The Child Ballads

The Ballads and the Hound

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. 


Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Bertrand H Bronson, Princeton University Press


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.

The Robin Hood Ballads by George Wharton Edwards

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.

Francis James ChildThat 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.

Sir Patrick Spens by George Wharton EdwardsThe 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.”

The Twa Corbies by George Wharton Edwards

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 Fair Margaret and Sweet William by George Wharton Edwardsmusicians 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 Flooden Field by George Wharton Edwardsinclude 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.

The Ballad of Fair Rosamond by George Wharton Edwards

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 The Child Ballads, Loomis Press editionsyear 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.”

Cecil SharpChild’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.

Recordings of Child Ballads

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, Iona Fyfe, Fay Hield, Sam Lee, Malinky, Loreena McKennit, Jim Moray, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby, and many, many others. (You'll find an online discography here). I particularly recommend Anaïs Mitchell  & Jefferson Hamer's Child Ballads album, 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. To read about the ways the Child ballads have influenced fantasy literature and comics, go here.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Sir Orfeo illustrated by Errol le Cain

I periodically turn to Child Ballads for our "Monday Tunes," not only because I love them, but because they are full of stories that have also inspired other forms of mythic art, from fantasy novels to poetry and comics. The songs I've chosen to play today are ones that haven't yet been featured on Myth & Moor, but of course there are many, many others. If you'd like further recommendations, go here for previous ballad-related posts.

Above: "Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19) performed by the Scottish folk band Malinky, based in Edinburg. The song is from their lovely new album Handsel (2019).

Below: "The Forester" (Child Ballad #110), performed by Malinky, also from the new album.

Above: "Lady Diamond" (Child Ballad #269) performed by Scottish singer and harpist Rachel Newton. The song appeared on her solo album The Shadow Side (2012).

Below: "Edward" (Child Ballad #13) performed by the Scottish folk band Old Blind Dogs, from Aberdeen. The song appeared on their seventh album, The World's Room (1999).

Above: "The Gardener" (Child Ballad #219) performed by the great English folk singer June Tabor. The song appeared on her solo album A Quiet Eye (2000).

Below: "The Cruel Mother" (Child Ballad #20) performed by Scottish singer Fiona Hunter (from Malinky). The song appeared on her first solo album Fiona Hunter (2014).

Above: The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" (Child Ballad #214) performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart, based in Edinburgh. The song appeared on her third solo album Fairest Floo'er (2007).

Below: "Lord Baker" (Child Ballad #53) performed by Susan McKeown, a Dublin-born singer based in New York City. The song appeared on her solo album Lowlands (200).

Thorn Rose by Errol le Cain

Art: Illustrations for Sir Orfeo (a Middle English narrative poem related to the ballad "King Orfeo") and Thorn Rose by British book artist Errol le Cain (1941-1989).


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Tilly

This week, Appalachian ballads and American roots music played by musicians from both sides of the Atlantic....

Above: "I Must And Will Be Married," an American folk song from the Anglo-Scots tradition performed by Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds -- from their forthcoming album Singing It All Back Home: Appalachian Ballads of English and Scottish Origin. The album was produced by Ben Walker here in the UK, with contributions from Justin Currie, Rory McLeod and Lisa Knapp, and the great Shirley Collins. It will launch at the Cecil Sharpe House in London in June, so if you're anywhere nearby, keep an eye out for tickets. This is a great project to support.

Below: "The Spider and the Wolf," written and performed by Naomi Bedford and Paul Simmonds. It's from a previous album, A History Of Insolence (2015).

Above: "Gallows Pole" performed by American bluegrass musician Willie Watson, a founding member of Old Crow Medicine Show, from his solo album Folksinger, Vol. II (2017). This Appalachian ballad is related to "The Maid from Freed from the Gallows" in the Anglo-Scots folk songbook.

Below: "I'm On My Way," peformed by the brilliant bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens, from North Carolina, with Italian jazz musician Francesco Turrisi. The song will appear on their collaborative album There is No Other, due out next month.

Above: "Rain and Snow," an Appalachian ballad performed by American bluegrass musician Molly Tuttle and her band. This performance was recorded in Bristol, England, in 2016.

Below: "Jericho" by Mile Twelve, a five-piece bluegrass band from Boston (Evan Murphy, Catherine Bowness, Nate Sabat, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and David Benedict). The song is from their new album, City on a Hill (2019).

Above: "All in One" by Copper Viper (Robin Joel Sangster and Duncan Menzies), an American bluegrass & British folk duo based in London. The song is from their new album, Cut it Down, Count the Rings (2018).

And to end with something just a little different: "Pipeline Swallowtails" by Sarah Louise, a 12-string guitarist from North Carolina who is half of the Appalachian folk duo House and Land. The song is from her strange and magical solo album, Deeper Woods (2018).

Oakleaves


Tunes for a Tuesday morning

Margaret Lockwood in the film The Wicked Lady

Let's start the week (albeit a day late) with some fabulous folk songs that up-end traditional, heteronormative ideas about gender....

Above: "The Handsome Cabin Boy," which is one of a number of traditional songs (The Female Drummer, When I Was a Fair Maid, Bold William Taylor, etc.) about young women who dress in male clothing in order to live the life of a sailor or soldier. This lovely version is performed by Bill Jones, a folk musician based in Sunderland. It appeared on her first album, Turn to Me (2000). 

Below: "Sylvie" (a.k.a. "Sovay"), a traditional ballad about a female highwayman* performed by Rachael McShane (from the north-east of England) and The Cartographers. The song appears on their new album When All is Still (2018).

Above: "Gentleman Jack," written and performed by O’Hooley & Tidow, a folk duo from Yorkshire. The song, as music critic Alex Gallacher explains, is about "the 19th Century diarist, writer, traveller, mountaineer, rural gentlewoman, and industrialist Anne Lister. Anne kept much of her life written in 4 million words worth of diaries, which were hidden away for many years, and then thankfully later uncovered. It was discovered that around a sixth of them were written in secret code, which when deciphered, revealed a lot more than just her business activities at Shibden Hall, Halifax. Behind her back, the disapproving local residents would refer to Anne as ‘Gentleman Jack’." The song appeared on O'Hooley & Tidow's second album, The Fragile (2012).

There aren't as many songs about men dressing as women, but here's a particularly lovely one: "Gloria," written and performed by the Anglo-Welsh trio Trials of Cato. This moving song about cross-dressing and gender fluidity is from their debut album Hide and Hair (2018), which I am thoroughly addicted to.

Simply switching the gender of the singer of a love song can help us to hear it in a whole new way. Here are two fine examples:

Above, "Beeswing," the Richard Thompson classic, performed by Leicester-based folk musician Grace Petrie. It's from her terrific new album Queer as Folk (2018).

Below, "My Love's in Germany," a traditional Scottish ballad (adapted from a poem by Hector Macneil), beautifully performed by Trials of Cato.

And one more song to end with:

"Gonna Write Me a Letter" by the Irish "Celtgrass" band We Banjos 3, from Galway. The song appeared on their exuberant debut album, Roots of the Bajo Tree (2012).

Gonna write me a letter

*For more songs about kick-ass women, see Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850 (University of Chicago Press). The photograph above is Margaret Lockwood as a female highwayman in the 1945 film The Wicked Lady. Many thanks to Ben Perkins, Jessica Wick, and Amal El-Mohtar for their suggestions for this post.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Rift Within by Arthur Hughes

I'm back home after two weeks on the road, and back in my hillside studio. My desk is piled high with work, my email Inbox is overflowing, and the pages of my neglected work-in-progress are glaring at me balefully...but the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the hound lounges happily beside me, glad to return to normal routines. So let's start the week with some traditional ballads to put us all in a storytelling mood....

Above: "Lover's Ghost" (Child Ballad #272), performed by The Rosie Hood Trio. Rosie Hood is a singer/songwriter from Wiltshire, joined here by Nicola Beazley and Lucy Huzzard for a new video released last week.

Below: "The Bonnie Earl O' Moray" (Child Ballad #181) performed by Said the Maiden (Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth, Kathy Pilkinton), a vocal harmony trio from Hertfordshire. The song can be found on their debut album, Here's a Health (2017).

Above: Said the Maiden again, performing "The Soldier and the Maid" (Child Ballad # 299).

Above: "False Lady" (Child Ballad #68) peformed by Teyr (James Gavin, Dominic Henderson, Tommie Black-Roff), from London. The song can be found on the trio's debut album, Far From The Tree (2016).

Above: "Banks of the Newfoundland," performed by Teyr. This one is a "capstan shanty" collected by Cecil Sharp in 1915, and may be related to the transportation ballad "Van Diemen's Land."

And last, an old performance from one of the primary bands of 20th century folk revival: "The Lady of Carlisle" (also known as "The Lion's Den") performed by Pentangle in 1972. Variants of this broadside ballad have been collected in Scotland, Ireland, Somerset, and the mountains of Kentucky.

Happy hound

For more information on Child Ballads go here, and on Broadside Ballads go here. The painting above is by Arthur Hughes (1832-1915).


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Traveller and Dog by Matt Bigwood

I'll be out of the office on Monday, but rather than leave you without music to start the week, I've set this post up in advance....

In the video above, the lovely Sam Lee performs a trio of gypsy songs accompanied by Flora Curzon (fiddle), Josh Green (percussion), and Jon Whitten (ukulele). The songs are "Over Yonders Hill" (collected here in the West Country), "Lovely Molly," and "Goodbye My Darling." 

Sam is a wildly innovative folk singer and song collector who learned his vocal style from the UK's Travelling community. He talks about the genesis of the songs above -- but if you'd like to learn more about them, and about his apprenticeship with Scottish Traveller balladeer Stanley Robertson, watch "Ballad Lands," a short flm on the subject shot in Aberdeen.

In the video below, filmed by Lucy Kaye, he brings his recording of the Napoleonic ballad "Bonny Bunch of Roses" back to woman he learned it from, the great Traveller singer Freda Black. For more information on the Tradition Bearers who have carried these songs, stories, and folkways to the present day, I recommend the Song Collectors Collective website, which is a wonderful resource.

The photograph above is "Traveller and Dog" by Matt Bigwood, the portrait of a young Traveller on his way home from the Stow on the Wold Horse Fair. The photograph below is "Writer and Dog" by my husband, taken this summer here on Dartmoor. I hope to be back in the office/studio tomorrow, health permitting.

''Writer and Dog'' by Howard Gayton

All rights to the music and photographs above reserved by the musicians and photographers.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Deer sketch by Daniel Egneus

This week I'm focused on Child Ballads: on old, old songs performed in new ways, along with a couple of other good pieces rooted in traditional folkways.

Above: "The Fair Flower of Northumberland" (Child Ballad #9) performed by Scottish musician Alasdair Roberts, with Amble Skuse and David McGuinness. The song appears on their strange and remarkable new album, What News. The video, filmed at the University of Glasgow, features performance artist Sgàire Wood.

Above: "Abbots Bromley Horn Dance" performed by Stick in the Wheel, from East London.  The video, containing archival footage from Abbots Bromley, was directed by Ian Carter, with animation by Teresa Elizabeth Lobos. To learn more about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance go here. To read about deer in folk ritual and myth, go here and here.

Below: "Over Again" performed by Stick in the Wheel.

Both songs are from their terrific new album, Follow Them True.

Above: "Willie's Lady" (Child Ballad #6) performed by the English folk trio Lady Maisery (Hannah James, Hazel Askew, Rowan Rheingans). It's from their lovely first album, Weave & Spin (2011).

Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) performed by folk legend Norma Waterson, her daughter Eliza Carthy, and the Gift Band. It's from their new album, Anchor, which I highly recommend.

Deer sketch by Daniel Egneus

Oh heck, here's one more:

"Matty Groves"  (Child Ballad 81) performed by the French/American band Moriarty. The song travelled to the New World with early Anglo/Scots settlers, becoming part of the North American traditional songbook too.

Drawing by Daniel Egneus

The art today is by Daniel Egnéus.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Ancient cross near Crzaywell Pool on Dartmoor

This week, with Halloween and the Days of the Dead just ahead of us, I've chosen songs of ghosts, revenants, and the shadowed border between life and death....

Above: "Imagination: There Was Once a Man..." by Aiden O'Rourke (co-founder of Lau), who explains:

"It all began with short stories. James Robertson, one of my favourite Scottish authors, wrote a short story every day for a year, and each story had exactly 365 words. I loved reading those stories: a daily dose of poetry and wisdom. And I loved the writing. The language is emotional, concise, apposite. Somehow the words and the pacing of the stories felt musical. I was intrigued by the discipline of setting such a quantifiable daily creative ritual. Would the same be possible in music? In 2016, I decided I would take on a similar writing challenge each day for a year. I told James and he replied, 'Don't do it!' then suggested I give it a month and see if it drove me mad. By 2017, I had 365 new tunes, each one linked to a story from James' collection. There's no doubt the tunes are based in Scottish folk music; that's my backbone, the place I come from, the traditional language I love. There's a parallel with James here, too, because he loves old Scots words and tales."

O'Rourke's story-music appears on the album 365: Volume I, released earlier this year, with a second volume forthcoming. In the video above, he's accompanied by keyboard player Kit Downes; and by James Robertson himself, reading the uncanny tale that inspired the tune.

Below: "Fair Margaret & Sweet William" (Child Ballad #74), an old, old song of love and ghosts performed by the great English folksinger June Tabor. The ballad appears on her excellent album An Echo of Hooves (2003).

Above: "I Am Stretched on Your Grave," based on the 17th century Irish poem "Táim sínte ar do thuama," beautifully sung by Dominie Hooper from Band of Burns. Dominie grew up here in Chagford,  dazzling us all with the power of her voice since she was young.

Below: "Wife of Usher's Well" (Child Ballad #79), performed by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart. In this song, a mother longs for her three dead sons to return to her...but when they do, they come as revenants, still bound to the land of death. The ballad is rich in folk traditions about what the newly dead may and may not do, and how the living may safely interact with them. Polwart first recorded it for her marvelous collection of ballads Fairiest Floo'er (2007), but this fine version appeared a year later on the expanded edition of This Earthly Spell.

Above: "Death and the Lady," performed by folk legends Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, from the north of England. Norma introduces the song, explaining its history and connection to the Black Death.

Below: "The Ballad of George Collins" (Child Ballad #42), a traditional song performed in an extravagantly untraditional way by the brilliant young folksinger Sam Lee, who is based in London. The Penguin Book of British Folk Songs explains:

"The plot of  'George Collins' has its secrets. From an examination of a number of variants, the full story becomes clearer. The girl by the stream is a water-fairy. The young man has been in the habit of visiting her. He is about to marry a mortal, and the fairy takes her revenge with a poisoned kiss."

In this variant of the ballad, the young man has been promiscuous with his favors and five other young women, in addition to his lover Fair Ellender, die from kissing his poisoned lips.

Above: "Kitty Jay" by Seth Lakeman, a song from his 2004 album of the same name, performed in New York earlier this year. Seth, who lives here on Dartmoor, draws much of his song-writing material from local history and lore. Kitty Jay (as the legend goes) was a poor young woman who worked on a remote farm in the late 18th century. Impregnated and betrayed by her master's son, she resolved to take her own life, and for this sin she was buried in unhallowed ground at the Manaton crossroads.

Jay's Grave at the crossroads near Manaton

Kitty Jay's grave, which is not far from our village, is said to be haunted by a shadowy figure wrapped up in a cloak. (Kitty herself? Her remorseful lover?)  There are always fresh flowers upon it, although no one is ever seen putting them there.

Jay's Grave in spring

And to end with, below:

"In a Week," a very dark, yet eerily beautiful song about the process of death, written and performed by Hozier (Andrew Hozier-Byrne). He's accompanied here by Alana Henderson. Both musicians are from Ireland.

Photograph by Alexandra Bochkareva

The three Dartmoor photographs above: An ancient cross near Crzaywell Pool, and Jay's Grave at the edge of the moor near Manaton. The last photograph, of maiden and fox, is by Alexandra Bochkareva. If you'd like more spooky songs, last year's Halloween tunes are here. For more information on Child Ballads, go here.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Fairy Queen by Alan Lee

I'm about to head up to Sheffield for the second group meeting of the Modern Fairies & Loathly Ladies project, so let's start the week with some fairy ballads drawn from Francis James Child's masterwork: The English & Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes from 1882 to 1898.

Above: "Tam Lin" (Child Ballad #39) performed by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hammer, from their album of Child Ballads (2013). Some UK reviews remarked on the oddness of hearing a Scottish border ballad sung in American accents, forgetting that these songs travelled across the ocean on immigrant ships and took root in North America (especially in the Appalachian region), where they are now part of the traditional songbook of America and Canada too. This version of the song omits verses explaining that Tam Lin is not a fairy (or "shade") himself, but a human knight in thrall to the Fairy Queen. For the full story, go here.

Below: an Appalachian version of "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child Ballad #37), performed by Scottish folk musician Archie Fisher. The recording is from Big Bend Killing: The Appalachian Ballad Tradition (2017).

Green Woman by Alan Lee

Above: "King Orfeo" (Child Ballad #19) performed by Scottish folk musician Emily Smith. The song can be found on her fine album Echoes (2104).

Below: "Twa Sisters" (Child Ballad #10) performed by English folk musician Emily Portman, from her enchanting album The Glamoury (2010). While there's not a fairy in this ballad per se, the enchanted harp at the end of the song is surely filled with fairy magic.

Fairies of the Wood by Alan Lee

Above, in the Loathly Lady catagory: "King Henry" (Child Ballad #32) performed by the great British folk musician Martin Carthy. The song appeared on his classic album Sweet Wivelsfield (1974).

Below: "The Elfin Knight" (Child Ballad #2) peformed by the Celtic-Nordic group The Boann Quartet. They've released a whole album of fairy music, Old Celtic & Nordic Ballads (2012).

Roverandom by Alan Lee

The drawings above are by my friend and neighbor Alan Lee, a man who certainly knows a thing or two about fairies. For more on fairies in legend, lore, and literature, go here. For the history of Child and his ballads, go here. And for literary interpretations of the ballads (in novel, short story, and picture book form), go here.


Tunes for a Monday Morning: Stand & Deliver!

The Highwayman by Charles Mikolaycak

Today's theme is highwaymen (and their bold female counterparts) in British balladry. It's a subject of particular interest to me, for I've recently learned that I'm very, very distantly related to one John Clavell (1601-1643), known in his day as the "poetical highwayman" -- a robber, a rogue, and the author of "A Recantation of an Ill Led Life." *  These songs of scofflaws and ne'er-do-wells are dedicated to Ellen Kushner and the writing team of the Tremontaine series. If you're following these fabulous stories online, or have read the new anthology, Tremontaine, then you'll know why.

Above: "Shoot Them All" by Pilgrims' Way, whose new album, Stand & Deliver, is entirely devoted to highwaymen and brigands. "Shoot Them All" is their exuberant rendition of a traditional song known variously as "The Undaunted Female," "The Staffordshire Maid," and "The Serving Girl and the Robber."

Below, a really lovely version of "The Newry Highwayman" by Kim Lowings and The Greenwood, from their new album, Wild & Wicked Youth. The song is also known as "The Flash Lad," "The Rambling Blade," and "Adieu, Adieu."

Above: "Alan Tyne of Harrow" by James Fagan & Nancy Kerr. The exact history of this 18th century broadside ballad is a contested one, but it's probably a variant of an older Irish song, "Valentine O'Hara."

Below: "Turpin Hero" by Jake Bugg (audio only). This too is an 18th century ballad, but based on a known historical character. As A.L. Lloyd explains: "Dick Turpin, an East End butcher’s boy, commenced his wild career by stealing cattle in West Ham and selling the beef, door to door. Pursued by the law, he took to housebreaking and highway robbery. Things became hot, he retired, got into a squabble over a gamecock, was arrested, unmasked, and hanged on April 6, 1739."

Above: "Sylvie," a song also known as "Sovay" and "The Female Highwayman." Collected in Oxfordshire in 1911 by Cecil Sharp (but certainly much older), it was popularized during the '60s folk revival by a beautiful rendition from Pentangle. The version above was recorded for a forthcoming album of ballads by Rachel McShane, with her band The Cartographers. She stitched the song together, she says, "from lyrics found in dusty old books and websites and wrote a new melody and arrangement."

Below: "The Highwayman," written by Alfred Noyes in 1906, with new music composed by Canadian harpist and music scholar Loreena McKennitt (audio only). It's from her gorgeous sixth album, The Book of Secrets (1997).

The Highwayman by Charles Mikolaycak

Some other good songs about highwaymen: "Salisbury Plain" (Maddy Prior does a good version on Lionhearts, and Lisa Knapp on Wild and Undaunted); "Jack Hall" (Sam Carter sings this one on Live at Union Chapel); and Adam Ant's cheeky "Stand and Deliver" (from the New Romantic era of '80s rock).

The art in this post is from a children's book version of "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak (1937-1993).

The Highwayman by Charles Mikolaycak

*Although it's not known where the Clavell family originated (some say the Celtic region of Spain), John Clavell's branch setttled in Dorset, England, while mine lived in the French Alps, near Grenoble, before fleeing to Switzerland and the Netherlands during the Reformation. My many-times-great-grandfather, George Craft Clavel, sailed on a Dutch ship to Philadelphia as child in 1737, where he was sold to a button factory owner to help pay for the family's passage. He paid off the bond after five year's work, rejoined his family, and became a farmer and Indian trader on what was then the remote Pennsylvania frontier.