Henry Marvin Belden, a pioneer in the study of Missouri balladry and song, was born October 3, 1865, in Wilton, Connecticut, the second of five sons in an old New England family of modest means. He graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1888 and taught at a private training school for West Point candidates until a small inheritance from his grandmother enabled him to begin graduate work in English at Johns Hopkins University in 1889. In 1893 he spent a year at the University of Nebraska, where he met Louise Pound, who became a lifelong friend and ally in ballad-scholarship controversies. After spending the subsequent year at the University of Strasbourg to complete his thesis, Belden received his doctorate, and in 1895 he accepted a position at the University of Missouri in Columbia.
In 1903 Belden learned from his students that traditional English and Scottish ballads, thought by scholars of the time to have virtually disappeared in both England and North America, flourished in Missouri, and the collection and study of ballad and song texts became his major scholarly interest. He enlisted students in the effort to collect songs extant in their local communities, and in 1906 he organized the Missouri Folk-Lore Society to further the work. In August 1907 he published and circulated a brochure, “A Partial List of Song-Ballads and Other Popular Poetry Known in Missouri with Some Hints for the Collector.” The list described seventy-six songs already collected, including about a dozen songs originating in the United States, such as “Jesse James” and “Charles Guiteau,” as well as Civil War ballads and other songs relating to American history. Suggestions for prospective collectors urged that all popular songs learned by ear be preserved, “whether tragic, comic, or sentimental, religious, historic or didactic.” Among the many scholars and collectors who followed him in the next four decades, Belden’s approach was notable in its inclusiveness and in that he found American ballads and songs more interesting than survivals of the traditional body of balladry brought to America by early British settlers. Although, like others, he collected the ballads included in Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes in Boston from 1882 to 1898 and considered by many twentieth-century scholars the ballad canon, Belden thought the songs not included in Child’s book were of greater interest in the study of popular and folk culture.
In 1908 Belden spent a semester at the British Museum to study broadside ballads, topical and other songs circulated widely on broadside sheets, which were not available in published collections. On his return to Missouri, he joined with Mary Alicia Owen of St. Joseph, Missouri, a pioneering collector of Native American and African American folklore, to promote further collection of the state’s verbal lore. To broaden the scope of its work the FolkLore Society published “Suggestions for Collectors of Negro and Indian Folk-Lore in Missouri,” outlining the types of superstitious beliefs and practices believed to exist, and a second edition of “A Partial List of Song-Ballads.” With Belden as secretary and Owen as president, the society quickly gained a loyal statewide membership.
The success of the song-collecting effort in Missouri and Belden’s enthusiastic reports of the results at meetings and in German and American journals brought him national attention, and he served as president of the American Folklore Society in 1910 and 1911. He spent 1916–1917 on leave at Harvard to work on notes for his song collection and made arrangements for an anticipated volume of Missouri folklore to be published by the American Folklore Society. World War I brought an end to plans for the publication and eventually to the Missouri Folk-Lore Society, which held its last meeting for many years in 1920. Owen, the longtime president and supporter of the society, whom Belden had counted on to provide the African American and Native American materials, suffered several years of poor health. Her death in 1934 ended any hope for publication of a comprehensive collection of Missouri folklore.
Belden retired from teaching in 1936 with his own collection still unpublished, but in 1940 his colleagues in the English department arranged for the publication of Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society as a volume of the University of Missouri Studies series. By that time a number of state collections had been published, but Ballads and Songs was widely praised for its scholarly notes and careful editing as well as its studies of such local songs as those relating to the Meeks family murders. It is considered a model state collection.
Ballads and Songs is a testament to Belden’s dedication to the task of preserving Missouri’s heritage of song and the dedication of his students in carrying on the work in their own communities. Although he was influenced to some extent by the scholarly views of his time, Belden remained a pioneer in his study of broadside and Native American balladry, at first for clues to problems of ballad definition and origin, and later because he valued the knowledge gained by tracing the songs and the events that inspired them. Because of his broad interest in documenting all aspects of the oral culture in the state, many songs relating to Missouri history were preserved through his work.
After Ballads and Songs gained national praise, Belden was instrumental in helping with the publication of Vance Randolph’s monumental four-volume collection, Ozark Folksongs, published by the State Historical Society of Missouri from 1946 to 1950. Belden served, with Arthur P. Hudson, as coeditor of the two volumes of ballads and folk songs included in the seven-volume Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, which was published in 1952 when he was eighty-seven. He brought to the tasks the same enthusiasm and energy he had devoted to the collection and documentation of Missouri’s folk songs, considered his greatest scholarly achievement. He died May 17, 1954, in Columbia, and is buried there.
Belden, Henry M. “Autobiographical Notes.” In A Belden Lineage, 1066–1976, by Allen Belden. Washington, DC: Belden, 1976.
———. “Old-Country Ballads in Missouri.” Journal of American Folklore 19, no. 74 (July–September 1906): 231–40 (part I); 19, no. 75 (October–December 1906): 281–99 (part II).
Belden Henry M., ed. Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society. Columbia: University of Missouri Studies, 1940.
Missouri Folk-Lore Society. “Ballads, Songs, Rimes, Riddles, etc. Collected between 1903 and 1917.” Typescript deposited at Harvard University Library by H. M. Belden in 1917.
Pentlin, Susan, and Rebecca B. Schroeder. “H. M. Belden, the English Club and the Missouri Folk-Lore Society.” Missouri Folklore Society Journal 8–9 (1986–1987): 1–42.
Published March 2, 2023; Last updated March 6, 2023
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)