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The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts

David Atkinson


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1The ′imaginary′ in the title of this volume is quite deliberate. The ballad and its imagined contexts, with its echoes of Benedict Anderson′s imagined communities, Georgina Boyes′s imagined village, and Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger′s invented traditions, might have evoked an oral, ballad-singing community of a kind that owes as much to the broad thrust of Romanticism as it does to a historical back-projection from (limited) evidence drawn from the folk song revivals of the twentieth century. The imaginary contexts of the title, in contrast, refer to the abstract ideas that are the necessary counterpart of any attempt to describe the ballad – be it at the level of genre or of the individual literary/musical item in its social and historical context – in terms either of ontology or of textual constitution.

2Conceptually, there is a danger that ′the ballad as abstract idea′ might appear perilously close to the sort of conflationary, ′idealist′ notion of ballad editing that characterized publications of a much earlier period. Editions such as Thomas Percy′s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, Walter Scott′s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and William Motherwell′s Minstrelsy: Ancient and Modern drew on and compounded different texts in order to achieve a comprehensive and complete, ′ideal′ version of each individual ballad. They have been much reviled for doing so, although as an exercise in ′best-text editing′, duly described and documented, this could still be a defensible approach. However, it is certainly true that it falls foul of the ethnographic turn that ballad studies have taken since that time.

3Both Scott and Motherwell came to reject their own editorial practices and instead to laud the discrete integrity, and poetic and musical value, of each separate ballad instance, or ′version′. Subsequently, mediated by the practice of the Danish editor Svend Grundtvig, this insight provided the theoretical basis for Francis James Child′s standard edition of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The ′type/version paradigm′ embodied therein represents the distinctive contribution of ballad studies to editing theory. In short, the ballad ′type′ is identified as the abstract sum of all actual and possible manifestations, or ′versions′, of what is recognizably the ′same′ thing. The definition is notably circular – but it does mostly work in practice because there turns out to be a high level of seemingly inherent stability in ballad narratives and melodies, which makes it possible, most of the time, to recognize quite intuitively which items belong together.

4Since it is frequently possible to ascribe individual versions to individual sources, this type/version paradigm lends itself very neatly to the ethnographic orientation. In what has been rather grandly termed ′the post-Child era of scientific folklore′, a premium attaches to the precise recording, attribution, and presentation of the collected item. And yet there is already a paradox here, because the type/version paradigm has also, almost uninvited, introduced an abstract dimension into the discussion. For the ′version′ cannot exist without inherent reference to the ′type′– and so while on the one hand the item′s uniqueness is being identified, on the other it is simultaneously being absorbed. Just as the ′version′ is a constituent part of the ′type′, so the ′version′ itself derives from the ′type′.

5This ′imaginary context′ then goes to the heart of ballad representation, for the type/version paradigm has to incorporate all possible manifestations and not just a chosen few. ′Ballad representation′ impinges on many of the critical dimensions that have dominated (some might say, bedevilled) ballad research: ballad origins; oral and printed transmission; sound and writing; agency and editing; textual and melodic indeterminacy and instability; and the premises and purposes that lie behind collecting, editing, publishing, and research. Some of these issues are addressed in the chapters that follow.

6While the focus here is mostly on ballad texts (words), and a good deal of the argument draws on theories of textual editing, it is to be hoped that several of the main ideas that can be extracted from the discussion will turn out to have a bearing on ballad melodies. Nevertheless, it is unwise to press too far the idea that the ballad comprises an indivisible textual and melodic whole. Not least because the two things are inherently separable: the same words can go to different tunes, and vice versa; and the words can exist without the melody (in broadside print, for example), just as the melody can exist without the words. While there is the possibility for melody to impact upon versification, and the two things can certainly interact associatively – collectors like Cecil Sharp have commented on the difficulty singers sometimes experience in recalling words in the absence of a tune (and there is some evidence from neuroscience for the synergy of the two things in human memory) – there is still an absence of a critical vocabulary that would convincingly facilitate the discussion of an integrated whole. Ballad words belong ultimately to the domain of language, and ballad melodies to the domain of music, yet it remains unclear to what extent those two domains really can be thought of as precisely equivalent – as both belonging, as it were, to a single grand domain of Saussurean langue.

7Versions of some of these chapters have been aired as published articles or as presentations, but all have been rewritten for this volume in order to integrate them into the book, to bring them up to date, and, as far as possible, to avoid unnecessary repetition. Versions of chapters one, five, six, and seven, respectively, appeared in the journals Lied und populäre Kultur/Song and Popular Culture, Twentieth-Century Music, Variants, and Folklore, and I am very grateful to their editors and copyright holders for permission to reuse the material (full bibliographic details are cited at the beginning of the respective chapters). A version of chapter four was to have been published in Estudos de Literatura Oral but has not appeared at the time of writing.

8I am especially grateful for the insights and enthusiasms of members of the European Society for Textual Scholarship, the Folklore Society, the Kommission für Volksdichtung, the Traditional Song Forum, and the Editorial Board of Folk Music Journal, who have all indirectly contributed to this volume. Likewise the readers for Open Book Publishers, who made some valuable suggestions which I have incorporated. This is the place, too, to thank Alessandra Tosi and Bianca Gualandi at Open Book Publishers for their professionalism and enthusiasm. Special thanks go to the J. M. Carpenter project team – Julia Bishop, Elaine Bradtke, Eddie Cass, Tom McKean, and Bob Walser; Malcolm Taylor and everyone at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library; my co-editor on Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America, Steve Roud; and Brian Peters, for the late nights and ballad discussions. It is a privilege and pleasure to work in a field where people still uphold the human values of friendship and cooperation. All of them have done their best to keep me from straying too far from the scholarly straight and narrow. All errors that remain are, of course, my own stupid fault.

9East Finchley, February 2014


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