Francis James Child's Ballads in the Modern Age
by Stephen D. Winick
In academic folklore study and in the world of folk musicians, people refer to a revered canon of 305 songs as "The Child Ballads." Few give much thought to what this means, or why we call them that. It's common to see the first word misspelled as "Childe," suggesting that these ballads are about heroic deeds, as in Shakespeare's line (and Browning's poem) "Childe Roland to the dark tower came." People also sometimes think that the word "Child" refers to children and that, like Fairy Tales, these ballads were once considered appropriate for kids.
In fact, the term "Child Ballads" refers to a nineteenth-century Harvard professor named Francis James Child, who took it upon himself to collect every known version of every popular ballad in the English language. He originally published them in a 10-part series between 1882 and 1898. The series has been reprinted, most recently in five volumes by Dover in the 1960s. But it has been out of print for decades. Recently a new hard-copy version has commenced publication, and a digital version on CD-ROM has just been released. These reissues of a classic will introduce Child's work to a new generation of scholars, singers, and readers, bringing the great ballad scholar into the digital age. In light of this renaissance, we offer a look at a brilliant scholar and his greatest accomplishment, the Child Ballads.
Child of the Nineteenth Century: The Life of Francis James Child
Francis James Child, like most of the early antiquarian folklorists, came from the lower middle class. His father was a Boston sailmaker, and because his family was not wealthy, Child was not expected to pursue higher education. He was sent to the English High School, while university-bound boys went to the private Latin school. Child was lucky, though; he made the acquaintance of the Latin School's headmaster, Epes Sargent Dixwell, who recognized the teenager as an intellectual prodigy. Dixwell arranged for scholarships to send Child to the Latin School, where he was first in his class. Dixwell then arranged for loans to send Child to Harvard, where his success was legendary. In the words of his classmate, Charles Eliot Norton, "his excellence was not confined to any one special branch of study; he was equally superior in all. He was the best in the classics, he was Peirce's favorite in mathematics, he wrote better English than any of his classmates." In Child's day, the students in each year attended all lectures and recitations together; the entire course of study was prescribed, with no electives. In this environment, it would be hard to imagine a student outpacing his classmates in every subject and still remaining popular, but Child managed this feat too. He not only graduated first in his class, but was elected class orator by his friends.
When Child graduated from Harvard in 1846, he was immediately hired by the college as a tutor in mathematics, while pursuing his own research in medieval literature. In 1848, at the age of twenty-three, he published his first book, an edited volume of four medieval English plays. He also transferred to a job teaching history and economics, further demonstrating his wide learning. In 1849, he took a leave of absence to study in Germany. In Berlin and Göttingen, Child pursued his love of Germanic languages, old literature, and what in English was just coming to be called "folk-lore." He followed no set course of study, and did not attempt to earn a degree, but he was so respected during his two years at Göttingen that they awarded him a Ph.D. anyway. His time in Germany was an inspiration to him later in life, and for the rest of his days he famously kept photographs of his mentors, the Brothers Grimm, on his mantel.
On his return to the States in 1851, Child took up a chair in rhetoric and became Harvard's expert on English literature, publishing an edition of Spenser's poetry in 1855, writing articles on Chaucer and Gower, and teaching an acclaimed course on Shakespeare. He solved certain thorny problems involving the scansion of Middle English poetry, which made it possible for the first time in centuries to read aloud from Chaucer, which he did to great acclaim at public lectures. James Russell Lowell heard Child read from The Canterbury Tales, and wrote to Norton that Child "injected the veins of the poem with his own sympathetic humor till it seemed to live again."
As a lover of language, old tales, and poetry, Child naturally began gravitating toward the subject that would become his overwhelming passion and his life's work: ballads, defined in folklore as narrative folksongs. This preoccupation began with a nine-volume set of books published in 1857 and 1858, which Child described in a letter to Danish ballad scholar Svend Grundtvig as "part of one of those senseless huge collections of British Poets." Entitled simply English and Scottish Ballads, this collection contained many poems that were not ballads, including medieval romances and other old narrative poetry. A second edition, narrowed down to eight volumes, was issued in 1860. Twelve years later, Child told Grundtvig that he had never been satisfied with this set, and that the idea of a more definitive set of books had been with him ever since.
One major obstacle had to be overcome, however, before Child could proceed with a better ballad book. A great many ballads were known to exist only through their appearance in a manuscript discovered by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1753. In 1765, Percy had published a selection of the materials in the manuscript—with numerous additions and emendations by the bishop—under the name Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Since that time, the bishop and his heirs had refused to let anyone see the manuscript, fearing that the bishop’s editorial liberties would be discovered and judged a blemish on the family name. In 1867, through the negotiating skills of Child and English scholar Frederick Furnivall, the bishop's estate released the manuscript, and Child felt he had enough of the extant ballad material to make a worthwhile collection.
The rest of Child's life was devoted to collecting, editing and printing the ten volumes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Publishing commenced in 1882 and continued until 1898, two years after Child's death; the final volume was prepared by his student and successor, George Lyman Kittredge. During these years, Child gained several more distinctions. By taking up a new professorship of English established at Harvard in 1876, Child became America's first English professor. In 1888, at the founding of the American Folklore Society, Child became its first president. The greatest distinction of all, however, was the impact he had on his friends, colleagues and students. He was, by all accounts, universally admired and universally loved. No less a character than the novelist Henry James (whose brother was one of Child's closest friends) described Child as a "delightful man, rounded character, passionate patriot, admirable talker, above all thorough humanist and humorist." After Child's death, Kittredge created a fitting epitaph for his mentor: "No university teacher," he wrote, "was ever more beloved."
Child of the Victorian Era: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Child did his best to make good on his promise and print every version of every popular ballad he could find. In addition to the Percy manuscript, he examined many printed sources and quite a few still in unpublished form. His bibliography lists over fifty manuscripts in addition to several hundred printed collections. For each ballad, he included every version he knew of. He preceded each ballad with a note explaining its origin and its parallels in world literature. His note for "Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight," for example, goes on for 30 pages of dense, double-column text. In it he draws parallels to texts in German, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, Polish, French, Italian, Wendish, Czech, Serbian, Spanish, Portuguese, Breton, Magyar, Old English, Hebrew, and Latin. In the nearby note for "The Elfin Knight," he touches texts in Slovak, Gaelic, Middle English, Turkish, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Arabic, Persian, Old Russian, Middle Greek, Hindi, and Slovenian. The notes to other ballads reference many other languages, so that about forty in all are represented. Child’s great learning is evident in each and every note, and literary references fall from his pen with the same ease with which most of us speak; referencing two Shakespeare plays in as many sentences, he comments that "‘Lord Lovel’ is peculiarly such a ballad as Orsino likes and praises: it is silly sooth, like the old age. Therefore a gross taste has taken pleasure in parodying it…. But there are people in this world who are amused even with a burlesque of Othello.”
The vast amount of erudition that Child poured into the ballads and notes are tempered with vivid imagery, sharp turns of phrase, and dry humor. He printed collector Peter Buchan's largely counterfeited version of "Young Waters" in an appendix, "for much the same reason that thieves are photographed." Of the ballad “Young Bearwell,” provided to Buchan by an elderly gentleman who had also contributed much better ballads, Child dryly commented, “old people have sometimes burdened their memory with worthless things,” and of one version of “The Braes Of Yarrow” he remarked “the last stanza may defy competition for silliness.” He berated one of the later Robin Hood ballads as a "contemptible imitation of imitations," but praised the earlier Robin Hood songs with the phrase "perhaps none in English please so many and please so long."
The result of Child's great learning, sound judgement, and prodigious hard work is a book that has never been surpassed. As the ballad scholar Bertrand Bronson pointed out, "as the standard and authoritative work on British balladry and its continental relationships, it is so far in the lead that its rivals are not even in sight." Yet The English And Scottish Popular Ballads is not a perfect work. For one thing, it is hard to understand how Child selected some ballads and rejected others; his criteria have never been clear. This is partly because he died before the last volume was completed and never wrote the promised introduction. But his premature death tends to obscure a more troubling fact: from his own writings, it is clear that Child often didn't understand his criteria himself. "'The Horn of King Arthur' I incline to exclude," he wrote to his friend Svend Grundtvig, "and yet I fear that my reasons are vague." Those criteria that Child did articulate, he violated more than once, so that according to Bronson, "a considerable cantle of his pieces would have to be lopped off...by his own testimony."
One problem for Child was that his theoretical starting-point, Teutonic romantic nationalism, was destined to burst at the seams. Before the coinage of the term "folk-lore" in 1846, folklore was generally called "popular antiquities," and Child meant "popular" in this earlier sense of "folk." His idealized picture of the folk who created ballads made them members of an earlier phase of society, in which, as he wrote, "the people are not divided by political organization and book-culture into markedly distinct classes, in which consequently there is such community of ideas and feelings that the whole people form an individual." There are two major problems with this most Romantic of theories: first, that no such phase of society can be proven ever to have existed (not in England, at any rate), and second, that almost all ballads in English date from 1500 and after, with a few going back perhaps to the 14th or 13th centuries. During this entire period, class distinctions were already marked and, in fact, increasing.
Child's theory led to an equally problematic approach to individual ballads. Essentially, he read through all the ballad-like songs and poems he could find, whether medieval romances or products of the eighteenth-century broadside press. Those that he believed preserved some fading remnant of this primitive society were included. This process was largely intuitive; Child commented frequently that a given ballad had "the popular character," but was never able to elucidate just what that was, writing on one occasion that it was "easier to feel than to formulate." Most subsequent scholars have been unable to capture the feeling, asking instead a valid question: is there any principle that can tie together "a Lytel Geste of Robyn Hode," a 456-stanza epic, and "Get up and bar the door," which is essentially a joke told in verse? What unites "Lord Randal," a tragedy told entirely in dialogue and devoid of all sentimentality, and "Dives and Lazarus," a mawkish tale fit for any Christmas sermon? If subject matter and style are no guide, neither are poetic features, since the most common ballad meter and rhyme-scheme has been used for both folk poetry and literary works for ages.
And what strange poems Child sometimes did select! He included the entirety of the Robin Hood corpus, despite admitting that many of those ballads were not "popular" in the sense that he meant. In the case of "Young Ronald," he apologized in the notes for insulting the intelligence of discriminating ballad readers, but suggested that the obvious forgery might preserve a fragment of original popular poetry somewhere in its fifty worthless stanzas. Several of the so-called ballads are obviously short romances, and for many, like "Judas," there is no evidence of them ever having been sung. In what sense, then, are they ballads? To his credit, Child agonized about many of these decisions. He once wrote to Grundtvig, "Some of the later Robin Hood ballads I have scarcely patience or stomach to read: but the declension is so gradual from the freshest and raciest to the thoroughly vulgar...that it will be hard...to draw a line." Similarly, he complained, "The Outlaw Murray and Auld Maitland...try me sorely. I wish I could rid myself of them."
In the end, Child took Grundtvig's advice and generally erred on the side of inclusion. Nevertheless, some ballads were left out, mainly because of sexual, scatological, and blasphemous themes. We know Child was squeamish about such matters; in 1867 he wrote to Lowell of a set of such songs from the Percy Manuscript: "I advise you to put [it] up the chimney...or into the fire--where the authors no doubt are! They are just as dirty as they can be." Child couldn't even bring himself to use the word "cuckold," printing instead its Greek counterpart, and for the already euphemistic English word “deflowered,” he substituted the French “despucellée.” This prudish streak explains The English And Scottish Popular Ballads' lack of very old popular ballads such as "The Sea Crab," which is the story of a shellfish left in a chamber-pot, which grabs a woman's genitals when she squats to use the vessel. Meanwhile, "The Bitter Withy," a ballad drawing on apocryphal Christian legend that depicts a juvenile Jesus angrily killing three other children and then receiving a thrashing from the Virgin Mary, was probably left out because of the controversial subject matter.
Other ballads were omitted for even more obscure reasons. "Frog and Mouse," which is very old and very widely known under titles like "Froggy Would A-Wooing Go" and "Uncle Rat," is one example. Did the courtship of two different animals suggest the then-taboo subject of interracial love affairs? Or was there simply an unspoken rule that ballads must be about humans? Ballads such as "Bruton Town" and "Long A-Growing" were just the sort of text Child liked, but they were not included either. And in the earlier collection English and Scottish Ballads, Child called "The Blind Beggar's Daughter of Bednall's Green" a "favorite popular ballad," yet he excluded it from the later book. We may never know why.
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, then, is a personal and idiosyncratic collection, as well as a flawed one. Child used his own gut feelings to decide which ballads were popular, and then applied his own sense of propriety to censor them. It's likely that no other scholar's decisions would have been identical to his. This led the ballad scholar Thelma James to point out that "a 'Child Ballad' means little more than one collected and approved by Professor Child." Nevertheless, this doesn't prevent The English and Scottish Popular Ballads from being useful and enjoyable. For any of the ballads Child did include, the notes and texts make fascinating reading. You can learn much about the common heritage of all Europeans just by reading entries in The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, and be transported to faraway realms of magic and mystery to boot. For creative singers, Child's texts are a precious resource, to be pored over, studied, adapted, set to music, and sung. Generations of folklorists and singers have become accustomed to referring to songs by their Child numbers. For all these reasons, The English And Scottish Popular Ballads will remain both a classic work of scholarship and a vital song collection.
In another way, the shortcomings of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads have proved its greatest legacy. Throughout his almost forty-year involvement with ballads, Child did absolutely no field collecting, and although some of his ballads were taken down by scholars from the oral tradition, most of them were found in manuscripts or on printed broadsides. The few attempts he did make to find oral versions, advertising for schoolmasters and other local intellectuals in Ireland and Scotland to collect from local singers, were mostly unsuccessful. As a result, he concluded that the oral tradition of ballad-singing was dead, or nearly so, and that all worthwhile ballads were available in manuscript or print sources. The opening sentence of his never-completed general introduction reflects this; it ran in part: "there has now been gathered everything in the English language that by the most liberal interpretation could be called a popular ballad, and all the known versions of such."
Clearly, Child felt he had closed the case on popular ballads, but in the competitive world of scholarship, this sort of conclusion acts as a challenge. By a few years after Child's death, such collectors as Cecil Sharp and Sabine Baring-Gould had proven him wrong, and they were just the vanguard of an ever-increasing army of collectors. By the 1920s, traditional ballads had been sought and found in the pleasant villages of England, the craggy hills of Scotland and the remote mountain hollers of the Appalachians. Since then, they have been found in great numbers on the plains and tundras of Canada, the lush islands of the Caribbean, and the weedy deserts of the Australian outback. Wherever English is spoken, people have sought and found examples of Child's ballads, alive in the oral tradition.
Child of the Digital Age: New versions of The English And Scottish Popular Ballads
Given its importance, it's surprising that The English And Scottish Popular Ballads has been out of print for decades. But that's being remedied as I write. The small publisher Loomis House Press is creating a new, attractive hardback and paperback set of the Child ballads, which will be a boon to singers and scholars everywhere. There is one innovation in their work, which will make it easier for casual readers, but perhaps harder for scholars, to use the set. Since Child published The English And Scottish Popular Ballads in ten parts over a period of sixteen years, he often found additional information on ballads he had already published. Every other part thus featured a section of "Additions and Corrections." If you want every word Child wrote about “Lord Randall,” you'll need to flip through every volume of the five-volume reprints, or every other volume of the original ten. Loomis House has brought all of Child's "additions and corrections" to each ballad and printed them alongside that ballad's original entry. The result is that the book is more useful to new readers. But it does completely change the pagination of the series, so that if you're looking for a point Child made about Geordie, and you have a reference to Volume four, page one hundred twenty-six, you'll be out of luck; that point will be on a totally different page of the new set. It's a trade-off that was unavoidable in hard copy, and Loomis House has helped by putting the original page numbers in the margins.
The other format in which the Child Ballads are now available is CD-ROM. This digital edition of The English And Scottish Popular Ballads was produced by Heritage Muse, a small publisher in New York headed by David Kleiman. Kleiman’s interest in the project began with his love of the ballads. “As a folk musician and a music historian by interest, I kept finding myself going back to the Child ballads as sources for performing and just interesting reading,” he explained. “I only owned two of the Dover edition paperbacks. So about three-and-a-half, four years ago I got online to see what would it take to buy the other three books, and nearly fell over when I saw that at time it was going to cost me about seven hundred bucks. If I had wanted a full set it would have been about a thousand!” Instead, Kleiman got to work. He sat down with a copy of the original hardcover set at the New York Public Library, and analyzed it from a technical standpoint. Instead of a new hard copy version, he began to think in terms of a digital edition. Beginning with the model established by Octavo, a company that publishes Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of art books, Kleiman devised a design appropriate to the Child ballads. Support for the project was strong in both the scholarly and folksinging communities, and he was able to use more than one of the original thousand copies of Child's first edition. One set Kleiman used now belongs to Sandy and Caroline Paton, singers and founders of Folk-Legacy records. Another was originally Andrew Carnegie's, and remains in nearly pristine condition in the hands of a private collector.
The digital edition of The English And Scottish Popular Ballads uses PDF files to create a fully searchable, hyperlinked version of Child's work. This has the obvious advantage of maintaining the pagination of the original book, but linking together the "additions and corrections" so you can jump easily from one to the next. It's the best of both worlds in that sense. Editors' notes and corrections to Child's original text (Kleiman's team turned up a considerable number of minor errata) appear in the margins and in special sections. Scholars interested in such social topics as the use of money in eighteenth century Scottish ballads, or attitudes toward children in the ballads, can now search Child's texts and his notes for keywords, which will save hours of rereading and note-scribbling. Words that appear in the glossary are hyperlinked to their glossary entry, and each glossary entry is hyperlinked back to the ballads where the word is used. That way if you encounter a word in eighteenth-century Scots and have no idea what it means, you can find out in a couple of clicks.
The digital Child offers considerable added content as well. In the year before his death, Child wrote to William Walker, "at one time I thought of giving a map of all places mentioned in ballads. This...shall not now be done. But I should like a brief topography of such places as are real." Child died without fulfilling even that reduced ambition. The digital edition finally does so for him, creating a place-name index researched by the well known folk singer Heather Wood, along with a series of beautiful, full color maps showing all the places mentioned in Child's ballads. Each place on the map is linked to its entry in the index, and each entry in the index is linked to each ballad in which that place is mentioned. You can thus jump easily from ballad to index to map, and back to ballad. According to Kleiman and Wood, a much more detailed gazetteer of places will be made available as a separate add-on at a later date, but the maps and index work perfectly for now. A new essay introducing the Child Ballads, by Michael Taft of the Library of Congress, as well as primers on currency, peerage, feast days, and other cultural background to the ballads add still more value to the digital package.
A final feature that works better in digital form is the music. In the last volume of The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, Kittredge included transcriptions of tunes for fifty-five of the Child ballads. The digital edition links each transcription to a MIDI file, so that by clicking on an icon you can hear the tune played through your computer. The advantages of this for people who sing by ear are obvious. One more bonus for people who buy the CD ROM is an audio CD of Child ballad performances by contemporary folk singers.
There are a couple of trade-offs for buying the digital version. To curl up with a good ballad by the fire, you'll need to print hard copy first, and even then a sheaf of printout is not the same as a nice weighty tome. To use the electronic features, you'll have to become very familiar with Adobe Acrobat Reader, which at times can lead you to pages you never thought you asked for. Also, since Heritage Muse is mindful of computer piracy, you have to pick a single computer to install the product on; to change computers when your current model is obsolete, you'll have to contact the company for an updated license.
As with all software, there's the question of obsolescence; for how long will a PDF file be a viable technology? With a book, you're at least guaranteed that it will be useful in twenty years. And with a book like Child's, you're reasonably sure it will still be useful in another century. Kleiman is committed to keeping the ballads available because he agrees that their value is timeless. He expects to update the product periodically to reflect new technology, and make those updates available to licensed users. Unlocked copies have even been put in escrow in the event that the company goes out of business and the product becomes unavailable. Kleiman has the technical bases covered, and like Child, he's in it for the love of ballads. '" I’m looking at it as a musician, hobbyist, scholar," he told me. “I want people to know what’s out there. They’re great, great, great materials!"
Child, too, was both scholar and singer. In 1891, missing the advice of his late friend Lowell on the latest volume of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Child confided to a friend, "I go back to the fine [ballads] at times and sing them and cry over them like the old world."
Thanks to Francis James Child, Loomis House Press and Heritage Muse, the rest of us can, too.
Sidebar review: The English And Scottish Popular Ballads: Audio CD
Intended as “a multimedia adjunct to The English And Scottish Popular Ballads (Digital Edition),” this CD is currently only available bundled with the Heritage Muse CD-ROM of Child’s great work. 'It presents fourteen of the greatest Child ballads, by fourteen fine interpreters, plus an instrumental tune. About the only things these tracks have in common are that they are ballads and that they’ve never been released before. Other than that, they’re all over the spectrum, some brand new and others classic, some unaccompanied and others ornately arranged, some by source singers and others by revivalists, some acoustic and others electric, some cheerful and others somber, some English, some Scottish, and others North American. " I looked at how the ballads are being done in living tradition," Kleiman explained. And I go from unaccompanied Appalachian singing like Jean Ritchie through Fairport Convention and everything in between.” What's in between includes such prominent musicians as English revivalist Martin Carthy, Scottish singer Heather Heywood, and North American mandolin champion Orrin Starr, as well as young unknowns like New Yorker Julia Friend. Picking favorites is futile, but here goes: A classic 1962 recording of Joan Baez singing “The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry (Child 113) will remind many listeners of the first time they heard a Child ballad. Sandy and Caroline Paton’s harmonies enhance their unaccompanied singing of “The Three Ravens” (Child 26), and Anita Best’s characteristically relaxed, smooth singing contrasts with the roughness of her ballad, “Lamkin” (Child 93). Heather Wood’s new collation of verses to “Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford” (Child 144), spruces up one of the few Robin Hood songs that survived strongly in oral tradition, and John Roberts and Tony Barrand’s take on a Vermont text of “Sir Lionel” (Child 81) is sung with obvious gusto. The rest of the tracks are equally excellent, and only limited space prevents me from rhapsodizing on every one.
Anyone with any interest in ballads will enjoy the panoramic view of ballad singing this CD affords. Child himself might like it; it even recaptures some of his shortcomings, such as a paucity of material from Irish sources. He would certainly recognize that such arrangements could not harm the ballads. "Being founded on what is permanent and universal in the hearts of man," he once wrote, "[ballads] will survive the fluctuations of taste."