Barry was born in Boston and attended undergraduate and graduate school at Harvard University for folklore, theology, and classical and medieval literature. After graduating, he began collecting variations of both American and Anglo-American ballads in the northeast United States. In 1930 he founded the Folk-Song Society of the Northeast. He would edit and regularly contribute to the group's Bulletin, which printed twelve issues from 1930 until Barry's death in 1937. In an obituary printed in 1938, folklorist George Herzog described his theory of "communal re-creation" as a significant contribution to the study of ballads in the field:
Mr. Barry, and Professor Louise Pound, attacked the theory of "communal ballad origin" according to which ballads were supposed to have originated through improvisation, by a group acting in concert. Mar. Barry suggested instead a theory of "communal re-creation," a process according to which songs created by individuals and handed down by tradition became remodeled and changed by practically each individual who sang them. The protagonists of the communal original theory in time modified their views considerably, and emphasis has turned from theorizing to patient research.
Phillips Barry's theories have not been without criticism. In 1964, eminent folklorist Tristram Coffin criticized Barry's handling of tragic ballads "Springfield Mountain" and "Fair Charlotte" as showing "disregard of narrative obituary tradition [that is] typical of ballad scholar in general," and disputed his method in dating of the ballads.
During the summer of 1930, Helen Hartness Flanders began to correspond with Barry on the subject of an archive of traditional songs she had been collecting in Vermont for the Vermont Commission on Country Life. Initially they collaborated for the sake of finding Child Ballads in New England; at the time these songs were considered to be more prevalent in the South and were generally not associated with New England culture. Besides Flanders, Barry's contemporaries included Fannie Eckstorm, Marguerite Olney, and Eloise Linscott. Together, they collected New England songs from 1920 to 1960, documenting a fading musical tradition belonging to an bygone lifestyle. Barry's later work focused more on original ("native") American ballads rather than British ballads. His last work, published posthumously, was The Maine Woods Songster, his second volume of songs from the state. He was in the process of doing research on the ballads "The Three Sisters" and "Little Musgrave".
- Barry, Phillips (1909). "Folk-music in America". Journal of American Folklore. 22 (83): 72–81.
- Barry, Phillips (1939). The Maine Woods Songster. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Barry, Phillips; Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy; Smyth, Mary Winslow (1929). British Ballads from Maine. New Haven: Yale University Press. OCLC 163370217.
- Flanders, Helen Hartness; T. Coffin; B. Nettl; M. Olney; E.F. Ballard; P. Barry; G. Brown; A. Brown (1960–1965). Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England, Volumes 1-4. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Flanders, Helen Hartness; E.F. Ballard; G. Brown; P. Barry (1939). The New Green Mountain Songster: Traditional Folk Songs of Vermont. New Haven: Yale University Press.
- "Barry, Phillips, 1880-1937, collector. Songs and ballads from Maine: Guide.". Houghton Library, Harvard College Library. 2006. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
- Herzog, George (Oct–Dec 1938). "Phillips Barry". American Folklore Society. 51 (202): 439–441.
- Harvard 2006.
- Editions of Bulletin of the Folk-Song Society of the Northeast. Google Books. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
- Herzog 1938, p. 2.
- José E. Limón (Winter 2007). "Américo Paredes: Ballad Scholar (Phillips Barry Lecture, 2004)". The Journal of American Folklore. 120 (475): 3–18.
- Quinn, Jennifer Post (1983). An Index to the Field Recordings in the Flanders Ballad Collection at Middlebury College. Middlebury, Vermont: Middlebury College. pp. 8–11.
- Post, Jennifer C. (2004). Music in Rural New England Family and Community Life, 1870-1940. Lebanon, New Hampshire: University of New Hampshire Press. p. 236.
- Herzog 1938, p. 440-1.
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