Seduced by Barbara Allen.
May 2, 2006 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Help me understand the Scottish/Irish ballad tradition.

Lately, I have been reading transcriptions of very old songs like "The Douglas Tragedy," "Barbara Allen," "Lord Randall," etc. and listening to the very weird old music on the Harry Smith anthology of American folk music. And, of course, I keep seeing derivations or inventions of all this old, weird, murderous stuff in the Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Ramblin' Jack Elliot music I've been listening to since I was a kid. So I would like to somehow track the high points in this old ballad tradition from the old UK songs to the American southeast folk music down to Guthrie and Dylan. I'd like to get a sense of a "map"--the greatest of these ballad songs at different times, and I'd eventually like to supplement the map with recordings of the songs. I guess what I'm asking for is the "greatest hits" of the Scots-Irish ballads, from the old sources, up through what we now call bluegrass, country, and folk. Assuming "Barbara Allen" is a song of greatness, what are the others I should find lyrics for, or listen to? And what books, CDs, MP3s, etc. would you recommend? Thanks.
posted by lustra to Media & Arts (7 answers total)
lustra, what you're after is commendable..but make no mistake, it's a lifetime study, and such a map would be a HUGE undertaking. There are about 10 dissertations in your question.(But if you do it, it'll make a hell of an FPP. Try to get government funding!)

But, if you haven't already been working with it, THE place to start is Francis Child's collection of ballads. Etext here. Searching on "Child Ballads" will get you a compendium of other links to similar material, resources created by other scholars. You may also want to search and post queries on the forums at The Mudcat Cafe/Digital Tradition website, which, despite its heinously slow and awkward interface, does attract a fairly knowledgeable community of musicologists and interested hobbyists. Asking this very question over there is likely to result in excellent and really useful responses.

I'll have to stop there. The Scots/Irish tradition isn't my strongest suit. Have fun on this quest!
posted by Miko at 3:16 PM on May 2, 2006

The English musicologist Cecil Sharpe traveled to the Appalachians in the early 20th century and was just as surprised as you at the connection between ballad traditions. There are lots of other articles on that site.
posted by zaelic at 3:18 PM on May 2, 2006

it may not be precisely folk music, as they wrote some of the songs themselves, but you must familiarize yourself with the carter family

i like "tam lin" and "matty groves" right now for old childe ballads, but there's many others

don't forget that reggae and even blues owe something to this music
posted by pyramid termite at 5:17 PM on May 2, 2006

There is an African American ballad tradition called the "blues ballad", which was influenced a bit by the Anglo tradition.

Drawing on some of my reference books, now:

What the ballad tradition contributed to later forms of music: A comprehensive story told chronologically; two to three main interacting characters; an implied moral, caution, or lesson; standard memes ("milk-white steed", "coal-black hair"); standard themes (tragedy, magical events, romance, lost love, regained love/broken-token, historical account, and humorous); and a strict metrical and rhyme structure, organized into stanzas. And, I'm sure, a lot more I don't know about. The style is impersonal (they're not "I" songs) and the moral is rarely stated outright. The romantic and tragic themes survived best in the New World, because of their greater universality (as opposed to historical songs and songs about legendary magical beings, which might have been meaningless to the next generation, now removed from the landscape where they made sense. No dragons in the Colonies.)

There are four main ballad traditions in the US: The medieval/Child ballad, the broadside ballad, the blues ballad, and the parlor ballad. You're interested in the Child variety, the most ancient. It began developing in the 1400s, and was at the peak of its popularity as a form in 15-1600s Europe. After 1700, almost no new songs appeared in the tradition, though variants proliferated. Of course, Anglo immigrants brought these songs to the U.S.

The blues, being unevenly constructed (three-line stanzas of which the first two are the same), improvisational, and impressionistic (rather than chronological), and using a different tonal palette, reflects only small influence from the Anglo tradition - that influence being the English language, of course, and also a narrative impulse, usually organized around a character or theme. Blues lyrics, though, tend to be unrelated to one another. The don't tell a story in the same linear way as an Anglo ballad. You can see the difference by mixing up verses. In a traditional blues, it doesn't really matter what order you sing the verses in. The song still makes emotional sense. But if you sing a Child ballad in the wrong order, you have the lady sleeping on the ground with her Gypsy lover, then she's lying beneath her milk-white sheets in her fancy house, then her husband is pulling on his long leather gloves to go find her, then she's forsaking her baby, etc. Gibberish.

By the time you get down to the Carters -- under 100 years ago -- the Child ballads had been thoroughly Americanized, and picked up influences from other ethnic musics, particularly Irish traditional and African/African-American, but also French/French-Canadian, Welsh/Cornish, Bavarian/Dutch/German, and umpteen others. As always, music evolves and develops complexity as it marinates in a culture. When Bob Dylan sings in the tradition -- even when singing the words of a traditional ballad -- he's playing an instrument that a 1600s Scotsman would never have seen, let alone understood, and an 1880s American would have considered a girl's. He's singing with an African-influenced set of vocal inflections that traditional ballad singers wouldn't buy into. In other words, he's taking yet another small step in the long line of adapting traditional songs to contemporary aesthetics, applying his own creative fillips, and incorporating influences from what has gone before within and without the genre.
posted by Miko at 6:08 PM on May 2, 2006

Child and Sharp's books are definitely great starting-places. There's a good website on the Child ballads here (warning: midi background music) - though I strongly recommend buying a good paper edition with footnotes and such - there will be LOTS more helpful information included. I also second the Mudcat recommendation.

As for the specifics of your project - the idea of making a map of the "greatest" ballads - I think you'll find that these songs aren't very easily categorized in that way. At any given time, a song might have been very popular in one town and unknown a hundred miles away - not like today, where musical popularity is pretty homogenous from place to place. And what about the many, many variants that some of these songs have? Some of these variants can be pretty different from each other - will you count them as different songs, or will you lump them together by "type" and risk making your map more inaccurate? It's tricky.

You also might want to do some more reading on folklore and the oral tradition in general, to get a better grasp on how to think about organizing and approaching all this stuff.

Also, don't forget that the tunes of the songs you're interested in have many versions and variants as well.

If you're interested in modern music that's directly related to these old songs, you might be interested in Joanna Newsom (who covers "Three Little Babes" - aka "Lady Gay" or "The Wife of Usher's Well" on one of her albums), Nick Cave's "Murder Ballads", and Alasdair Roberts' stuff. A nice collection of modern field recordings of traditional songs (from the the '60s and '70s) is Brave Boys: New England Traditions in Folk Music For some lovely, more "traditional" non-field recordings of traditional songs, check out Joe Hickerson or Pete Seeger's lesser-known half-siblings, Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger.

Oh oh oh, and I almost left out the perfect album - the Boston Camerata's "New Britain: The Roots of American Folksong." Each track brings together versions of songs with related tunes and often-related lyrics from different places and times across America and Europe. It's an amazing album, too.

Good luck with the whole thing - this is really interesting stuff.
posted by bubukaba at 9:20 PM on May 2, 2006

Once you've seen even a few ballads (even of mixed traditions), don't miss Folksongs Are Your Friends: Things I've Learned from British Folk Ballads. Hilarious.
posted by eritain at 1:04 AM on May 3, 2006

Francis Gummere was a great authority. Here are some of his publications.

Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition, is also excellent. It's long out of print but is available through AddALL for not a lot of money.

The Child volumes have been reprinted in a good paperback set (5 thick books) by Dover. However, this contains many versions of each ballad, with minor variations. There is a 1-voume edition with only a single "standard" version of each one, but I can't remember the editor. Your library should have a listing.

Here is a nice collection of the most famous ones.

Finally, This looks like a good source, particularly for the tunes.
posted by KRS at 11:22 AM on May 4, 2006

« Older Any way to save Brightcove video?   |   The impact of renewable energy Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.