Child's Ballads

Week 12: England - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

The Background Reading this week is in two parts: information about the tradition of "Child's Ballads," and information about the Max Hunter Folksong Archive. If you did the Robin Hood section a few weeks ago, you are already know something about the collection of songs known as "Child's Ballads." The information about Max Hunter should be new to everybody.

Child's English and Scottish Ballads

The Ozark folksongs you will be listening to this week are all songs that came over to America from Britain. Examples of these same songs were collected by Francis J. Child in the 19th century, and some of the ballads clearly go back hundreds of years into the past.

Francis J. Child (1825-1896) is one of the major folklore collectors and editors of the 19th century. Using previously published materials, unpublished manuscripts, and field research, he assembled a massive multi-volume collection of over three hundred English and Scottish ballads, which in many cases feature multiple versions and variants of the "same" song. Oddly enough, Child was not especially interested in the music for the ballads, and instead he provides the lyrics of the songs only, with commentary. In just a few cases does he provide a musical transcription of the melody. The "Child Numbers" are still a standard way to refer to the ballads (in your readings for this week, the Child Number is provided for each song).

What is a ballad? The word generally refers to a dramatic narrative episode which is put to music. The characters are rarely described in depth (although they may already be very familiar characters to the audience), and the plot is often choppy (once again because the storyline may already be well known to the audience). Ballads frequently contain a good deal of dialogue between the characters, and there is often a refrain that recurs from stanza to stanza.

Although Child's work is the definitive modern edition of the ballads, he was preceded by the highly important ballad collection by Thomas Percy, whose Reliques of Ancient English Poetry was published in 1765. As soon as printing was invented, ballads were being printed, often as individual "broadsides." As a result, there is a continual back-and-forth between the oral tradition of folksinging and the literary adoption of the ballad as a form of printed text to be written (and read) rather than sung (and heard).

Max Hunter Archive

The songs for this week are taken from the Max Hunter Archive, which is a collection of Ozark Folk Songs recorded by Max Hunter -- a traveling salesman -- between the years 1955 and 1976. Max Hunter collected 1600 folk songs, often many different versions of the same song as sung by different singers. He used a reel-to-reel tape recorder as he traveled throughout Missouri and Arkansas, recording people just singing songs in their homes, sometimes with musical accompaniment, sometimes without.

Dr. Michael Murray at Southwest Missouri State University has been working for the past several years to digitize Max Hunter's tape recordings and make them available online. What a great thing Dr. Murray has done!

The collection consists of both the audio recording, as well as a transcription done by Max Hunter. You will see that he tries to reflect the dialect qualities of the singers and their "Ozark pronunciation," although he is not entirely consistent in how he does that. Here is Max Hunter's own explanation of how he did the transcriptions:

You may by this time be critical of the way I have punctuated my transcriptions of the songs. It is my belief, that my job is to get the words off of the tape the best way that I can and know how. It takes about ten (10) to twelve (12) hours to take the words off of the tape and this is done by the use of a pencil so that I can erase when I have to. Then, from this I type the transcription. This is one "hell" of a job. So, since I am doing the work, I'll punctuate the way I want to.

Although it is just 25 years since Max Hunter stopped collecting these Ozark folk songs, the world that he has documented here has come to an end. Many of the singers he recorded have died, and their children have grown up in households with radio and television. People just don't sit around and spend the evening singing songs the way that they once did. These songs were popular without being commercial, known to all without having had a major record label behind them. Max Hunter's efforts in recording and documenting this material is invaluable.

Out of the hundreds and hundreds of songs in the Max Hunter archive, a large number are old English songs that can be found in the ballads collected by Child. Yet you will also find that the singers change the songs, based on what they like, or don't like - or what they simply don't remember. Singing songs is like telling stories: each singer does it their own way! Because of the rhyme and rhythm and other stylistic features of a song, it is much easier to reproduce a song word for word than it is to reproduce a story. But this does not mean that any singer is required to sing a song in a certain way, and sometimes even the same singer will sing the song differently based on their audience, different occasions, etc.

Because of the world of printing (printed books, and "printed" CD's of music), we are now accustomed to the idea of perfect, endless, mechanical reproduction. Yet this is a rather unnatural state of affairs; for most of human culture, it was very unusual for a song or a story to be told in exactly the same way, word for word, note for note, each and every time it was performed. Some especially sacred texts or songs were preserved with as much precision as possible, but this was the exception rather than the rule. Stories and songs were likely to change as they moved from performance to performance, from person to person. The only real equivalent to this any more are bands that really experiment with their live performances and who issue endless CD's recording those live performances so that you can experience all the different versions of a given song. Long live Dave Matthews! Living stories and songs like to keep changing all the time.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM