Voice of the People - Volume 3

O'er his grave the grass grew green -
tragic ballads

Topic TSCD 653

cover For me the acid tests of a good ballad, and of how well it is sung, lie in the mental images it conjures up.  Tragic or not, ballads tell vivid stories and the way in which they are structured is designed to highlight this vividness.  If you listen to a skillful performer unfolding the subject matter scene by scene, you will see the whole shooting match.

There is plenty on this disc to capture the mind's eye.  Out of twenty one tracks I counted eight murders, five hangings or other forms of reprisal, two manslaughters, four drownings, five ghostly visitations, two deaths from causes unknown, one suicide and one case of multiple incest.  Oddly enough, for such a catalogue of deviance, only two people end up in the fires of hell.  Also, there is just one ballad, The Prickle Holly Bush, in which absolutely nobody comes to a sticky end.  Otherwise, this is just the sort of stuff which gets folksong a bad reputation.  There are those, some of them active in folksong circles, who would dismiss these songs as depressingly morbid and obsessively miserable.  That is a claim I would dispute for, even when assembled on the one disc, the songs do not come across as such.

For that matter, neither do the performers.  That is attributable to the arts of the ballad maker and the singer, but it is also a question of function; the reason why these ballads existed and why people needed to sing them.  Far fetched and brutal as some of the texts may seem, they resembled real life in one crucial respect.  They were created in a world where people's chances of survival were about as great as the survival chances of the characters in the ballads.  Life was nasty, brutish, short and very uncertain.  If it couldn't be avoided, it had to be got on with and therein lies the reason why the ballads don't depress.  They were not there for people to brood on the inequities of life, they were for people to come to terms with it.  I noted Reg Hall's comments where he says the appeal of the ballads lies in "the unleashing of the potential for violence in close relationships".  By this I presume he means that the ballads were devices for dramatising the frustration of inescapable situations, and thus for channeling pent up aggression.  I do not know how thoroughly Reg researched this point.  However, his words reminded me of Dickson Bruce Jnr's investigations into violence in the American South, where the promiscuity of violence in real life finds an outlet in the promiscuity of violent ballads. (1)

What then what can we make of the present selection?  If tragic ballads existed to echo people's lives and passions, how much does this set exemplify the tragic ballad?  Reg is a scholar for whom I have an awful lot of respect.  I find his pronouncements make a welcome change from the usual aridity of folklore scholarship, where people seem to matter less than modes or tale types.  Even so I found several points to puzzle over.

First of all, there is the question of how accurately the selection represents the ballad repertoires of the people of these islands.  Geographically the programme is split fairly evenly between the English, the Scots and the Irish.  I have no problem there, and it is important not to make too much of national distinctions.  play Sound ClipThe ballads flowed around these islands with a promiscuous disregard for geographical boundaries.  Amongst other things I was reminded that Fred Jordan's tune for The Bonny Boy (sound clip) is fundamentally that which Betsy Miller of Auchterader used to sing and which various singers in Ireland use.  Nevertheless, I was surprised to find that no indigenous Irish ballads have been included.  True, the Irish were never makers of so called classic ballads, yet their broadside presses used to drip with songs of murder and outrage and nationalist intrigue.  Surely one or two of these could have been included?

In fact there is a rough sixty-forty split in favour of the classic ballad; by which of course I mean those which found a place in the Child collection.  This strikes me as a considerable over-representation.  The folk had a fine repertoire of Child ballads, but that repertoire was numerically outweighed by those which Child would have rejected.  This is not the place to rehearse the criteria of classic balladry.  Any worthwhile text book will tell you that these ballads are told objectively, that the stories are presented as a series of brief images, that they proceed via bursts of action and dialogue, or whatever.  Still less am I here to vilify the Child canon or to venerate it.  My feelings are ambiguous.  First of all, Child could on occasion be arbitrary and detractors have made much of the fact that he included some "lesser" ballads like Well Sold the Cow and The Barring of the Door, whilst ignoring others.  That is because he erred on the side of inclusion, assembling every traceable item which he felt displayed the characteristics of classic balladry, no matter how debilitated.  With that reservation in mind, though, I feel that his selection isolates a distinct class of balladry.  Indeed, Peter Burke (2) makes a very good case, albeit a circumstantial one, for seeing these ballads as the creations of a professional class of entertainer, who aimed their productions at a much wider audience than those we would call the folk.

The problem lies not so much in the identification of a separate class of ballad.  It lies in the denigration by ballad scholars of every other form of folk expression, and in the adoption of literary standards to a non-literary art form.  Child almost rejected the Holland Handkerchief, quaintly telling us that "ghosts should have a fair reason for walking, and a quite particular reason for riding".  His inclusion of the piece in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was based on the logic that "in a blurred, enfeebled and disfigured shape" it is the English representative of one of the most beautiful of all European ballads.  The folk appear not to have found it blurred or enfeebled, for it is a much favoured item in tradition.  However, like many another oral exegesis, the lines which sound so beautiful when sung, look arch and clumsy on the printed page.  One wonders whether Child might have thought more highly of the piece if he had heard it as a song rather than read it as a piece of poetry.  Again, I find that the emphasis placed on the language and poetry of the Child ballads is often at the expense of imagery and plot.  Phoebe Smith's Molly Vaughan does not possess many of the characteristics of classic balladry, yet it has two features which for me make it one of the finest of all ballads.  Firstly, the opening scene, where the two lovers are caught in a chance entanglement with fate, is a situation worthy of Thomas Hardy.  Secondly, there is the intensely moving courtroom drama where, with all hands ranged against him, Molly returns from the dead to save her lover from the gallows.  For the matter of that, I would stack Phoebe Smith's line "and she appeared all in amongst them like a fountain of snow" against anything in Child.

Getting back to this disc; MT surfers may have gathered, via Reviewer's Comments, that the booklets to The Voice of the People are none too flush for information on the songs.  Yet, sparse as the notes are, I found myself taking issue over several points of interpretation.  For instance, The Cruel Mother may have the "unspeakable taboo" of infanticide at its core, but did people sing the ballad for its subject matter, or for deeper psychological reasons?  I would have said that the attraction lies in the ultimate dilemma of a girl betrayed and callously abandoned in a world of savage consequence.  Similarly, in Clyde's Waters, the suggestion is not so much that William had been rejected by his sweetheart, Maggie.  Still less is it that he was threatened by her armed men.  Rather, as the last verse of Stanley's text partly elucidates, it is that the two of them were betrayed by their respective mothers.  Again, in The Dewie Dens of Yarrow, I can find nothing to indicate that the girl's father was party to the murder of her ploughboy lover.  Also, I would question the wisdom of associating Norah Cleary's Willie-O with the non-supernatural ballad which Child calls The Grey Cock, or Saw You My Father.  I am expressing a personal view, but it seems to me that this title has become an umbrella for a number of disparate night visit ballads, which in some cases happen to share certain verses. (3)

Finally, there is a comment that the most archaic ballads are unfolded at a "deliberate slow pace", with a "dead pan delivery of repeated anecdotal themes and verbal phrases".  I wouldn't like to defend the first part of that statement, but it is roughly true to say that the more archaic the ballad, the stronger is the reliance on repetition and formula.  Packie ByrneIt is equally true to say that these devices are used to great effect by any ballad singer worthy of the name, and that the greatest ballad singers are the ones who control the tension, the ones who allow the story to unfold at its own natural pace.  That is exactly what happens with Packie Byrne's singing of the Holland Handkerchief, for it is Packie at his most restrained.  He never, in my view, was any great shakes as a singer, but he was a very good story teller and this is the apotheosis of the storyteller's art.  He relates the thing so quietly and effortlessly that my mind's eye sees not just the unfolding plot, but the darkened quarters of the Donegal cabin where I imagine Packie to have learnt it.  His performance is a masterpiece of subtlety, but I would hardly call it dead pan.  play Sound ClipThat term suggests a lack of involvement.  It suggests a delivery impersonal and unemotional.  It doesn't suggest Packie Byrne. (sound clip)

Still less would I call John MacDonald's rendering of Lord Ronald dead pan.  If ever a ballad built credence out of repetition it is this one.  If ever a ballad required the singer's art to engage the interest of the audience, this is it.  Yet the jovial voice undermines any feelings of tension, and the sense of tragedy is destroyed by the accordeon accompaniment, and by the fact that that the tune sounds like a long lost relative of Villikins and his Dinah.  One half expects an unseen audience to start singing "Tooralloo, Toorallay" on the instrumental breaks between the verses.  Stanley RobersonIt is the only real let down of the entire disc and I found his performance of The Dewie Dens of Yarrow, thankfully devoid of accordeon, one hell of a sight better.

Stanley Robertson is another performer who relies heavily on his storytelling skills, but not with Packie Byrne's sense of detachment.  His rendering of Clyde's Water is high drama.  At times it borders on the theatrical, yet I found it utterly spellbinding.  The text does not relate the entire story and some of the bits which have been retained are confused to the point of nonsenicality.  Many a ballad scholar would call it corrupted.  Corrupted it may be, but Stanley's voice, thin and high, perfectly reproduces the anguish of Willie as he stands locked outside Maggie's castle door.  play Sound ClipSo charged with emotion is this performance that, having heard it, I only have to look at the words on the page and I am there, right in the middle of the whole chaotic scene. (sound clip)

Incidentally, for all the care which has been taken over transcription, I found several minor but irritating errors.  For instance, verse eight of Stanley Robertson's epic has been rendered thus:

The first step into Clyde waters
Then William's gaen frae him,
And the clattering of the Clyde's waters
Ta'en William's hand frae him.
To my admittedly non-Aberdeenshire ear, the following would be more accurate:
The first step into Clyde waters
Tae'n William's cane frae him,
And the clattering of the Clyde's waters
Ta'en William's hat frae him.
... this makes more sense, and also accords with other texts of the ballad.

The 'corrupting' processes of oral tradition have wrought changes to many other ballads on this disc.  Between creation and collection strange things have happened to Freda Palmer's Maria Marten, Lizzie Higgins' The Cruel Mother and John Reilly's The Well Below the Valley.  Yet, whether the stories are incomplete, or contain lines with imperfect sense, people must have found some kernel of meaning to want to sing them.  play Sound ClipIncidentally, corrupted or no, Lizzie Higgins' performance is superlative - I think just about the best thing on the entire disc. (sound clip)  I doubt that Child would have concerned himself overmuch about why people sang imperfect texts.  I doubt also if it struck him that a folk who indiscriminately sang classic ballads, such as Lady Margaret and The Two Brothers, alongside 'lesser' pieces such as The Holland Handkerchief and Molly Vaughan, were probably applying a different set of criteria to the ones which he used.  I suspect that the folk saw these things less as literary marvels than as the means of emotional catharsis.  We should worry less about pristine meanings and listen more to the voice of the people.

Fred McCormick - 17.1.99


1.  Dickson Bruce Jnr.  Violence and Culture in the Antebellum South.  Austin.  University of Texas Press.  1979.

2.  Burke, Peter.  Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe.  Temple Smith, London.  1978.

3.  An alternative point of view is presented by Hugh Shields in 'The Grey Cock: Dawn Song or Revenant Ballad?', in Ballad Studies.  E.B Lyle, ed. D.S. Brewer. Cambridge, 1976.

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