The Child ballads are coming back in print. Originally published over a century ago, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Edited by Francis James Child," quickly became known as simply the Child ballads; and formed the foundation stone for the great folklore movement of the early 20th century.
In fact, many of the first scholars to embark on "field collecting" trips in the United States - in which traditional folk songs and tunes still being performed in remote, rural areas were written down or recorded - were interested only in variants of the ancient ballads compiled by Child. As late as the commercial folk revival of the 's, Child cast such a giant shadow that professional folk singers routinely noted when they sang a song that traced back to his collection.
But they have been out of print since the mids. He died in , before the entire collection had been published. Scores of notes, corrections and variants he wished to add throughout the collection were simply thrown together into a nearly incomprehensible Volume Ten. The new edition adds those notes - and many melodies that Child had assembled - to the appropriate ballads. Loomis House editors Mark F. The current generation really hasn't had the opportunity to do that, because this material hasn't been available.
But this is such a vital part of our cultural heritage. The question has vexed scholars for years, since Child died before writing the introduction to his work, in which he planned to explain the precise nature of his collection, and how he decided which ballads to include.
Basically, he perceived the collection as more a work of history than literature. He did not select ballads based on literary quality, but on whether they could be reasonably traced back to the ballad tradition as it existed in preliterate British culture. Because these ancient ballads were fashioned by a non-literate society, they have an organic nature and universality, a lack of self-consciousness and subjectivity, that is unlike anything fashioned by literate cultures.
Child sought to include every such ballad and variant he could find from British sources, and to note their connections to related ballads in other cultures. British folk singer and guitarist Martin Carthy is arguably the world's preeminent living interpreter of Child ballads, and holds them in an awe that is strikingly similar to how Child himself regarded them.
There are moments of high humor in them, even among the tragic ballads, which you don't find in the later songs. The best of all folk songs have that feeling that they've traveled, of course, but there's an extra something about the ballads. You get the feeling they are there as models for living. There's a timeless quality to them that you don't so often get from later ballads and songs. Throughout his life, Child lamented how little collecting had been done in Great Britain, compared to most European countries.
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He found only a handful of ballads that could be documented as far back even as the 13th century, including "Sir Patrick Spens" , and "Sir Hugh" But those dates are based on events occurring in the ballads, not on the age of manuscripts in which they were first written down. Only 11 Child ballads exist in manuscripts older than the 17th century. In , he wrote, "The ballads should have been collected as early as ; then there would have been such a nice crop; the aftermath is very weedy.
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If he had lived just a little longer - just a few years - he would have seen the golden age of the ballad collector and folklorist. He would have seen how important his life's work had really been. His father was a sailmaker, and as a boy, Child loved to wander the Boston waterfront, listening to the sailors sing and swap stories.
It was a favorite sport to steal fingers full of sweet molasses from barrels while the sailors were not looking - or at least pretending they were not looking. But most of all, Child loved school. He showed such scholarly promise that he was plucked from the Boston Public School, where most working-class children went, and admitted to Boston Latin, where he learned the classical languages that were then essential to receiving a college education; and that were normally taught only to children of the upper classes.
His father lacked the resources to pay his son's tuition to Harvard, but the principal of Boston Latin, Epes Sargent Dixwell, was so taken with Child that he personally arranged a loan for the boy, who entered the college in He graduated first in his class in , and remained in the employ of Harvard until his death. There is now both a Child Hall and a Child Memorial Library in honor of the professor who presided over the creation of Harvard's first modern department of English literature, and was a powerful force in the college's growth into one of the world's great universities.
Child was not only among the brightest, but one of the most beloved students and professors in Harvard's long history. Throughout his life, he carried with him the innocent, fervent joy of a boy who knew he had been admitted to learned halls that were not then normally open to humble people like him. Boston novelist Henry James, a lifelong friend, dotingly said Child's aspect was "all finely circular:" and James's brother William, the formidable philosopher and psychologist, called Child "the only man I ever knew who thought no evil.
When I go back to the poets, I see how I have been fooled.
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But he has the whole project so thoroughly on his mind that it's second-nature for him to write, 'Oh yes, add this Estonian ballad from this other source to the ballad I cite on page such and such. He has a dry and pointed, but never cruel, sense of humor. He strongly suspects it is a forgery by which he means a ballad text written later by some composer, and not really collected from the folk.
It is also a terribly done forgery, he thinks, but decides in the end it should be published, "for the same reason thieves are photographed. He frequently lamented the trampling over of old texts that had been done by forgers and professional minstrels; but saved his hottest wrath for "modern editors, whose so called improvements are more to be feared than the mischances of a thousand years. Child respected the motives of the antiquarians, and the reverence most of them had for the authentic poetry of the folk.
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But many altered traditional ballad texts so radically that they became unrecognizable as genuine folk poetry. What we don't really know is how much they had to do with the shape of the ballads before they got into Child's hands. I'm wary of drawing too many conclusions from the ballads about the culture they came from, because I'm very aware of how those guys messed with them. I mean, I mess with them myself; why should they have been any different?
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His reverence for the genius of folk poetry, spectacular knowledge of ancient British language, and uncanny instinct for authenticity, roused British scholars to urge him to undertake a definitive ballad collection before it was too late. So many ballad texts were being lost to history, and British universities had no interest in such a work. Child was already a powerful figure at Harvard. He knew he would have their complete support - and he always did, much to Harvard's credit - but he was still reluctant.
It was a lifelong commitment. He refused to consider it until the seminal Bishop Percy manuscript had been made public. That was the most important British ballad manuscript in existence, an anonymous collection Percy had saved from a 17th-century scullery, where it was being torn up and used to light fires. In his published version, called "The Percy Reliques," the bishop drastically censored and rewrote the ballads.
He never allowed the original manuscript to be released. His "Cowboy Songs," published years and years ago, won forthwith a classic rank among books of folk-poetry—in whatever sense controversialists may choose to interpret that much-vexed term. Lomax has never flagged in his zeal as a collector, and his success has been proportionate with his energy.
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Of late, too, he has enjoyed the assistance of his son, and their combined activities have greatly increased our knowledge of the subject. In the volume now offered to the friendly reader there is much that is novel; yet the old familiar fields are not neglected. Here, then, is a book of songs that illustrates many phases of our strangely multifarious life and manners. There is something for every mood and for every intelligent taste. And the whole thing is intensely American and has been contrived by a man who knows what he is about and is in vital contact with the materials that he has so skilfully brought together.
Caveat emptor is a good book-buying motto nowadays, but in this case the buyer may take his chances without trepidation.
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