logo Enthusiasms No 87
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Endless Ballads

Along with many of you, I imagine, I've been filling the long hours of Lockdown by re-reading any of the really good books still remaining in my bookshelves (and wondering who did I lend all the others to?).  As well as that, I've also been re-reading a lot of the Reviews and Articles published in the Magazine over the years - some astonishingly good stuff there, too.

Somewhere along the way, I encountered a comment about having to listen to loads of ballads, one after the other, and statements about good traditional singers having a broad repertoire, so as to be able to put in a variety of 'other sorts' of songs to provide balance in an evening's entertainment.  All something we are clearly aware of, as regular singers in singaround situations - but it got me thinking about this 'problem' - if problem it really is.

I have had to suffer endless ballads in singarounds, and have occasionally been to 'ballad sessions' at various festivals where much the same torments have to be endured.  Now I love ballads, and sing one or two myself, but I'm wondering if the ballads themselves are to blame - or if it's the singers?

Because I get the feeling that, simply by having that 'Child number' label attached to them, these splendid old songs suddenly become sacrosanct, and must therefor be performed word for word as in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and note for note the way they are found in Bronson, or on some well-known and esteemed singer's record.  Professor Child's book was published in 18821898 (one and a half centuries ago) and obviously, the songs in it are even (much) earlier.  Given the large number of 'versions' that many of them have, it's clear that the sources felt no compunction about adapting them to their, or their society's requirements.  So why on earth should today's singers feel that they are sacrosanct in some way?

My experience, as outlined above, is that it's not the ballads that are boring, but the way that they are habitually sung - without any emotional input from the singer.  "If you obviously don't care about this song - why should I?"  In the song session that I attended (before Lockdown, that is) it would be perfectly possible for the first four singers to sing a ballad, but we wouldn't be listening to four ballads in a row, but to Bob's singing, followed by my singing, followed by Danny's, and Ken's ...  We wouldn't be listening to Bob's Indian Lass, but to his unique tune and his selection of verses from the many available and, most importantly, the emotions he embodies within his version of that lovely song.  This applies to all of the best singers there - Ken Langsbury doesn't just sing, he absolutely inhabits his songs like few others I've ever heard.

I'm well-known for advancing the idea of making one's songs one's own (see A Singer's Songbook in MT) but it applies equally to others in our session.  Since Danny has asked me to accompany many of her songs on melodeon, I've discovered just how much she's put into some of them, when having to follow them accurately.  She learned My Blue-Eyed Lover from Caroline Hughes and, accompanying it, I realised she'd certainly made a few changes.  But on subsequently listening to the recording of Mrs Hughes, I was astounded by how much Danny had altered it ... and without wishing to be held apostate, I have to say that Caroline's is a bit boring in comparison - and that's saying something!

Or Roger Grimes, who doesn't just do all the work on the song beforehand, but makes it up as he goes along as well.  We all love to join in with our favourite bits in songs, and the final lines of verses - but you can't with Roger's because they're never the same twice!  These people all sing ballads, but they're never 'long and boring' because you're listening to a personal performance - not just a 'words and tune' job.

Ballads aren't that easy to sing well; they have lots of verses, usually of just four lines - and a four line tune, no matter how beautiful, doesn't stand too much repetition, over and over again.  Your aim should be communication, so you need to think about your listeners - don't bore them with a short tune, endlessly repeated.  Do you need to sing that opening phrase exactly the same each time?  Can you alter it a bit sometimes?  Does it need to end exactly that way every time?  Do you need to have exactly the same length pause between every verse?

What about the words?  Is the version you sing the best you can find?  Aren't there better verses which could replace 'weak' ones in your version - you'll find loads of alternative ones in Child - or make one up yourself.  It's usually quite easy to replace two or three verses that don't really go anywhere with one you've made up to encompass their whole narrative.

Ballads are stories - make sure you tell yours as well as possible.  Think about telling it as a story, don't let the tune interupt the narrative.  If the tune interupts the sense of the words at some point - change it!  In my version of The Banks of Green Willow there's a line which the tune makes come out as:

While it makes far more sense as: Then just make the tune fit that.

There's no good reason why a singer in the 21st century should be required to sing the same version of a song, to the same tune, as was sung by someone with whom s/he has no connection, with an entirely different socio-cultural background, from a different part of the country (or, indeed, a different country), over a hundred years ago.  If you can construct your version of a ballad, it becomes your song - you'll feel differently about it than you did before, and your feelings - if you can communicate them - will engage with your audience as it never did before.

Ballads are not (or shouldn't be) long and boring; it's your job to see that they're not!  Try to ensure that your listeners listen to you and your song - and not just another long boring ballad.  Your listeners should think, at the end of your song, not "Oh well, just another Lord Whatever-His-Name was", but "Oh, that was good!"

Rod Stradling - 6.12.20


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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