The Child Ballads

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Scotland experienced a boom in interest in Scottish heritage, one that sent many would-be-scholars scurrying to the hillsides in search of folklore to publish in anthologies. Some of these men (for they were, by and large, men) succeeded in their task and published volumes of Scottish ballads and folklore. One of the most successful and most scholarly of these entrepreneurs was Francis Child, who published 305 different ballads throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, later compiled into a single work called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. His work is notable for several reasons. Each of the “ballads” he records is actually a story type, under which he would often file several versions of the same story. The entry I am most familiar with that on the ballad of Tam Lin, Child Ballad 39, which includes nine variations on the tale I was familiar with. These inner ballads represent regional variations within Scotland, as well as changes the story seems to have made in being told in America, and England was well. This, along with Professor Child’s own notes on the subject (which were published alongside the ballads in the 2,500 pages that make up the completed work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ranging from a tracing of the history of the ballad to analytic comparisons) makes the study of the Child ballads a fascinating look into the way Scottish culture comes into contact with the English, and the changes that occur in a story in order to make it suit the interests and lifestyles of different peoples. It was also well-loved for it’s tracing of the history of the ballad form as far back as Ancient Greece, and in so doing setting Scotland’s lyrics up as a sort of culmination of western literary styles. Child’s ballads have also been noted for having darker themes than most ballads, as a whole, though they do also deal with lighter elements of love and do include happy endings (as Tam Lin does end on a light note, with Janet succeeding in her rescue of Tam and their creation of a family together).
The earliest poem in the collection a date has been put to is “Judas”, dated to the thirteenth century, though most of the ballads appear to have been composed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is likely many of the ballads were recited to Childe orally, though the music you can find them set to today was written in the 1960’s by Bertrand Harrison Bronson and was not included with Child’s original publication of the works. While it is interesting to note that the ballads Child recorded were still alive enough for a modern scholar to find and record the music that went with them, it I odd that Child did not include the music in the first place. His removal of the music from the ballads moves them, after all, out of the realm of Oral Literature and into a form more akin to that of traditional English poetry. His distancing of the lyrics from the music might, then, have been an attempt to put Scottish literary heritage on what would have been seen as an equal footing with English literature. Yet, at the same time, he was collecting ballads, and made no secret of the fact that these were traditional tales for the Scottish people rather than works of solitary genius.
One of the largest difficulties with the ballads collected by Child, is thus the use of Scottish, English, and American variants of the ballads, rather than simply Scottish versions. The use of all three, it is true, makes his work more scholarly than others, as it allows a reader to trace the way the story changes with place, but at the same time it seems to undermine the movement that Child was a part of. The collection of Scottish ballads was part of a greater nationalistic movement to assert a Scottish literary heritage, after all, yet here is Child connecting those Scottish Ballads to English ones. His choice, given his being an American, could easily be read as being against a separate Scotland, as an assertion that Scotland’s heritage the same as that of England. As Balmoral become, during this period, one of the Royal Residences for Queen Victoria, making it difficult for any outsider to see Scotland and England as separate entities, a move such as this would make political sense. It also fits with the profile that has been constructed of a lover of ballads as being the same group of men who loved pastoral English poems. It can also, however, be viewed as an attempt to highlight the differences between the Scottish and English ballads, acknowledging the similarities while stressing the differences in orality and form that are the Scottish heritage.