Michael Taft, Ph.D.

A New Appreciation of the Child Ballads

There can be no doubt that the 305 ballads that make up the canon established by Francis James Child hold a special place in folklore and literary studies. After more than a century, these texts retain a mystique that is not entirely a result of their literary merit, historical importance, or even their performance within folk tradition. Rather, this collection represents an ideal of folk literature that continues to have cultural resonance in much of the English-speaking world. The Child ballads are an affecting presence that cannot be denied, and every one of the 305 texts—whatever its inherent value—carries the added cultural weight of this presence.

Child’s intent was to celebrate a part of literary history that had not gained universal recognition or acceptance among scholars. He would show that English literature included a rich heritage of anonymous, sung texts that were an integral part of literary tradition—not only English literary tradition, but the literatures of Europe and those of cultures further afield. Child gave these ballads a pedigree, where before they had largely been seen as mongrel texts; he supplied them with a contemporary relevance, where before they had been regarded as survivals or relics of an earlier age. In making his case, Child chose ballads that had literary merit, however defined, or that at least had long historical roots to anchor them firmly within literary tradition.

Once established as a part of literature, however, the Child ballads took on a significance that their compiler may not have envisioned. As a ‘canon’ of folk literature, these 305 ballads came to be seen as ancient works that predated modern, authored texts. Thus, many anthologies of English literature place the Child ballads contemporary with Chaucer, as though any anonymous song of uncertain history must predate most other poetry. In fact, most of the ballads in Child’s collection are considerably more recent than our oldest authored texts. For example, “The Bonny Earl of Murray” (Child 181) cannot be older than the end of the sixteenth century, which makes it a contemporary of Shakespeare’s writings rather than those of more ancient authors, while “Rob Roy” (Child 225) cannot be older than 1750. By their internal evidence, many other Child ballads are products of Renaissance or early modern writers, rather than medieval poets.

Another assumption is that because the authors of these ballads are unknown, and because most of the ballads were collected from the singing of British peasants, these songs are necessarily the products of untrained and uneducated composers who worked exclusively in the oral tradition. As we know from more contemporary folksongs, this assumption is often incorrect. The origins of ballad composition are rarely so straight-forward, and the high literary style of many of the Child ballads points to a literate and educated author—or at least to an educated re-worker of an older ballad. Whatever their origins, all of the versions in Child’s anthology were composed in a specific time by a specific individual—as are all folksongs—and any one of the ballads is likely to have an interesting mixture of antecedents from both oral and written traditions. That is the nature of all literature, and the Child ballads are no different in that respect.

From the point of view of the folklorist, this mix of oral and written traditions is part of the value of the Child ballads. They are a window into the complex interrelationship between the spoken and written word. Of necessity, all of the ballads in Child’s anthology are from written, if not published, sources, even if originating from the singing of illiterate country folk. Manuscripts of early collectors, published anthologies of ballads, literary works that incorporate ballads, broadsides, and song books were Child’s sources. The very act of transcribing from oral sources transformed the ballads in a number of ways, and many of the early collectors and anthologists were not above editing and amending texts to make them “more suitable” for print. Time and again, ballad collections reflect the influence of print sources; for example, a version of “Lizie Lindsay” (Child 226) sung in Oklahoma by an immigrant from Scotland was taken from the popular song book, The Songs of Scotland, edited by Pittman and others (1877).

This interplay of written and oral texts extends beyond the influences of popular literature to include scholarly works. Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802) was one early example of ballad scholarship, yet the popularity of Scott’s collection made it a source for nineteenth- and twentieth century singers. The result is that many ballads collected from traditional performers show signs of the editing work that Scott performed on the ballads that he published. Nor is it surprising that a version of “The Heir of Linne” (Child 267) collected in Virginia in the twentieth century is derived from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765)—one of the first scholarly collections of English balladry.

Thus, the serious collectors of ballads affected the tradition that they studied, and Child’s work also became an influence upon tradition. Soon after he published his work, and even more so after the one-volume, abridged copy, edited by Helen Child Sargent and George Lyman Kittredge (1904), Child, too, became a resource for singers. As an example, Child included a number of Robin Hood ballads in his canon, although few of them were common in oral tradition. “A Gest of Robyn Hode” (Child 117), weighing in at 456 stanzas, is certainly too ungainly ever to have been sung in its entirety in a traditional performance. Yet their obvious historical and literary merit earned these ballads a place in Child’s anthology. Once revived and popularized by Child, these Robin Hood ballads stood a better chance of entering or re-entering tradition than they had in their previous, semimoribund state. The great American traditional singer, Aunt Molly Jackson, learned her version of “Robin Hood and Little John” (Child 125) from the Sargent and Kittredge abridged edition.

Printed sources may well be the life blood of the Child ballads. Without Percy, Scott, Child, and many other compilers and scholars who helped to maintain an interest in these old songs, many ballads extant in performance may have indeed become no more than archaeological relics. Equal in importance to these compilers is the classroom, which is undoubtedly responsible for keeping many Child ballads in tradition. The school textbook has been the intermediary in the transmission of traditional knowledge for several centuries—proverbs, legends, drama, dance, crafts, rituals and festivals, religious observances, medical practices, among other traditions. Together with the time-honored educational techniques of memorization and public performance, textbooks have had an untold influence on the spread of traditions, including ballads.

How many textbooks and school libraries include Child ballads? Few schoolchildren over the last one hundred years could have entirely avoided at least some Child ballads in the course of their studies, and many would have had to memorize or perform these ballads along with other songs, recitations, skits, and drills that were staples of classroom instruction. Some Child ballads were undoubtedly saved from obscurity by their use in education. Perhaps the best example is “Sir Patrick Spens” (Child 58), reprinted constantly in textbook anthologies of English literature. In one of its more recent appearances in traditional performance, it was collected by Helen Creighton from a woman living in New Brunswick, Canada, who had learned it as a classroom recitation when she was a schoolgirl in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Anthologies of previously published ballads, books of newly collected ballads, and even broadsides continue to be produced today, but they do not have the widespread influence of former years. Most schoolteachers no longer demand rote memorization or the performance of recitations. Yet Child ballads continue to find ways of being heard. The mass-mediated popular culture of the twentieth century has been an excellent conduit for the spread of ballad traditions. Through recordings, radio, cinema, television, and the Internet, Child ballads have continued to work their way into the repertoires of singers. Similarly, the rise of highly mobile, professional singers who make use of the mass media has given new life to the old ballads.

Perhaps the most successful conduit of Child ballads in the early twentieth century were the commercial recordings made by hillbilly and early country singers. Many of these performers undoubtedly knew their ballads from childhood, but just as many picked them up from printed sources or other professional performers. Whatever the sources of these ballad versions, the popularity and profusion of early country music recordings, roughly from the 1920s to the 1950s, meant that some Child ballads remained popular in the collective repertoires of North Americans. Thus, “George Collins” (Child 85 “Lady Alice“) was recorded by eight hillbilly artists between 1926 and 1938. “Our Goodman” (Child 274) appeared on at least thirteen recordings by early country singers between 1926 and 1953, as well as on two recordings by African American blues singers. Likewise, “Barbara Allen” (Child 84) was performed as a country piece at least seventeen times on disc between 1927 and 1962, and was also sung by the country/rock cross-over duet, the Everly Brothers.

The later phenomenon of the folksong revival continued to spread Child Ballads. From the politicallydriven revival singers of the 1940s to the singer-songwriters of the present revival generation, Child ballads have always been a part of the general repertoire. As popular as “Barbara Allen” (Child 84) was among hillbilly singers, it was even more widespread among revival singers: from Richard Dyer-Bennet (1958) to the New Christy Minstrels (1963) to the MacArthur Family (1982) to Annadeene Fraley (1996). Over the last sixty years, revival singers have mined the pages of Child, as well as other ballad collections, and are undoubtedly the major source for much of the popularity that the Child ballads still retain at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The digital age has added another factor to the revitalization of Child ballads. The appearance of the music and lyrics of most, if not all, of the Child ballads on Internet sites has increased their accessibility, and has perhaps expanded their potential audience beyond that of the printed text. The present digital edition of the Child canon marks a further evolution in the accessibility of the ballads. Much of the value of digitized collections lies in the ability of the user to visualize the material in a new way: to move laterally and tangentially through the ballads, and information related to them, in order to see connections that might elude the reader of a printed edition. The flexibility of this digital version mimics, to some extent, the oral tradition, where singers and audience could free-associate any particular ballad performance with other versions of the same ballad, different ballads, singers, tunes, socio-political contexts — in effect, ‘hypertexting’ through their individual storehouses of cultural knowledge as they engaged in the performance. How the digital age will ultimately affect the continued development of the Child ballads remains to be seen, but it surely means a further evolution of this body of tradition.

Over the centuries almost every aspect of the Child ballads has changed. Their tune, their style and method of performance, the media of their transmission, their intended audience, and certainly their meaning and pedagogical function continue to shift and metamorphose. Tracing any particular ballad might show an a capella rendition transformed into a jazz band performance. A ballad composed as a commentary on some seventeenth century political upheaval in Britain might be recast as an American tragedy, and reinterpreted later as a parody of its former self. Their appeal will undoubtedly rise and fall according to the prevailing aesthetics of popular music. The ever-changing methodologies and philosophies of educators and anthologists will determine the influence of the Child ballads in the classroom and textbook. Some ballads will fall out of the common repertoire (as many never entered it in the first place), while some will undergo a revival. Yet it is safe to say that the canon known as the Child ballads will remain part of our literary and folkloristic heritage.

Michael Taft


References and Resources

    • Coffin, Tristram Potter. The British Traditional Ballad in North America. Rev. ed. with a supplement by Roger deV. Renwick. Austin : University of Texas Press, 1977.
    • Creighton, Helen. Folksongs of Southern New Brunswick. Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1971.
    • Keefer, Jane, ed. Folk Music: An Index to Recorded Resources. (20 December 2002)
    • Meade, Guthrie T., with Dick Spottswood and Douglas S. Meade, eds. “Country Music Sources: A Biblio-Discography of Commercially Recorded Traditional Music.” Chapel Hill: Southern Folklife Collection, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries in association with the John Edwards Memorial Forum, 2002. (Distributed by University of North Carolina Press).
    • Percy, Thomas. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry: Consisting of Old Heroic Ballads, Songs, and Other Pieces of Our Earlier Poets, (Chiefly of the Lyric Kind). Together with Some Few of Later Date. London: J. Dodsley, 1765.
    • Pittman, Josiah, and Colin Brown, eds. The Songs of Scotland: A Collection of One Hundred and Ninety Songs. London: Boosey, 1877.
    • Sargent, Helen Child and George Lyman Kittredge, eds. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904.
    • Scott, Walter, Sir, bart., ed. Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border: Consisting of Historical and Romantic Ballads, Collected in the Southern Counties of Scotland: with a Few of Modern Date, Founded upon Local Tradition ... London: Kelso, 1802.

Michael Taft is head of the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress. He holds an MLIS from the University of Alberta and a Ph.D. in Folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and has been a teacher, archivist or research scholar at the University of Saskatchewan, University of Northern British Columbia, University of North Carolina, Indiana University, and the Vermont Folklife Center, among other institutions. He has published books and articles on a number of subjects, including folksong, popular culture, folk narrative, ritual and drama, and folklore and literature.