Finger was himself a music-hall pianist in training who sometimes claimed to be “a music-hall pianist by profession.” It seems a virtual certainty that he knew Grain’s music well. It’s thus far more likely that he learned “The Old Black ‘Oss” before he left London than at sea or in a Texas saloon. Even if he did not learn the song in England, it’s unlikely it was sung by the cowboy Turner and also by sailors (unless we count Finger himself), so at least one of Finger’s tales almost certainly stretched the truth. (By the way, Finger is not the only person to have sung this song for folksong collectors: for example, you can hear a version Bob Patten recorded from Percy Webber in Washford, Somerset, England, in 1977.)
So what are we to make of Finger’s “crimes” of attribution? Interestingly, he opens his autobiography Seven Horizons with a letter to his Doubleday editor, Harry Maule, in which he muses at length about the issue of falsifying details in the pages that follow. He begins by claiming that he stretches the truth to protect the reputations of others, but belabors the point over nine pages of text, which become increasingly convoluted in their reasoning. They reach their climax in this amusing passage commenting, in sermon-like detail, on the folk proverb “Tell the truth and shame the Devil,” which was noted as a “common saying” as early as 1555. The passage gives a good sense of his vivid writing and his use of folklore, as well as his attitude toward the truth:
You may on occasion tell the truth and shame the devil, but it is also possible to tell the truth and give the devil fresh hold, enabling him to go on and on in sustained joyfulness. Our modern society is indeed built on lies, cemented with lies, composed of lies. The press lies. Legislative halls listen to lies and those half-lies which are platitudes. The pulpit thunders lies at the behest of mammon. Professional educators lie from ignorance as well as because of self-interest. Mothers lie to their children and husbands charitably lie to their wives. As for children somewhat grown, the more conscience they have, the more fervently they lie. The explanation is simple. Human beings are notoriously cowards when it comes to public opinion, and truthfulness is the highest form of courage. All men are liars because all men lack valor.
Although he is mentioned a few times in Vance Randolph’s Ozark Folklore: A Bibliography, and cited elsewhere by Randolph (who both corresponded with him and met him at various times over the years) Finger’s work is not well known in the field of folklore. In his response to Randolph’s query about Ozark songs he gave the puzzling opinion that “as to the Ozark songs, the trouble is that people do not sing.” This must have made Randolph question his knowledge of the area, since the songs Randolph collected ultimately filled six volumes, including two of bawdy songs. In addition, in Ozark Folklore: a Bibliography, Randolph cryptically mentions “Annie Breen” as “that much-discussed item,” but I haven’t found any scholarly articles or books in which it was discussed; this suggests that the discussions were private and inconclusive. (Randolph knew Hastings well and even recorded Hastings as a singer and banjo player; those recordings are also here in the archive). Most likely, folklorists already suspected but could not prove what the letter to Lomax reveals: that the song was Finger’s own invention. It seems likely, then, that Finger was shunned by other folklorists because they believed he was unreliable. As Finger himself ruefully noted in Seven Horizons, “a man cannot play fast and loose and come off unscathed.”
Despite his roguish reputation, however, I’m glad I made his acquaintance, and AFC’s recording of his singing, along with his Newbery Medal for Tales from Silver Lands, and his other folklore books, surely make him worthy of inclusion as a hidden folklorist.
Note: The main sources used to reconstruct the biography above were: Finger’s autobiography Seven Horizons; Finger’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas; the biographical note accompanying Finger’s collection at the University of Arkansas, the 2013 article “C. J. Finger in Fayetteville: The Last Horizon” by Ethel C. Simpson, and the 1981 article “The Squire of Gayeta Remembered” by Mary Ann Spain, which appeared in the February 1981 issue of Flashback.