24 June 2017


I’ve always loved ballads, right from the moment I first became interested in traditional songs. And not just ballads but other story songs as well. It’s always been the story (hopefully allied with a good tune) which has attracted me to a song. Over the years I’ve sung a few shanties, performed a few songs just because they had good choruses, done some protest songs… but I always come back to ballads. 
(It was because of my love of ballads that I was attracted to storytelling which I also do. They go well together - two sides of the same coin.)

At this point let’s consider what a ballad is:
In the pop world it is a slow, quiet love song; but we’re not talking of those.

Everyman’s Dictionary of Music defines it as: “a later but now old-fashioned species of light and sentimental song, generally about love in a moonlit garden, the words of which are by a hack writer set to music by a composer of no merit…” We’re definitely not talking about those!

We are talking about:

“It is the properly narrative songs of substantial length and strong story line that we call ballads.” (From Bert Lloyd’s Folksongs in England.)

“A narrative song with recurrent refrain… from old French balade from old Provencale balada a song accompanying a dance (which comes from the same Latin root as ball).” (From Collins English Dictionary.)

(The link between ballads and dancing is a subject worthy of a whole blog post by itself.)

Throughout history there have been ballads composed on topical subjects by poets and journalists. Most have never been sung and were intended for the page. They are very literary. From about the 18th century onwards ‘broadside ballads’ followed a folk song form and were meant to be sung to popular tunes. They were sold to the general populace for a penny or so and were the pop singles of the day—Maria Marten or The Murder in the Red Barn is reputed to have sold a million copies! Many of those were remembered and became   an integral part of the folk song revival.
The pinnacle of the ballad form though, are the ones which form the basis of the collection put together by Prof Francis James Child, now called ‘Child Ballads’ after him. Many of these were very well known amongst country singers in the early 20th century. Bronson, who compiled tunes to them, listed the most popular:

Barbara Allen
The Outlandish Knight
Lord Thomas & Fair Eleanor
The House Carpenter
The Gypsy Laddie
Lord Bateman
The Golden Vanity
(The only one of those I haven’t sung is the House Carpenter!)

Illustration for The Outlandish Knight
Over the years it has really annoyed me that whenever ballads are mentioned someone has to add the prefix ‘long boring’. They can be long, although many exist in shorter versions, but they are only boring if they are badly performed or performed in the wrong context. You have to pick your time and not do too many one after the other. That is true today and I would bet that it was true in the past as well. I doubt whether the ‘ballad session’ existed amongst 18th century farm workers but Old Fred, or someone else, probably got up and sang The Two Sisters or The Cruel Mother at every Harvest Home. 

It’s become the accepted thing today to sing ballads unaccompanied. Even singers who use instruments on other songs often put them down for a ballad. (This is true on both sides of the Atlantic.) I don’t. I feel that ballads are the songs which can really benefit from accompaniment. If a song is long it needs the added interest and the story lines of most ballads are usually intricate (and often disjointed) so an instrumental break allows time for the story to sink in and a change of scene or character to take place.
In a lot of other traditions in Europe and the Middle East ballads are accompanied. Here is a lovely arrangement of an 18th century Sephardic ballad El Sueno de la Hija del Rey (The Dream of the King’s Daughter) by Greek singer Savina Yannaton. 
I can’t find out much about it but it seems to be a typically  complicated ballad/folk tale plot with the mother and the daughter not getting on!

Probably because many of them are so old ballads are often fragmentary and a cinema continuity person would have a heart attack trying to make sense of them. They often start in the first person and then suddenly switch to the third; we get verses of dialogue without any credit being given to who is saying what… I love that aspect, it allows you to fill in the gaps from your own imagination. Some singers try to fill in the gaps for you though, to complete the story perhaps. I feel this can spoil them. You need the mystery. Each singer is able to make their own story from a ballad by choosing which verses they leave in or omit, or what ideas they stress or play down. 

The latest book from The History Press, publishers of the must-have Folk Tales series, is Ballad Tales. In it 15 or so authors/storytellers have taken a new approach to some of the ballads. You’ll find new takes on the stories of Tam Lyn, Sir Gawain, The Selkie of Sule Skerrie amongst others.

I have taken the little known and rarely sung Willies Lady. It’s a great story but not many people have sung it because it is long and because there is no authentic tune for it. People who do sing it (including Martin Carthy whose version is the best known) usually use the Breton tune Son Ar Chistr’ (the Song of Cider) which was put to it by Ray Fisher.

I called my retelling ‘Nine Witch Locks’ and while writing tried to channel Steven King! Through most of the story I played up the threat and mystery by suggesting things rather than making them explicit and I let the danger build until the denouement. In sung ballads there is often a refrain—I tried to suggest this by including random, almost nonsense phrases which, I hope, add to the mystery and hint at the answers. It’s very different to anything else I’ve done. It is definitely a piece for the page not for telling. I’m pleased with it. I hope you will be too.

The book is available from the Shop page on my web site or, of course, from the publishers. 


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