Francis James Child (editor), The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Houghton Mifflin, 1882 to 1894, Dover, 1965, 2003) 


'... true popular ballads are the spontaneous products of nature...' -- Francis James Child

I said when I first reviewed The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, more commonly known as The Child Ballads, that 'If you do a search on the American Book Exchange or Bilbliofind Web sites for Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads, this is what you're likely to find:

Child, ed. Francis James: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Paper; New York: Dover. 1965. First edition thus. Small quartos. Illustrated glazed wraps. Five volumes. All five volumes have a bit of light soiling and a faint stain at the lower edge which does not affect the interior. A few of the volumes have a bit of light laminate peeling else very good. A nice copy of the 1965 Dover unabridged and unaltered reprint of the original edition published by Houghton Mifflin between 1882 and 1894. Uncommon in its own right. Music, Great Britain. Offered for sale at US $750.00

Yes, $750! I picked my copies up from a local bookseller down a cobbled street in the Old Quarter of my city for a fraction of that, but I was very lucky. These books are so rare -- printed in only four full editions over the past century -- and so valuable to anyone interested in the old English and Scottish ballads that their value keeps on climbing.'

Despair no more! Dover Publications, bless them, has reprinted the entire set with splendid new cover art for the very reasonable price of just $125 for all of them. Other than a price increase from $2.75 a volume (1965 price) to $24.95 a volume (2003 price), the spiffy cover art is the only difference I can see between the two editions. It is very cool art, i.e. the first volume has a Frederick Walker painting, Spring (1864), which shows a child foraging in a bramble, apparently for nosegays. Oh, and there's a portrait of Professor Child in the front of each volume. But it's the contents that you'll be lusting after -- every word of the Houghton Mifflin of 1882 is here, apparently from the original plates!

Francis Child's five-volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898), is considered by many as the basis of traditional Anglo-Celtic folk music, as both the motifs like the popular characters like the Tam Lin and Robin Hood, and the actual songs still played by many a musician are contained within this work. And just as importantly, the Child Ballads are crucial to present day writers who use the old folk ballads as a basis for their storytelling.

Child was an unlikely collector of the most important body of ballads in the English-speaking world. Born on February 1, 1825, the son of a Boston sail maker, Child's family was quite poor, and he attended Boston Grammar School and the English High School, two of Boston's public schools. The principal of the Boston Latin School, who noted Child's high intelligence, made sure Child was able to enter Harvard. He graduated at the top of his class in 1846, and first accepted a position in mathematics, and later in history and political economy. During his years at Harvard, he collected ballads in multitudinous languages -- he published more than one ballad collection, of which The English and Scottish Popular Ballads is only one example. But it is this collection that he is most revered for as it is without peer, period.

In 1860 Child married Elizabeth Ellery Sedgwick. They had three daughters and one son. He was described by many as a man of cordiality and grace with a sense of humor. Many of his friends fondly called him 'Stubby Child' because of his short stature and stooped shoulders. He was an loyal American who was turned down by the Army during the War Between the States because of his health, so instead Child raised money and wrote articles, ballads, and broadsides as his contribution to the Union effort.

Child was severely injured during 1893 in a carriage accident. His health, already compromised by gout and rheumatism, dramatically declined. He died on September 11, 1896. Child never completed the last volume of his work. The introduction and bibliography were only partially finished -- the bibliography was in a preliminary form, and unfortunately the notes he had started for his introduction to The English and Scottish Popular Ballads were not enough for anyone to complete.

So why is The English and Scottish Popular Ballads so valuable? First we need a definition of what a ballad is. Funk & Wagnall's Online Dictionary defines a ballad thus: 'short narrative folk song that fixes on the most dramatic part of a story, moving to its conclusion by means of dialogue and a series of incidents. The word ballad was first used in a general sense to mean a simple short poem. Such a poem could be narrative or lyric, sung or not sung, crude or polite, sentimental or satiric, religious or secular; it was vaguely associated with dance. The word is still commonly used in this loose fashion. In the field of folklore, however, ballad is applied specifically to the kind of narrative folk song described in the opening lines. These narrative songs represent a type of literature and music that developed across Europe in the late Middle Ages. Unlike the medieval romances and rhymed tales, ballads tend to have a tight dramatic structure that sometimes omits all preliminary material, all exposition and description, even all motivation, to focus on the climactic scene (as in the British 'Lord Randall'). It is as though the ballad presented only the last act of a play, leaving the listener or reader to supply the antecedent material. When the ballad emerged, it was a new form of art and literature, distinct from anything that had gone before.'

Admittedly this is a bit long-winded but it covers the wicket nicely as to what a ballad is. What Child did was collect was a very large number of the still existent ballads and compile them into a useable format. Not that he was perfect: The Child Concordance notes 'during the second half of the 20th Century, the edition was to be criticized as a compilation of texts without music and for Child's reliance on manuscript and printed materials rather than contextualized performances documented through primary field work...' But he did collect them -- Frank Kidsonin in his monograph Traditional Tunes (1891) noted that '...that old traditional songs are fast dying out, never to be recalled. They are now seldom or never sung, but rather remembered, by old people.' Child rescued ballads that would likely be lost to us today if he had not collected them.

Child's contribution in researching, compiling, and publishing The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, was that he documented the very roots of English speaking ballads as they still existed in the late Victorian period. This -- and its effects on popular folk music and written literature -- is why the Child Ballads (as they are most often called) remain a seminal work. It's not perfect -- unlike the Haus-und-Kinder Marchen of the Brothers Grimm, he did shy away including some material that he found offensive. Anyone with a decent grasp of Victorian mores can figure what he didn't like.

But forget their role in ballad research for a moment, and revel instead in the ballads themselves. I mentioned the Tam Lin ballad before. Tam Lin -- also known as Tamlene, Thomalyn, True Thomas, Thom of Lyn, and Thomlin -- exists in at least four variant forms in the Child Ballads: 'Lord Robinson's Only Child,' Janet of Carterhaugh,' 'Tam Lin, ' -- yes, same name, but different verses --, and 'Tam Lane.' This ballad has inspired musicians for a century including an inspired version by Frankie Armstrong backed by Blowzabella on her album Til The Grass O'er Grew The Corn, and it certainly has sparked the imaginations of writers interested in this folk ballad. I can think of a number of novels and stories based on Child Ballad #39: Tam Lin by Susan Cooper, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, The Queen of Spells by Dahlov Zorach Ipcar, Fire and Hemlock by Diane Wynne Jones, Tam Lin (in the graphic novel series Ballads and Sagas) edited by Charles Vess, and 'Tam Lin' by Joan D. Vinge (a short story that appeared in Imaginary Lands, edited by Robin McKinley).

Our sidhe librarian, Liath ó Laighin, squealed with delight when she saw Jane Yolen's Tam Lin on my desk awaiting notation in the leather-bound book that serves as our Library catalog. Laith, being a lass of really old Celtic ancestry, loves all things Scottish, especially the ballad of Tam Lin. She has read Pamela Dean's Tam Lin novel over and over. She had never heard of Jane's version of Tam Lin and was delighted to see that she and Mikolaychak, who illustrated it, had created a truly Scottish Tam Lin. Jane created the MacKenzie Clan of which red-haired Jennet is a very brave and fetching lass in her green, black, and red checked tartan.

Suffice it to say that this version of Tam Lin is a truly moving tale that deserves to be in any household interested in all tales Scottish! And it again shows how important the Child Ballads are to present day writers who use the old folk ballads as source material.

Likewise 'Twa Corbies' (Child Ballad #26) has inspired countless writers and musicians, as the image of two crows conversing over a corpse is one of the most grimly evocative of all the songs associated with the Scottish Border with England. It conjures up images of the bleak Border fells with its underlying themes of betrayal and murder.
Performers including Boiled in Lead, Annwn, the Wild Hunt, Kenneth MCcKella, Cannach, the Corries, Maddy Prior, Urban Myth, Steeleye Span, and Alan Prosser have covered 'Twa Corbies' or variants. Writers such as Charles de Lint have also used 'Twa Corbies' as the basis of their work. In Someplace to Be Flying, he created the Crow Girls, two immortal beings who are either black-dressed punk 'teenagers' or crows depending on their mood. After writing Someplace to Be Flying, Charles wrote 'Twa Corbies,' a tale that featured the Crow Girls as participants in a modern day version of 'The Twa Corbies.' Charles Vess collaborated with Charles de Lint on a graphic version of deLint's 'Twa Corbies.'

The list of ballads that are in these books are almost endless. If you are deeply into fantasy fiction that uses folk motifs, or are a lover of traditional music, you should track down a set of the Child Ballads. Now you too can afford a set. Just go to Dover Publications and order a set today.

[Jack Merry]