The Child Ballads are a collection of 305 ballads from England and Scotland, and their American variants, collected by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century. The collection was published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads between 1882 and 1898 by Houghton Mifflin in ten volumes and later reissued in a five-volume edition.
Nature of the ballads
Child's collection was not the first of its kind; there had been many less scholarly collections of English and Scottish ballads, particularly from Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) onwards. There were also "comprehensive" ballad collections from other countries. Child modelled his work on Svend Grundtvig's Danmarks gamle Folkeviser, classifying and numbering the ballads and noting different versions, which were placed side by side to aid comparison. As a result one Child number may cover several ballads, which Child considered variants of the same story, although they may differ in many ways (as in "James Hatley"). Conversely, ballads classified separately may contain turns of phrase, and even entire verses, that are identical.
The ballads vary in age; for instance, the manuscript of "Judas" dates to the thirteenth century and a version of "A Gest of Robyn Hode" was printed in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The majority of the ballads, however, date to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although some probably have very ancient influences, only a handful can be definitively traced to before 1600. Moreover, few of the tunes collected are as old as the words. Nevertheless Child's collection was far more comprehensive than any previous collection of ballads in English.
Many of Child's ballads were obtained from printed broadsides, but he generally distinguished the "traditional" ballads that interested him from later broadside ballads. Unfortunately, since Child died before writing a commentary on his work, it is uncertain exactly how and why he selected some ballads and discounted others.
The Child Ballads deal with subjects typical of many ballads: romance, supernatural experiences, historical events, morality, riddles, murder, and folk heroes. On one extreme, some recount identifiable historical people, in known events, embellished for dramatic reasons. On the other, some differ from fairy tales solely by their being songs and in verse; some have been recast in prose form as fairy tales. A large part of the collections is about Robin Hood; some are about King Arthur. A few of the ballads are rather bawdy.
Many Child Ballads have appeared in contemporary music recordings. British electric folk groups such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span drew heavily on the Child Ballads in their repertoires, and many other recording artists have recorded individual ballads. Harry Smith included a number of them into his Anthology of American Folk Music. The ballads figure prominently in the early recordings of Joan Baez.
They crop up even in the work of bands not usually associated with folk material, such as Ween's recording of "The Unquiet Grave" (Child 78) under the title "Cold Blows the Wind", or versions of "Barbara Allen" (Child 84) recorded by the Everly Brothers, Pete Seeger, Art Garfunkel, and (on the soundtrack of the 2004 film A Love Song for Bobby Long) John Travolta. In 2009, Fleet Foxes included "The Fause Knight Upon the Road" as the b-side to the 7" release of "Mykonos" (as "False Knight on the Road"). In 2013 US singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer released Child Ballads comprising seven songs from the Francis James Child collection.
In Peter Beagle's novel The Last Unicorn, the character Captain Cully, a robber chief, sets out to make himself another Robin Hood by immortalizing himself in ballads. He misidentifies another character as "Mr. Child" and tries to get him to collect the songs, and tells him that writing them himself is legitimate.
In 1960 John Jacob Niles published The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, in which he connects folk songs which he collected throughout the southern United States and Appalachia in the early 20th century to the Child Ballads. Many of the songs he published were revived in the Folk music revival, for example "The Riddle Song" ("I gave my love a Cherry"), which he connects with Child No. 1, "Riddles Wisely Expounded".
Child Ballad #84. Recorded in Florida State Prison, 1939
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- Child, The English and Scottish popular ballads (1882-98)
- Vol. 1 Part 1 (=Part I) (1882) Ballad #1 ~ 28
- Vol. 1 Part 2 (=Part II) (1884) Ballad #29 ~ 53.
- Vol. 2 (=Parts III/IV) (1885/1886), Ballad #54 ~ #113.
- Vol. 3, Part1 (=Part V) (1888), Ballad #154~155
- Vol. 3, Part2 (=Part VI) (1889), Ballad #156~188
- Vol. 4, Part1 (=Part VII) (1890), Ballad #189~225
- Vol. 4, Part2 (=Part VIII) (1892), Ballad #226~265
- Vol. 5, Part1 (=Part IX) (1894), Ballad #266~305
- Vol. 5, Part2 (=Part X) (1898), Additions and Corrections, Glossary, .. Ballad airs from Manuscript, Index.
- Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 Volumes (Dover Publications, 2003)
- Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, with Their Texts, According to the Extant Records of Great Britain and North America, 4 volumes (Princeton and Berkeley: Princeton University and University of California Presses, 1959, ff.).
- Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).
- Marcello Sorce Keller, "Sul castel di mirabel: Life of a Ballad in Oral Tradition and Choral Practice", Ethnomusicology, XXX(1986), no. 3, 449–469.
- The English and Scottish Popular Ballads - text based upon the five volume edition of 1965
- The English and Scottish Popular Ballads online Abbreviated version dating from 1904 in one volume published by Hoghton Mifflin Co.
- Volume 7. [Final volume in preparation.]
- Many ballads with commentary and background music.
- A short list of "early" Child ballads dating to before 1600
- An extended discussion of pre-1600 Child ballads
- Child Ballads translated in Italian by Riccardo Venturi