A Book of British Ballads

Edited by Roy Palmer

Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach ,1998.  ISBN 0 186143 061 2

This fascinating and enjoyable collection, previously published as Everyman's Book of Ballads in 1980, has once more become available through the enterprise of a small publishing company from Wales.   In this volume, Roy Palmer has included a wide variety of texts and tunes from many varied sources.  There are recently written pieces, like Roger Watson's The Christmas Hare, music hall items like The Mistletoe Bough, broadside ballad standards like The Banks of the Sweet Dundee as well as some unusual versions of Child ballads.   Sources for the ballads include a number of unpublished manuscripts such as the Carpenter collection which has recently attracted renewed interest.  The remarkable repertoire of Bell Duncan, from Inch in Scotland, collected by Carpenter during the 1930s is represented by versions of The Twa Magicians and Little Montgrove and Lady Barclay.  There are also many previously unpublished versions from sound recordings of singers such as George Dunn, and Cecilia Costello, from whom the Editor collected songs in the early 1970s, and several from Mike Yates collection, including songs from Johnny Doughty of Brighton and Sheffield's Frank Hinchliffe.

This is a really good collection for anyone interested in traditional ballads, but especially for people who enjoy learning and singing them.  There are several that may well be surfacing in my repertoire in the coming months, including an unusual Irish version of Lamkin which explains as some Scots versions do that Lamkin , when he murders the lady and her child, is taking revenge for non-payment of his bill ( so avoiding legal expenses).  There is also a good version of The Suffolk Miracle from Packie Byrne and fine variants of The Wife of Usher's Well and The Grey Selchie.

Roy Palmer's introduction and notes are as expected from him, both interesting as well as informative.  I would question the classification of some of the songs as ballads, All for my Grog and Quarry Bank Mashers for example, and some of the notes could be revised in the light of recent research - I'm sure that there will be versions of The Maid of Australia in Steve Roud's Broadside Index, for example. [Yes, 20 of 'em - Ed.]  I seem to recall seeing a text of this song printed by Pearson in Manchester entitled The Arbourer's Banks.  It is good to see that Roy includes versions he has learnt himself from other singers like Phil Colclough.  I wonder however if when future enthusiasts read the note 'Maggie May- well-known', they will wish to know more, as they would with references by Frank Kidson and his contemporaries such as 'words from a Catnach street ballad'.

Having concluded my nit-picking, I would like to thoroughly commend this collection to singers, students, and 'the general reader'.  It is representative in its coverage, refreshingly unusual in its selection of variants and sources and packed with interesting detail without being at all boring.  I suppose it's like the difference in ballad performances - some can send you to sleep while others have you on the edge of your seat with shivers down the spine.  This collection, if parallels can be drawn, definitely belongs in the latter category.

Ruairidh Greig - 18.5.99

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