On a quiet December morning in Devon, here are quietly lovely songs from Scottish singer Siobhan Miller to start the week.
The daughter of a folk musician and a folk artist, Miller grew up in Penicuik (near Edinburgh), studied Scottish music at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, and has twice won Singer of the Year in the Scots Trad Music Awards. She's released an album with her former band, Salt House (Lay Your Dark Low, 2013), an album with fiddler Jeana Leslie (Shadows Tall), and a debut solo album (Flight of Time, 2015), all of which are worth seeking out.
Above, the video for Miller's recently released single: a cover of "One Too Many Mornings" by Bob Dylan.
Below, an acapella peformance of "The Swan Swims Sae Bonny" (a.k.a. "Twa Sisters," Child Ballad #10), from 2013.
Above, Miller and her band perform "Bonny Light Horseman," a broadsheet ballad from the Napoleonic Wars.
Below, Miller and Jeana Leslie perform "Tom of Bedlam" (a.k.a. "Bedlam Boys"), a ballad in the "mad song" tradition, possibly dating to the 17th century.
Oh heck, here's one more:
Below, Miller and her band perform "If I Had Known" in Stirling earlier this year. The song is by Miller, but rich in folk imagery -- a nice blend of old and new.
Photograph: Tilly on a quiet morning. The beautiful quilt is by Karen Meisner. The songs today are for Amal & Stu.
Today, new renditions of old, old ballads about love, right and wrong. (Mostly wrong.)
Above: "Raggle Taggle Gypsy" (Child Ballad #200) performed by folk singer & music scholar Fay Hield, based in Sheffield. This Scottish border ballad about a runaway wife appears on Hield's new album, Old Adam, which I highly recommend. The video art is by Nick Hayes, animated by Kristina Pulejkova.
Below: "Katie Cruel" performed by Rue, from Dublin, Ireland. The best known version of this American folksong was collected in New England in the 18th century, but its origins are believed to be Scottish, and a good deal older.
Above: "Courting is a Pleasure" (a.k.a. "Handsome Molly"), an Irish ballad that can also be found in the American Appalachian tradition. This version is performed by Jarlath Henderson, an award-winning musician (and practicing doctor) from Northern Ireland. The song appears on his highly addictive new album, Hearts Broken, Heads Turned.
Below: "False Lady" (Child Ballad #68), a song also known as "Young Hunting" in Scotland, "Earl Richard" in England, and "Love Henry" in America. It's performed by here by Teyr, a folk trio based in London, filmed at the launch of their fine new album, Far From the Tree.
It's a quiet, misty morning here on Dartmoor, too chilly to sit outdoors for long, but there are lambs in the fields, ponies on the Commons and primroses all along the winding path up to my studio...so it must be spring, and the warmer days we've been longing for will surely come soon.
Video above: "I'd Rather Be Tending my Sheep," a West Country folksong from the collective's first album, At Our Next Meeting (2014). This one is for Delia Sherman (and all you other knitters out there), and for Cynthia Rose on her sheep farm in Wiltshire.
Below: "Many's the Nights Rest," a lovely informal performance filmed just last month. The song can be found on The Furrow Collective's new EP, Wild Hog in the Woods.
"‘I stumbled across ‘Many’s the Night’s Rest’ in a journal of the Folk-Song Society from 1905," says Portman, "and was struck by the resolute tone of the chorus ‘Many’s the night’s rest you’ve robbed me of, but you never shall do it again’. It’s Roud No. 293 – a version of ‘Bonny Boy’ and Lucy Broadwood collected it in 1901 from a Henry Hills in Sussex. I imagine this song representing a woman finally washing her hands of her cheating boyfriend and moving on, though you could draw other, darker conclusions depending on your temperament."
Above: "Green Gravel," a deliciously dark children's song recorded by Fay Hield, who is both a folk singer and lecturer in Ethnomusicology at the University of Sheffield. It comes from her latest album, Old Adam (2015), which I highly recommend -- along with Hield's excellent Full English project, and her 2014 TED Talk, "Why Aren't We All Folk Singers?"
"Green Gravel" is associated with children's games in Britain and North America; this particular version comes from Alice Bertha Gomme's The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland. "The song has links to burial ceremonies," Alex Gallacher explains, "with green gravel representing the newly turned grave; though there is no suggestion this rhyme was performed at burials, more that children took the ideas of life, love and death into their own sphere."
To end with, a beautiful, almost hypnotic rendition of "The Grey Selchie" (Child Ballad No. 113) by Maz O'Connor, from Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria. This new video, released a few weeks ago, was filmed for The Blue Room Sessions in the Netherlands. O'Connor has recorded three lovely albums of original and traditional tunes, the latest of which is The Longing Kind (2016).
The first two photographs above were taken by my friend Helen Mason. The third one is mine. A related post: The Folklore of Sheep. Previous Monday Tunes by Fay Hield can be found here. By Maz O'Connor, here. By Emily Portman, here. By Rachel Newton, the last two videos here.
Well, so much for plans. I'd scheduled an off-line Work Retreat for last week, my intent being to catch up on all the writing and correspondence that I've fallen behind on due to health problems over the summer. I'd been planning this Retreat since September (postponed several times), so I woke up early Monday morning excited and eager to begin at long last...and within an hour I was back in bed again, knocked off my feet by the latest lurgy (a virulent cold-flu combo) making the rounds of our village.
"It's just not fair!" I wailed to my patient husband...or, rather, croaked to him, since by this time my voice was disappearing rapidly. I'd barely left the house for many months precisely to avoid catching anything like this while in a weakened state of health -- but the week before I'd finally reached a level of recovery where I could start to live a more normal life. I went out exactly twice that week: to dinner at a friend's house and to a Sam Lee* concert at a small local venue...and, alas, that's all it took to put me back in bed again.
All of which is to say that I don't know when Myth & Moor will resume...it depends on how long this lurgy lasts. I've barely been able to read this week, let alone write; I can only hope the coming week will be kinder.
Also, I send my deepest apologies to those of you awaiting for correspondence from me; I will get to it as soon as I possibly can, and I'm grateful for your continued patience.
Finally, to the Video Fairies (you know who you are) who have been showering me with videos out of the blue: your timing couldn't have been better, and I'm touched indeed. More personalized thanks will be coming your way as soon as energy permits, and I love you all.
*Footnote: If you have a chance to see Sam Lee perform live, please don't miss him. The concert that friends and I attended (down a windy, muddy track in the wilds of Devon) was not recorded, but here's am earlier film of Sam discussing his work as a singer/song collector, including a 4-year apprenticeship to a master singer of Scottish Traveller ballads. He does a wee bit of singing towards the end of the talk, but you'll find more of his music in this previous post.
Related to this, as Sam talks about being a Jewish lad from London singing Gypsy songs, I'm reminded of the words by Ellen Kushner in this post: "The Cauldron of Dreams."
Art above: Sleeping Beauty byHonor Appleton (1879-1951) and Tokyo-based painter Toskiyuki Enoki.
This week, the Celtic year comes to a close, the clocks are turned back (at least here in England), and the nights are drawing in. Halloween is approaching: the time of the year when the borders between the worlds grown thin, when the dead return, the old gods stir, and the faeries ride in procession through mortal lands. In honor of the dark, dangerous aspects of British folklore, our music this week is drawn from the bloodier side of the ballad tradition: songs of murder and mayhem, seduction and sorrow, treachery and tragedy. Such ballads are our ancestors' version of the horror stories and films that so many people shiver to today.
Above, "The Outlandish Knight" (also known as "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight"), Child Ballad No. 4, recently performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire. If you are unfamiliar with the Child Ballads, go here for a previous post on the subject.
Below, "Johnny o' Bredislee" (also known as "Johnny the Brine"), Child Ballad No. 114. This version comes from Aleyn, the eleventh solo album by the great June Tabor, from Warwickshire. No one does dark balladry better than June.
Above, a fine rendition of "Twa Corbies" ("Two Ravens"), Child Ballad No. 26, by Old Blind Dogs, from north-east Scotland. It's from their second album, Close to the Bone.
Below, "The Bold Knight" performed by Seth Lakeman, from Devon, backed up by the BBC Concert Orchestra. It's an original song in ballad form, reminiscent of "Twa Corbies" but based on a local Dartmoor folk tale.
Above, "Reynardine," a broadside ballad dating back at least to the 18th century. This version comes from Country Life, the ninth studio album by Show of Hands, who are also from Devon. It's a song about a murderous, shape-shifting were-fox, related to the Mr. Fox folk.
Below, "Clyde Waters" (also known as "The Drowned Lovers"), Child Ballad No. 216, a bittersweet song that crossed the ocean centuries ago with Scottish immigrants to the New World, and then turned into a bluegrass ballad in the Appalachian mountains of eastern America. It's performed here by Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer , from Vermont and Colorado respectively, and can be found on their album Child Ballads (2013), which I highly recommend.
The beauty of folk music, for me, is that it has one foot in the past and one foot in the present, as each generation takes up its traditions and crafts something fresh, something old and new all at once. This week's tunes are all new releases from contemporary folk musicians here in the UK.
Above, the title track from Stone's Throw, a new album by Rachel Taylor-Beales (based in Cardiff, Wales) containing her deeply folkloric song-cycle, "Lament Of The Selkie."
"I’d been exploring the character and persona of Selkie," she says, "a shape-shifting seal-woman re-imagined from Orkney folklore, as she struggled to live her life on land away from her natural habitat of the ocean. More and more Selkie’s internal turbulence seemed to echo the real life struggles of people, both in the news headlines and that I met personally. These were the stories of refugees and displaced people, far from home with all the loneliness and chaos, grief and loss that comes with enforced migration. In the legends, in order to marry a Selkie woman her sealskin had to be captured while she was in human form, and kept hidden from her lest she find it and take the opportunity to return to her home in the sea. The woman of the legends, taken out of her natural environment, longing for home, misunderstood by those around her that did not understand her culture or her grief and who knew nothing of her life before she lived on land, became synonymous in my mind with these real time stories of refugees of the last few years. The video was filmed by my artist husband, Bill Taylor-Beales, and features Isla Horton, who achingly portrays a displaced mother separated from home and family."
Below, "Hasp" by Stick in the Wheel (based in London), whose new album, From Here, comes out later this month. “We see [traditional] music as part of our culture," says lead singer Nicola Kearey; "we’re not pretending to be chimney sweeps or 17th century dandies. A lot of people are really disconnected from their past, and this is part of what we’re addressing -- getting people to reconnect with it, and realise there are parallels to be drawn from life 100 or 200 years ago. We make this music because we have to.”
"Mother You Will Rue Me" (audio only) by Ange Hardy. She wrote the song for Esteesee, an album based on the life and work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), featuring Hardy and other folk musicians. On this track, she's joined by folk veteran Steve Knightley, from Show of Hands.
Hardy explained the genesis of the song in a guest post for Folk Radio UK: "When he was 8 years old Coleridge ran away from home following an argument with his older brother Frank in which Coleridge lunged at him with a knife. Having written a number of songs about my own childhood flight from home there was no way I could ignore this episode of Coleridge’s life.
"After lunging at Frank with a knife, Coleridge’s Mother returned to the room, and fearing he’d be flogged Coleridge fled and hid at the bottom of a hill by the river Otter, reading prayers from a shilling book, hiding beneath a thorn bush and watching the calves in the field. The town crier was called in to rally the search party, and knowing full well the whole of the town was looking for him, Coleridge ended up sleeping in that field all night. In later years Coleridge confessed to thinking with 'inward and gloomy satisfaction' how miserable it must have made his Mother. That’s where the tone of the song came from.
"This song is Coleridge lamenting from beneath a thorn bush, in the cold and the damp. Coleridge wrote in one of his letters 'I felt the cold in my sleep, and dreamt that I was pulling the blanket over me, & actually pulled over me a dry thorn bush, which lay on the hill.' "
We return to the theme of refugees in a video released last week by folk singer and songwriter Martha Tilston (from Cornwall), whose fine albums I hope you all know. The song was inspired by the refugee crisis here in Europe, written to raise money for Médecins Sans Frontières.
Speaking of which, there are two book-related sites raising funds for refugees as well, one set up by the Carnegie Medal winning YA writer Patrick Ness, and one by writer & puppeteer Austin Hackney: Writers 4 Refugees. Please help if you can.
"Sam Lee is one of Britain's finest singers and the most cogent force of his generation in British folk music," wrote Ed Vulliamy in 2012, "an heir to the great revival during the 1950s and 60s led by Martin Carthy and the Watersons, and Fairport Convention in their wake. Lee brings contemporary folk music back to whence much of it came: Roma, Gypsies and Scottish and Irish Travellers, who have passed these songs from generation to generation, over centuries. He scours Britain for those whom many avoid or despise -- travellers in camps or housed -- to learn their lore and songs. And a first collection makes up his debut album: Ground of Its Own, nominated for a Mercury award." A second album, The Fade in Time by Sam Lee & Friends, has just been released.
In the video above, Lee records one of the songs for the album, "Lovely Molly," with the help of the Roundhouse Choir.
In "Ballad Lands," the video below, Lee discusses the album and explores the roots of the Traveller song "Jonny O' the Brine."
Via Ed Vulliamy, here is Sam Lee's description of how he first came upon Traveller music while embarked upon a self-directed study of folk music at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society:
" 'I discovered Jeannie Robertson, the great Scottish Traveller ballad singer, Harry Cox and the Copper Family -- and I wondered, who are these people? I bought their CDs and was blown away. I thought, I have to learn all these songs. There was this difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,' he says. 'I love the songbooks, but I decided I'd rather throw flames on what tradition is left out there. The Gypsies are our Native Americans: they practice a kind of shamanism mixed with Christianity and the old beliefs.
"The glory of folk music is 'this latency -- the power within to express these things, like the power within everything, trees, plants, the inanimate.' Lee's love of song was inseparable from his love of nature and he felt this in the travellers' songs: 'I'm a tree-climber,' he says, 'and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.' "
"Lee's muse appears to be a kind of paganism: 'It's about respect, really, for these gods, whatever and wherever they are, and the land. When you're close to the land, respect it. Know that whatever you do, every plant you pick, will have consequences. I know that even walking through a wood has an impact, which makes me lightfooted.' Pantheism? Paganism? I ask. 'I'm hesitant to put names to it,' he replies. 'Just look for this sense of sanctity in the land and find it in song.' "
Lee often collaborates with contemporary artists drawn from multiple disciplines (dance, performance art, film, etc.), creating unusual pieces like the new video for "Blackbird," above (and his wonderfully wacky video for "The Ballad of John Collins," 2012).
"The Gainsborough Packet," below, is another collaboration: a short film by the Newcastle artist Matt Stokes, with music written by Jon Boden (of Bellowhead and the Folk Song a Day site). Stokes' film is based on an early 19th century letter (preserved in the Tyne & Wear Museums archives) by Newcastle working class hero John Bodikin, relating his colorful life story to his friend Pybus. Sam Lee plays Burdikin in the film, investing the role with sweet mischievousness.
The vintage photographs above, of an Irish Tinker, Scottish Travellers, and a Traveller piper, are from George Crawford'sPaleotoolsblog. For information on Traveller/Romany/Gypsy folklore, try this old article of mine in The Journal of Mythic Arts archives. There are book recommendations at the end.
We're starting the week with a clutch of murderous, melancholy, and magical tunes from the British Isles, since after discussing the ballad collections of Francis James Child on Thursday and Friday, what else could we have but ballads this morning?
"Annachie Gordon," Child Ballad No. 239, performed by The Unthanks, featuring the smoky-voiced singers Rachel and Becky Unthank from Northumbria. Other versions include a classic rendition by the great Irish singer Mary Black, a version adapted for harp by Canadian musician and Celtic music scholar Loreena McKennitt, and a lovely performance of "Annachie" by former members of The Unthanks, Jackie Oates (Jim Moray's sister) & Belinda Hooley.
A very contemporary take on "Lord Randall," Child Ballad No 12, by Roanoke, a new trio from Rome, Italy (Ilaria Paladino, vocals; Nicola Alianellos, guitar; Marcello Puggioni, percussion). For more traditional versions of the song, try Martin Carthy's classic English rendition, Jean Ritche's Appalachian rendition, and Emily Smith's variant, "Lord Donald."
(For another decidedly untraditional performance of a Child Ballad, see Sam Lee's strange and brilliant "The Ballad of George Collins," also known as "Clerk Covill," Child Ballad No. 42.)
In the 1970s, while musicians were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of folk music, writers were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of fantasy fiction. The audience for both of these things overlapped, and it’s not hard to understand why. Fantasy writers often work with themes that hark back to the oral tradition -- to folktales, myths, and sagas steeped in the lore of our folk heritage. A number of writers who came to the fantasy field in the late '70s and throughout the '80s -- which is when fantasy solidified as a publishing genre -- were also folk musicians or singers (Ellen Kushner, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Jane Yolen, etc.); and music permeated their books. Charles de Lint’s The Little Country, for example, is set among folk musicians in Cornwall; Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks concerns folk-rock musicians in ’80s-era Minneapolis; Jane Yolen wove original ballads into Sister Light, Sister Dark and its sequels; and Ellen Kushner retold a classic ballad in her novel Thomas the Rhymer, and created an anthology of magical stories about music, The Horns of Elfland. Other writers, too, turned to folk music and ballads for inspiration, fleshing out the bare bones of song narratives to turn them into stories and novels.
One need only dip at random into the pages of Francis James Childs' The English and Scottish Popular Ballads to discover why this material would appeal to writers of magical fiction. There you’ll find stories like “Kemp Owyne,” in which a young woman is turned into a loathsome dragon. Knight after knight comes to slay the beast. The dragon kills them all in turn, with tears of regret on her scaly cheeks. It is only when a knight puts down his sword and kisses her horrible face that the spell is broken and the dragon turns back into a beautiful maiden.
In “The Elfin Knight,” a girl hears fairy music and longs for a supernatural lover. The elf knight appears at her request, but gives her one look and tells her she’s too young. The song becomes a riddling song (similar to “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”) -- though this is a riddling match that is charged with distinctly sexual overtones.
In “Reynardine,” a mysterious man seduces a woman as she walks among the hills. The man is a shapechanger, a were-fox. We don’t know what he will do to her in the castle where he steals her away, but our last image of Reynardine is of his sharp teeth gleaming brightly in the twilight.
In “Clark Sanders,” seven brothers stand over their sleeping sister and her lover, discussing what they should do to this knight who has stained the family honor. Six of them agree that they should leave the couple alone, but the seventh takes out his sword and runs it through the sleeping man’s heart. When the young woman wakes, she finds her love is a bloody corpse beside her. She goes mad with grief, the song ends . . . and then the story is taken up again in another ballad, called “Sweet William’s Ghost.” The spirit of the murdered man returns to the girl’s window. She begs him to kiss her, but he will not: “My mouth it is full cold, Margaret, / It has the smell now of the ground; / And if I kiss thy comely mouth, / Thy days will not be long.”
This idea that the dead may not touch the living is echoed in “The Unquiet Grave.” A maiden sits in a cemetery for twelve months, mourning her lover. Finally the spirit appears and asks, in a rather irritated manner, “Who sits here crying and will not let me sleep?” The maiden begs it for one kiss, but she is refused by the revenant: “O lily, lily are my lips; / My breath comes earthy strong, / If you have one kiss of my clay-cold mouth, / Your time will not be long.”
Not all ballads in the British folk tradition concern magic, Faerie, or the supernatural. Other common themes are love (usually tragic), death (usually gruesome), and family troubles that make the soap operas of our own age pale by comparison: “What is that blood on your sword, my son, what is that blood, my dear-o? It’s the blood of my sister, Mother, who I have killed in the greenwood-o. . . .” (In this song, the brother is trying to avoid discovery of the fact that he’s made his sister pregnant.)
“What I like best about ballads,” says fantasist Delia Sherman, “is that they’re plots with all the motivations left out. Why did Young Randall’s stepmother want to poison him? Why choose eels? Why did Randall eat them (especially if they were green and yellow)? There’s a novel there, or at least a short story. Ballads give you classic human situations, and also some decidedly unclassic ones, exploring relationships between lovers, parents, and children, between friends, masters, and servants. Many of them deal with power and powerlessness, which is one of the central themes of fairy tales, too; but it seems to me that ballads are more pragmatic, more realistic, in their denouements. Not every villain gets his/her just deserts. I can imagine a ballad variant of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in which Beauty comes too late and sings a plaintive last verse over the Beast’s body, about how she will sew him a shroud of the linen fine and sit barefoot in the dark all her days, for the love of him she loved too late.”
Of all of the ballads recounted by Child, “Tam Lin” has captured the imagination of more fiction writers than any other single ballad, perhaps because of its sensual theme and unusual hero: an independent, courageous, stubborn young woman, pregnant with her woodland lover’s child, determined to save him from the Fairy Queen and the unearthly Fairy Court.
Elizabeth Marie Pope’s lovely novel The Perilous Gard places Tam Lin's story in Elizabethan Scotland, while Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin turns the ballad into a remarkable coming-of-age saga unfolding on an American university campus. Alan Garner’s Red Shift -- a subtle, powerful, unforgettable reworking of the ballad’s themes -- roots the tale in Cheshire, England during three historical periods: the Roman era, the Civil War, and the present day. Patricia A. McKillip's “Tam Lin” novel, Winter Rose, is an exquisite adult fairy tale set Once Upon a Time, mixed with elements from a second Scottish fairy ballad: "Thomas the Rhymer." Diana Wynne Jones also combines the two ballads in her brilliant YA novel Fire and Hemlock, about young musicians in modern-day England -- following in the footsteps of Catherine Storr's too-little-known "Tam Lin" novel, Thursday, published in 1972, which was one of the first to bring fairy lore into the modern world. Dahlov Ipcar makes interesting use of "Tam Lin" in her short novel for children, A Dark Horn Blowing; Janet McNauthton takes "Tam Lin" and a second ballad, "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," to 12th century Scotland in An Earthly Knight; and Lucy Sussex weaves the transformational aspects of "Tam Lin" into her deeply enchanting novel Deersnake.
Liz Lochhead’s long, wry poem “Tam Lin’s Lady” (from her collection Dreaming Frankenstein) is well worth seeking out, as are these fine short story renditions: "Tam Lin" by Joan Vinge (from the anthology Imaginary Lands), "Cotillion" by Delia Sherman (from the anthology Firebirds), "Tiend" by Sonya Taaffe (from Strange Horizons magazine, October 2007), "The Lady and the Fox" by Kelly Link (from the anthology My True Love Gave to Me), and Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass by Alice Munro (from her collection Friends of My Youth). I also recommend two lovely picture book versions: Jane Yolen’s Tam Lin, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, and Susan Cooper's Tam Lin, illustrated by Warwick Hutton.
"Thomas the Rhymer" -- the story of a Scottish harper who kisses the Queen of Elfland and then is bound to her service for seven long years -- is another popular tale among fantasy writers and readers. In addition to the Patricia McKillip and Diana Wynne Jones books listed above, the ballad inspired Bruce Glassco’s unusual short story “True Thomas” (from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven), and is splendidly retold in Ellen Kushner’s award-winning novel Thomas the Rhymer.
"I had to do Thomas," Ellen recalls, "because, like every other writer, I knew Thomas was my story. He holds the mythic power of King Arthur in the hearts of poets: the artist who is literally seduced by his muse, comes closer to her than any human should to the source of his art, and is profoundly changed. He can never be at home in this world again, and yet he must continue to live in it. That’s how every writer feels, I think. Many writer friends had talked about writing a Thomas story someday, kind of like an actor playing King Lear: it’s a Great Subject that probably should not be tackled in one’s youth. I still feel a little humble about it. I don’t think I’ve written the definitive Thomas; I’ve just written my Thomas, the Thomas who addressed issues that were upon me in those years. Twenty years from now, I might like to do him again."
Ellen’s Thomas the Rhymer also drew upon the Child ballads “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “The Famous Flower of Serving Men.” The latter is the story of a woman whose husband, a knight, is murdered by her own mother. The heroine dons men’s clothes and goes to court, where the king soon falls in love with her -- while the murdered knight returns as a white dove shedding blood-red tears through the forest. Delia Sherman used this ballad as the basis of her gender-bending novel Through a Brazen Mirror -- a very fine work of adult fantasy that really ought to be much better known.
“I heard Martin Carthy’s version of ‘Famous Flower,’ ” says Delia, “and it haunted me with questions. If a mother so hated her child, why not just kill her and be done? Perhaps there was more to it than simple hatred. Another question prompted by the ballad had to do with the role of cross-dressing in a medieval culture. A third question could be stated as this: In all these ballads with girls dressed as boys, the man falls in love with the boy, not the girl. What would happen if he wasn’t relieved to discover his beloved’s true sex? In short, ‘Famous Flower’ gave me a beautiful, mysterious narrative framework upon which to hang all my favorite concerns: gender confusion, different kinds of love, the single-mindedness of the mad, foundlings and their origins.”
Patricia C. Wrede’s “Cruel Sisters” (from her collection Book of Enchantments) and Gregory Frost’s “The Harp That Sang” (from the anthology Swan Sister) are both memorable tales based on “Cruel Sister” (a.k.a. “Twa Sisters”), the ghostly story of a murdered girl and a harp made out of bone. “Alison Gross” by Midori Snyder (from the urban fantasy anthology Life on the Border) is based on the ballad of that title: the story of a man changed into a worm (or wyrm, a dragon) when he spurns the kisses of a witch. A number of works are inspired by “The Grey Selchie,” a poignant ballad of love, seals, and shape-shifting, including Jane Yolen’s “The Grey Selchie” (from her collection Neptune Rising), Laurie J. Marks’s “How the Ocean Loved Margie” (from The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2004), and Paul Brandon’s evocative, music-filled novel Swim the Moon. Sharyn McCrumb's Ghostriders, The Songcatcher, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and If I Never Return Pretty Peggy-o are magical mystery novels steeped in the themes of traditional ballads from the south-eastern mountains of America, as are the "Songkiller" books of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough: Phantom Banjo, Picking the Ballad's Bones, and Strum Again. Greer Ilene Gilman’s Moonwise is a fever-dream of a book brimming with Celtic balladry from every corner of the British Isles; Gilman has an extensive knowledge of the folk tradition and she works with it here to unique effect.
Artist Charles Vess has listened to and loved old ballads for more than thirty-five years. “They are great stories,” he says, “filled with exactly the things I love to draw best: magic, adventure, romance, suspense, historical settings, the lands of Faerie, and supernatural creatures that range from beautiful to hideous.”
In 1994, Charles conceived the idea of illustrating a series of comics based on traditional folk ballads. He spoke with a number of ballad-loving writers who promised him scripts for the new series, which began with a story by Charles de Lint retelling “Sovay.” The series was first published by Green Man Press, and then collected into a beautiful Tor Books edition, along with four additional tales, making thirteen ballad retellings in all -- by Neil Gaiman, Sharyn McCrumb, Midori Snyder, Lee Smith, Elaine Lee, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, and Emma Bull, plus two retellings by Jane Yolen, and one by Charles Vess himself. The Book of Ballads provides an excellent introduction to traditional ballads for readers not yet familiar with them, and a I highly recommend it.
In an article on Francis James Child published in Sing Out! magazine, Scott Alarik asked folk musician Martin Carthy (one of the greatest modern interpreters of Child ballads) why people should still be singing these ancient ballads today. For the same reasons they sang them long ago, Carthy answers. “Because they’re fabulous stories; because they tell you immense amounts about people and how they treat each other, trick each other, cheat and chisel and love each other. There’s an extraordinary understanding of humanity in them.”
"You do have to sometimes kick the buggers into life," Carthy continues, "find them a tune, give the lyrics a kick here and there. And they can take it; they’re fabulously resilient. I really do believe there’s nothing you can do to these songs that will hurt them—except for not singing them.”
Contemporary folk musicians have been doing a fine job of “kicking the buggers into life,” and so have writers of fantasy fiction for children and adults. I've listed a few of my favorite ballad-inspired novels, stories, and graphic works here. Now, dear readers, I throw the subject over to you: What are some of your favorites?
In the video above, Anais Mitchell and Jeffrey Hamer perform "Tam Lin," Child Ballad No. 39, from theiralbum of Child Ballads (2013). The ballad illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham, from Some British Ballads (1918). The titles are in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.
If you're interested in exploring this subject further, I recommend the following: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. 1 - 5, by Francis James Child; The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads by Betrand Harris Bronson; Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, Ballads and Romances by John W. Hales & Frederick J. Furnivall; Medieval Lyric: Middle English Lyrics, Ballads, and Carols by John C. Hirsh; English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians by Cecil James Sharp; Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Pre-Christian and Pagan Elements in British Songs, Rhymes, and Ballads by Robin Skelton and Margaret Blackwood; Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales As Literary Fictions for Young Adults (which includes sections on fiction derived from "Tam Lin" and "Thomas the Rhymer") & Stories from Songs: Ballads as Literary Fictions for Young Adults by Anna E. Altmann & Gail de Vos; and “Child’s Garden of Verses: The Life Work of Francis James Child” by Scott Alarik (Sing Out! Magazine, Vol. 46, #4). Two good articles available online: "Francis James Child's Ballads in the Modern Age" by Stephen D. Winick; and "Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of 'Tam Lin'" by Charles Butler.
The great folklorist Francis James Child defined what he called the “popular ballad” as a form of ancient folk poetry, composed anonymously within the oral tradition, bearing the clear stamp of the preliterate peoples of the British Isles. Ballads, which are stories in narrative verse, are related to folktales, romances, and sagas, with which they sometimes share themes, plots, and characters (such as Robin Hood). No one knows how old the oldest are. It’s believed that they are ancient indeed -- and yet we have few historical records of them older than the sixteenth century. Little is known for certain about how the oldest ballads would have been performed -- but most likely they were recited, chanted, or sung without instrumentation. Right up to the twentieth century, ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, although today it is common to hear them accompanied by harp, guitar, fiddle, and other instruments.
Why do we have so few historical records? Because until relatively recently, they weren’t considered important enough to write down. With the rise of literacy, the songs and poems of Britian’s great oral tradition began to fall out of favor -- and ballads that had once been popular among all classes of society were now deemed primitive, pagan, the province of unlettered country folk. Because of this, few attempts were made to preserve ballads prior to the seventeenth century, and thus many were lost or were passed down through the years in fragmentary form. In the eighteenth century, ballad collection was still haphazard and sporadic, and the fruits of such labor were little regarded in academic circles. Universities did not yet consider folklore a respectable area of study, so manuscript collections remained in private hands, easily lost and forgotten.
In 1765, Bishop Thomas Percy came across one manuscript full of fine old ballads being used to light a kitchen fire. He saved them from the flames and published them in his book, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Percy’s book was a great success. It was much admired by such English Romantic writers as Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, and Keats, as well as the German Romantics Goethe, Tieck, and Novalis, and sparked much literary interest in the songs and legends of bygone days. Another fan of Percy’s book was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who collected the ballads of his native Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Scott sat at the center of a circle of poets and antiquarians who were devotees (and romanticizers) of the ancient history of the British Isles. This group did much to popularize the old songs and tales of Scotland, England, and Ireland -- but still no British university would sponsor a proper academic collection of the country’s ballads.
That job fell to an American scholar, Francis James Child of Harvard University, who was urged to take on the subject by his frustrated British colleagues. Child hesitated, somewhat daunted by the immensity of the job at hand, and then he plunged in, devoting the rest of his life to the study of ballads. Beginning in the 1870s, Child set out to track down every extant version of every genuine popular ballad in the English and Scottish traditions. He limited himself to England and Scotland because the ballads of these countries overlapped, whereas Irish ballads were a separate tradition, requiring a depth of knowledge of Ireland’s language and history he didn’t possess. His goal was to publish the collected ballads with notes tracing their histories, relating them to songs and tales to be found in folklore the world over. The result of this remarkable labor was The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898. It’s a work that’s still widely used today, revered by scholars and musicians alike.
The life of the man behind these famous books is as interesting as the ballads he loved. Born the son of a sailmaker, Child grew up on the docks of Boston harbor -- until his aptitude for learning brought him to the attention of a distinguished Cambridge scholar. The boy was encouraged to transfer from his working-class school to Boston’s Latin School, after which he was sponsored at Harvard, where he graduated at the top of his class. Except for two years of study abroad, Child spent the rest of his life at Harvard, rising to become the first chairman of the newly created department of English. He built his substantial reputation on groundbreaking studies of Chaucer and Spenser, but he also had an abiding love for philology, ancient poetry, folklore, and fairy tales. The latter interests had been whetted during the two years Child spent in Germany, where he’d been exposed to the work of the folklore enthusiasts of the Heidelberg Circle of scholars, which included folk song collectors Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, and the remarkable Brothers Grimm. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, noted Child’s friend and colleague G. L. Kittredge, “may even, in a very real sense, be regarded as the fruit of these years in Germany. Throughout his life he kept pictures of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm on the mantel over his study fireplace.”
Child was a textual scholar rather than a field collector, and he put his massive ballad compilation together by seeking out every manuscript copy of ballad material he could lay his hands on, with the help of a small army of fellow scholars searching out songs and fragments of songs throughout the British Isles. Another reason he depended on manuscripts rather than the memories of folk musicians was that the British popular ballad, in his view, was no longer a living tradition. The ballads he sought were the ancient ones -- not the “broadside ballads” that dominated the nineteenth-century folk musician’s repertoire. Broadsheet ballads were authored song lyrics designed to fit traditional tunes, cheaply printed and sold for pennies on street corners from the sixteenth century onward. These were contemporary compositions, rather than ancient poetry from the oral tradition -- though sometimes broadside ballads mimicked the language of much older songs, and determining which was which was a problem Professor Child was both intrigued and vexed by.
To the dismay of this meticulous scholar, in the absence of clear historical records he was often forced to depend on textual clues and his own best judgment. Fortunately, that judgment was finely honed by his fluency in archaic languages, and his extraordinary knowledge of folklore traditions the world over. He chose, he explained in a letter to a friend, to err on the side of inclusiveness. Where he had lingering doubts about the authenticity of a song variant, he was apt to include it anyway, along with notes outlining his reservations. His task was greatly complicated by the fact that the ballads of Britain had been so badly recorded and preserved compared with those of other countries, such as Denmark. “The ballads should have been collected as early as 1600,” he noted sadly; “then there would have been such a nice crop; the aftermath is very weedy.” Another complication was that ballads written down and published from the eighteenth century onward had been edited, censored, or “improved” by folklore enthusiasts who were literary men, romantics rather than rigorous academics. The prime example of this was Percy’s famous Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Child and other folklorists suspected that Percy had altered the text of ballads to suit the literary tastes of his day -- particularly as Percy would not allow an examination of the ballad manuscript in his possession. Working with British scholar F. J. Furnivall, Child was instrumental in persuading Percy’s descendants to finally release this manuscript, which did ideed confirm that Percy had edited and “improved” the original ballads.
Sifting through the mountain of material he collected, sniffing out alterations and forgeries, Child amassed a group of 305 songs with their roots in the oral tradition, along with variants of each song, sometimes in dozens of alternate versions. The final volume of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was completed the year of Child’s death, but he died before writing the book’s introduction, which would have explained his method of selection and given us an overview of his work. Yet even without this, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic and became a cornerstone of modern folklore scholarship. In addition, Child was instrumental in establishing the American Folklore Society, serving as its first president from 1888 to 1889. But sadly, Child did not live to see that movement flower in subsequent years, and he died doubting his work had relevance to a modern age. “If he’d lived just a little longer,” says Mark F. Heiman of Loomis House, which published a handsome new edition of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, “he would have seen the golden age of the ballad collector and folklorist. He would have seen how important his life’s work really was.”
Child’s work went on to inspire a whole new generation of folklorists, men and women who weren’t quite so convinced that the oral tradition was irretrievably dead and gone. One of them was Cecil Sharp, who began collecting English folk songs and dance tunes in the early years of the twentieth century. Sharp was a trained musician, and unlike Child he was also interested in preserving the music of the ballad tradition rather than viewing ballads primarily as poetry. He noted that the Child ballads were rarely part of the repertoire of the elderly singers he listened to in the countryside; they’d been replaced by broadside ballads and other more recent songs. Sharp wondered if the older ballads might have survived among the British and Scottish settlers in America, particularly among the descendants of settlers in isolated mountain regions, where “pennysheets” of modern ballads would not have been available. Between 1914 and 1918, Sharp made two extensive trips through the Appalachian Mountains, collecting over a thousand songs with the aid of his secretary, Maud Karpeles. Sharp and Karpeles discovered that many of the Child ballads were indeed still known and performed in Appalachia, although sometimes the titles and lyrics had changed somewhat in this new setting. Sharp published these ballads in his now-classic English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, which in turn inspired new folklore studies and new collection efforts throughout the United States.
Despite the keen interest of folklorists, ballads remained a specialized interest for much of the twentieth century, until the huge folk music revival of the 1960s and ’70s. In those years, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and other popular singers recorded ballads from the Child collections, and a Celtic music revival exploded across the British Isles, Brittany, and America. Folk-rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span updated the ballads for a new generation, while singers like Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Frankie Armstrong, Jean Redpath, and June Tabor created an audience for traditional music played in more traditional ways.
Today, that revival is still going strong, with Child ballads performed by Jon Boden, Eliza Carthy (Martin's Carthy's daughter), Josienne Clarke, Cécile Corbel, Bella Hardy, Fay Hield, Sam Lee, Loreena McKennit, Jim Moray, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby, Emily Smith, The Imagined Village, The Unthanks, and many, many others. (You'll find an online discography here). I particularly recommend Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer's terrific album dedicated to Child Ballads, and Jon Boden's Folk Song A Day site. To dig further into this subject, you'll find a lot of good material in the digital archives of the English Folk Song & Dance Society; and have a look at the wonderful Full English project too.
I'm going to end today with Mitchell & Hamer performing "Willie's Lady," which is Child Ballad No. 6. In the second of this post, we'll look at the ways that writers of fantasy literature have made use of ballad material. (Part II is here.)
The illustrations above are by George Wharton Edwards, fromA Book of Old English Ballads (1896); the titles are in the picture captions. Text for this post was taken from an article I wrote, years ago, for Fantasy Magazine, and from my Introduction to The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess. (More on the latter in Part II.)