Thursday, 21 June 2007

The History of Ballads

Found this on the Net but it's good stuff. It will help with contextualising your work on ballads.

A Short History of the Traditional Ballad

The Child ballad is a late-period phenomenon, by SCA standards. Such ballads may or may not have been sung as far back as the fifteenth century. They were certainly being sung by the sixteenth century, but not many of them were being recorded. Our good records don't begin until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the ballads that are popular today are usually nineteenth- or twentieth-century variants. If you want to fit your favorite ballads to SCA use, you will probably have to peel off several centuries of accretions.

a) Precursors and early forms
Were songs that we would call ballads being sung in the England and Scotland of the fifteenth (or even fourteenth) century? It's possible, but we can't prove it The popular metrical romances of the day, such as "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (which survived to become Child ballad #31), have marked resemblance to ballads, but it is not clear that they existed as popular song, as opposed to the repertoire of minstrels. There is some evidence that the Child ballads that do date to this time were being recited - possibly to some musical accompaniment - rather than sung.
Consider the Robin Hood ballads, for instance. There are thirty-eight in Child's collection (Child #117-154), but we possess almost no music for them, and that little is from the eighteenth century or later. Our oldest reference to these ballads is in "Piers Plowman", in the late fourteenth century, where they are referred to as "rymes of Robyn Hood". One of the earliest surviving `rymes', -- "Robin Hood and the Monk" (Child #119), from about 1450 AD -- refers to itself as a `talking', rather than a song, which makes it plausible that, at least originally, it was meant to be spoken. The last verse of "Robin Hood and the Monk" is:
"Thus endys the talkyng of the munkeAnd Robyn Hode i-wysse;God, that is euer a crowned kyng,Bryng us al to his blisse! "

Once the ballad form became popular, it began to borrow freely from the carols, riddle songs, popular stories, and romances of this time. There is no doubt that many of our ballads have elements that can be traced back to the fourteen-hundreds, or earlier. There is no song we can point to, however, saying "This ballad was being sung in the fifteenth century."

b) Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ballads
The sixteenth century saw the gradual disappearance of the old-style romances, along with the minstrels who used to sing or recite them. Concurrently, increasing numbers of songs and ballads were being recorded, registered, and printed for sale. This was not just a British phenomenon: Ballads were popular throughout Europe, and the English-language ballad tradition shows considerable borrowing from other lands.

By the end of the sixteenth century, we begin to accumulate a reasonable body of documentable balladry: Most of the Child ballads that we can trace to the SCA's period will be traceable to the very end of the period.
The ballad form remained popular through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century. What we now call the ballad had established itself as a popular genre, and appeared in broadsides, books (eg, collections of Robin Hood ballads, known as `garlands'), and plays (eg, ballad operas, which were plays in which the actors would periodically break into song for little reason or none -- as they have tended to do in musical productions ever since).

Popular ballad tunes also become easier to locate, as they tended to appear in music collections, dance manuals, song books, instrumental instruction manuals, and broadsides. (This was the age of the broadside ballad. Most broadside ballads are not considered ballads, as we are using the term, but they frequently named the popular tunes to which they should be sung - and sometimes even provided the music - so they are valuable for what they tell us about the popular music of the day.)

c) Eighteenth-century balladry
The eighteenth century saw two major ballad revivals. One came in mid-century, and was marked by Bishop Thomas Percy's collection and publication (in his 1765 "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry") of many of the old ballads he was able to acquire. The other came at the end of the century, through the efforts of Sir Walter Scott and his circle. Most of our obviously-Scottish ballads date to this time or later. (These revivals are a mixed blessing from our perspective. We are indebted to them for a great deal of our current ballad repertoire. On the other hand, people like Thomas Percy were both eager to impute great antiquity to their ballads, and happy to `improve' them. The combination tends to muddy the historical record.)

Most magical and supernatural ballad themes also tend to enter ballads at this time. If a ballad has ghosts, or people returning from the dead, or magicians casting spells, it is most likely (thought not certain) to have come from the eighteenth century or later. In earlier ballads, supernatural influences are largely restricted to the devil and the occasional elf. (The latter tended to be unnatural minions of evil, not Tolkien-type elves.)

d) The modern `rediscovery' of the ballad
By Child's day, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, many considered the ballad a literary form, only incidentally connected to song. Late in the century, however, scholars began to realize that an oral ballad tradition still survived in both England and the United States. Most of the traditional tunes we know were gathered in the frenzy of ballad collection that followed this realization, and most ballad performances with which people are familiar today are reworkings and updatings of that material.

Take a theme with broad appeal - a love triangle, a killing, an elopement, a haunting, a long-lost lover returned, a sea battle, a land battle, a rejected wooer grieving, a villain outwitted, a husband won, a monster defeated, or any of a hundred others. Set it to a easily-remembered verse form and a singable melody. Modify it as desired to suit the tastes of your audience, to fit a popular new tune, or maybe just to fill in gaps where you don't quite remember the lyrics you originally learned. This is a formula for a song that can survive in the popular domain for centuries.

At least, the idea of the song can survive for centuries through changes in lyrics, changes in melody, loss of old plot elements, and introduction of new ones. The bad news is that the versions of ancient ballads that survive to modern times tend to survive because they have been adapted to modern tastes. Sometimes we are lucky, and can find records of earlier versions of the same ballads, but usually what we have to work with is a relatively modern song in a very old tradition.

The good news is that when we are lucky, we have a song that - possibly with a bit of modification - is likely to appeal to modern listeners. The very factors that kept the ballad tradition alive work in our favor.

1 comment:

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I teach Film, Media and English Lit.