Saying Something Human: A Look Back At The Child Ballads

child ballads
Illustration by Courtney Spencer

This article appears in the July/August 2015 “British Issue,” available now on newsstands. 

What do Bob Dylan’s “Barbara Allen,” Doc Watson’s “Matty Groves,” Fairport Convention’s “Tam Lin,” the Fleet Foxes’ “The False Knight On The Road,” Tom Waits’ “Two Sisters,” Sam Cooke’s “The Riddle Song,” Dr. John’s “Cabbage Head,” the Carter Family’s “Sinking In The Lonesome Sea,” Jerry Garcia’s “Dreadful Wind And Rain,” Joan Baez’s “The Greenwood Side,” John Wesley Harding’s “Little Musgrave,” Anais Mitchell’s “Sir Patrick Spens,” Sam Amidon’s “How Come That Blood” and Steeleye Span’s “Lord Randall” have in common?

They are all adaptations of Child Ballads. What’s a Child Ballad? No, it’s not a slow song for young listeners. It’s a ballad in the older sense, a narrative song, often with many verses, one that was “collected” by Francis James Child in the late 19th century. He didn’t write them; he found them in old manuscripts from the 15th through 18th centuries, papers that were tucked away in British libraries and private collections. He published 305 of them, annotated with extensive commentary, in the 10 volumes of his English And Scottish Popular Ballads. By “popular,” he meant that they came from the common folk, not from academics or professional writers.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Child’s work. It made available to a wide audience these neglected lyrics, most of which had been trapped in isolated singing communities or else in forgotten drawers. Their appearance kicked off a boom in folklore studies and collecting that saved many a tradition from extinction. And when folklorist Cecil Sharp followed Child’s example and went looking for songs in Appalachia, Sharp found that many of the tunes were not only Child Ballads, but also better preserved in those American mountains than anywhere in contemporary Britain.

Thanks to Child and Sharp, those songs were ready at hand when the 1950s folk revival blossomed. On this side of the Atlantic, Baez and John Jacob Niles became champions of the Child Ballads, while across the pond, Shirley Collins, Nic Jones and Ewan MacColl did the same. In the U.S., folklorists shone a light on artists such as Watson and Jean Ritchie, whose isolated Appalachian communities had never stopped singing the songs. And when the British folk-rock movement emerged in the 1960s, the two most prominent ensembles – Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span – each recorded multiple Child Ballads.

To understand the enduring appeal of these pre-industrial-age songs, consider “Matty Groves.” How old is this song? Well, it’s mentioned in the 1613 play, “The Knight Of The Burning Pestle.” Like most of the Child Ballads, it pops up under many different titles: “Little Musgrave And Lady Barnard,” “Little Mathey Groves” and more. Matty is a tenant on a nobleman’s land, but on New Year’s Day at church, he plans a tryst with the nobleman’s wife. Fairport Convention calls her Lady Donald; Baez calls her Lady Arlen, Harding calls her Lady Barnard and Watson calls her Lady Daniel.

Whatever her name, she proves irresistible, and Matty is soon lying in her bed while her husband is away from the castle. But a servant overheard the lovers’ plans and traveled to warn his master. And here’s where we see the psychological insights that make these old songs so endlessly fascinating. The Lord doesn’t thank the servant for his efforts but threatens to hang the man if his news isn’t true. Off go the Lord and his men, but one of them blows his bugle to warn Matty. Matty begins to climb out of bed to save himself, but the lady coaxes him back by assuring him that it’s just a shepherd calling in his flocks.

When the foolish couple awake, the lord is standing at the foot of the bed. He asks Matty how he likes sleeping with the lady, and the retainer impudently says he likes it very much. This further angers the lord, who commands Matty to get dressed, for the lord won’t be accused of killing a naked man. Matty says he won’t get dressed, for he lacks a weapon. The Lord hands Matty a sword and invites him to take the first blow. He does and wounds the Lord, but the Lord retaliates with a fatal stroke. The bleeding husband then takes his half-dressed wife on his knee and asks how she likes him now. She replies that she likes Little Matty more than the lord and all his family. Apoplectic, the lord rams his sword through his wife. All this in a series of verses without choruses over a perky, hypnotic melody.

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