ballads


ballads
   Folklorists view ballads as a subdivision of folk *song, whereas literary scholars are more likely to treat them as a sub-genre of poetry. The word 'ballad' is highly ambiguous, but, except in the specialist sense of *broadside ballad, folklorists usually use 'ballad' to refer to the 'traditional ballads' included in collections starting with Thomas *Percy's Reliques of Early English Poetry (1765) and later identified and collected together by F. J. *Child in his monumental English and Scottish Popular Ballads (5 volumes, 1882-98). Percy provided the first substantial source of ballad material for both scholar and poet, which became enormously influential in literary circles. Similarly, it is difficult to overstate the influence which Child's collection had over the field of ballad studies. His collection of 305 pieces rapidly became regarded as a closed canon and until recently few dared to question it. It is unfortunate that Child died before he could write the major essays which he planned to accompany the texts, as his criteria for inclusion now appear inconsistent, and instead of trying to construct a definition against which particular items can be measured, many later scholars have attempted to arrive at a definition which includes all the pieces in Child's work. They have thus largely failed, and have had to be content with description rather than definition. Nevertheless, the rule-of-thumb definition that a ballad is a 'narrative folk-song' is a useful starting-point. According to Richmond, the ballad is usually anonymous, it concentrates on a single episode, it begins in media res, it is dramatic in its narrative structure, and it is impersonal (objective) in its telling. Moreover, it is always stanzaic, either seven- or eight-stress rhymed couplets or quatrains rhyming a, b, c, b, and generally alternates light and heavy stresses in each line. In addition, a repetition of words, phrases, and stanzas is common, not only in individual ballads but also in the genre as a whole ... (Richmond, 1989: p. xx).
   The corpus includes ballads on a range of topics, which can be roughly classified by subject: Robin Hood ballads, Border ballads (Hunting the Cheviot, Battle of Otterburn), Tragic ballads (Sir Patrick Spens, Cruel Brother, Lord Randal), Enchantment and Fairy ballads (Tam Lin, Thomas Rhymer), and one or two Christian carols/ballads (Cherry Tree Carol, St Stephen and Herod). For many of them the only evidence for their traditional status is in the manuscript collections of the past, while others such as Barbara Allen, The Gypsy Laddie, Lord Bateman, and Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender remained extremely popular and were noted time and again by 19th- and 20th-century folk-song collectors on both sides of the Atlantic.
   Ballad scholarship has embraced many analytical perspectives, following the intellectual fashions of the day, including various linguistic, psychological, and literary approaches, and engendered a number of its own bitter controversies, starting with *Rit-son's acerbic attack on Percy's editorial standards, and continuing with the 'ballad war' in the early 20th century between the communalists and the individualists who argued over origins and early development (see Wilgus for a summary).
   The narrative nature of the ballad ensures that scholars often find it difficult to adhere to national boundaries, and, as Child amply illustrates, the British tradition can be usefully compared with those of other European countries, especially from Scandinavia, while Scotland is generally agreed to have a stronger ballad tradition than England. Much of the best ballad criticism and analysis has emanated from North America, but so much of ballad scholarship came from literary and linguistic quarters that the musical side of balladry was relatively neglected. The indefatigable champion of ballad tunes was Bertrand H. Bronson, who, from the 1950s onwards, attempted to redress the balance with a series of articles and books, culminating in the four-volume set entitled The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (1959-72) which stands beside Child's collection as the bedrock of scholarship. Bronson was fond of asking, 'When is a ballad not a ballad? - When it has no tune'.
   ■ W. Edson Richmond, Ballad Scholarship: An Annotated Bibliography (1989); D. K. Wilgus, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898 (1959); MacEdward Leach and Tristram P. Coffin, The Critics and the Ballad (1961); David Buchan, The Ballad and the Folk (1972).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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