Slipcue.Com Celtic & UK Folk Guide


Portrait of folklorist James Francis Child As with other countries and cultures, the folk ballads of England, Ireland, and the British Isles were first created and retained as an oral tradition, composed, passed along and embellished by anaonymous performers over many centuries. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, as new musical styles began to supplant the rustic old ballads, several amatuer folklorists began to collect and catalog the old folk songs, gathering the oft-times gory and melodramatic murder ballads, love songs and historical fables that documented much of the social hsitory of the islands.

Foremost among these academic folklorists was American-born academic Francis James Childs (1825-1896) who gathered the lyrics to hundreds of old songs, some famous, others obscure, and edited his work into a five-volume set which today stands as the wellspring of the modern British folk revival. Child was not the only scholar to document British folk ballads -- others, notably English diarist Samuel Pepys, gathered similar collections -- but Childs was the most thorough, and the most highly regarded. In the 1950s and '70s, when modern musicians began to bring folk music back into the public light, the Child Ballads were dusted off and deeply mined by many of the folk scene's brightest stars. Traditionalists like Ewan MacColl, Martin Carthy and Shirley Collins, along with folk-rock modernists such as the Fairport Convention and Albion Band all bowed in the direction of the multi-volume codex, which was refered to in hushed, reverent tones, a combination encyclopedia, Kaballah and Holy Grail for those in the know. For the select few, citing the ballads by the numbers assigned to them in the Child volumes was a particuar mark of in-crowd authenticity.

Copies of the Child Ballads and similar books are still highly prized and much sought after, as their audience -- academics and hardcore folkies -- remains somewhat small. They have gone in and out of print over the years, and anyone interested in tracking down these books is well advised to pick them up when the opportunity arises. Personally, I'm newcomer to the field, and hardly an expert. But here are notes on a few of the books I've found and enjoyed, with a few recommendations of related records and information about any volumes that are in print, whenever possible.

The Child Ballads & Other Books

"The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, v.I"
Ed. by Francis James Childs
Corrected second edition prepared by Mark F. Heiman and Laura Saxton Heiman
(Loomis House Press, 2002)

This volume combines the first two books of the original Child Ballad series

"The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, v.II"
Ed. by Francis James Childs
Corrected second edition prepared by Mark F. Heiman and Laura Saxton Heiman
(Loomis House Press, 2002)

This book combines the third and fourth volumes of the original Child Ballad series, ballads numbers 54-113, including such folk revival "hits" as "Willie O Winsbury," "The Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard," "The Famous Flower of Serving Men" and the Christmas-themed "Cherry Tree." There are also dozens of less-frequently revived songs, all with variant versions and copious explanatory notes. Having heard many of these songs on records by singers such as Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, and Shirley Collins, I was delighted to read through the multiple versions included in this book

"The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, v.III"
Ed. by Francis James Childs
Corrected second edition prepared by Mark F. Heiman and Laura Saxton Heiman
(Loomis House Press, 2005)

"The English And Scottish Popular Ballads, v.IV"
Ed. by Francis James Childs
Corrected second edition prepared by Mark F. Heiman and Laura Saxton Heiman
(Loomis House Press, 2008)

"The Oxford Book Of Ballads"
Ed. by Arthur Quiller-Couch
(Oxford University Press, 1955)

"The Oxford Book Of Ballads"
Ed. by James Kinsley
Complied by Amis Kingsley
(Oxford University Press, 1982)

Recommended Recordings

Frankie Armstrong "Till The Grass O'ergrew The Corn" (Fellside, 2006)

Jean Ritchie "Ballads From Her Appalachian Family Tradition" (Smithsonian Folkways, 1961)
When Professor Child proclaimed the British and Irish ballad tradition moribund and fit for a bit of academic taxidermy, it seems he was a bit premature... That's ably demonstrated in this set of songs that Appalachian folk phenomenon Jean Ritchie learned as a child and committed to wax during the opening days of the Kennedy administration, over a half century after Child concluded his songcatching efforts. All the songs here are versions of tunes gathered in Child's monumental, multi-volume English And Scottish Popular Ballads, but sung in the local variant forms that Ritchie learned from her Kentucky kith and kin. And, man! What great performances. Ritchie sings these old murder ballads and morbid epics with a simplicity and authoritativeness that cuts past the centuries and makes the old tales live again. This is realy storytelling and folklore at its best -- the horrific nature of these old songs, in which sisters kill sisters and jealous, cuckholded husbands hack down their rivals is made magnetic in her chillingly matter-of-fact presentation. These are some of the finest, most engrossing versions of "Little Musgrave," "The Unquiet Grave," "Barbary Allen" and other classics that you will ever hear. A riveting record -- highly recommended!


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