This week, a collection of Child Ballads: traditional songs compiled by American folklorist Francis James Child (1825-1896) in his influential five-volume text, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Professor Child defined 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. (If you'd like to know more about Child and his work, I've written about him here.)
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 20th century ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, though now they are performed in a wide variety of ways. Let's start with one well-rooted in the tradition while also modern and delightfully wacky:
Below: "Hind Horn" (Child Ballad #17) performed by The Furrow Collective (Alasdair Roberts again, with Emily Portman, Rachel Newton, and my Modern Fairies colleague Lucy Farrell), from their wonderful new album At Our Next Meeting (2021).
Above: "Mirk Mirk Is This Midnight Hour" (a variant of "Lass of Loch Royal/Lord Gregory" Child Ballad #76) performed by Scottish musician Karine Polwart. It's from her lovely album of ballads, Fairest Floo'er (2007).
Below: "Three Ravens" (a variant of "Twa Corbies," Child Ballad #26) performed by Malinky, based in Scotland. It's from their early album Three Ravens (2002), when the members of the band were Karine Polwart, Steve Byrne, Mark Dunlop, and Kit Patterson.
Above: "Outlandish Knight" (a variant of "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," Child Ballad #4), performed by English folk musician Kirsty Merryn. It's from her second album, Our Bright Night (2020).
Below: "My Father Built Me a Pretty Tower" (a variant of "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," Child Ballad #106), performed by the English folk duo The Askew Sisters (Emily and Hazel Askew). You'll find it on their latest album Enclosure (2019), a collection of songs about the relationship between people and place. And just in case you don't know already, Delia Sherman wrote a very magical, gender-bending novel based on "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," titled Through a Brazen Mirror. I highly recommend it.
The art above is by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).