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Ballads, Folk-Songs, Spirituals

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

The Ballad of Tradition. By Gordon Hall Gerould. New York: Oxford University Press. $3.25. English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. Collected by Cecil J. Sharp. Edited by Maud Karpeles. New York: Oxford University Press. 2 vols. $10.00. White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands. By George Pullen Jackson. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $4.50.

It has been a matter of regret among scholars and ballad men that Professor Child did not live to write a great preface or critical volume summarizing his views of the English and Scottish popular ballads he had so ably collected and edited. His introductions to individual ballads are, of course, beyond praise, a monument of American scholarship, but they are fragments of criticism, needing to be brought together in a more general critical and interpretative essay surveying the material as a whole—or such part of it as Child recognized. Professor Kittredge partly, but all too briefly, supplied the lack in his introduction to the one-volume edition of the ballads in 1904. More adequate, but more controversial, was F. B. Gummere’s “The Popular Ballad,” published in 1907. And now Professor Gordon Hall Gerould’s really admirable volume on “The Ballad of Tradition” brings the discussion up to date, and takes its place definitely as the finest available survey, conducted with learning and with tact, of the ballad tradition in English.

The achievement of a great master is often stultified by the zeal of his hero-worshipping and not always comprehending followers. Something of the sort is true of Child. Ever since his day there have been those who would have us believe that British ballads are exactly 305 in number, no more, no less, all definitively presented in Child’s volumes. Some even of those who knew that neither ballad-singing nor ballad-making were dead arts somehow subscribed to this doctrine, such was their blinding faith in Child’s authority. Child’s own failure to make clear his standard for inclusion and exclusion is partly responsible for the confusion. In any case, not before the Day of Judgment shall we know how many ballads English-speaking tradition can boast, but we know already that the number is greatly in excess of 305.

Professor Gerould disposes of this fallacy in effective fashion. He defines the ballad as “a folk-song that tells a story with stress on the crucial situation, tells it by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias,” and he soon mentions a number of traditional specimens not recognized by Child (“The Bitter Withy,” “The Seven Virgins,” etc.) which satisfy his requirements. In his view the ballad field in English includes all traditional story-songs from the earliest-recorded thirteenth-century “Judas” to such recent American pieces as “John Henry” and “The Boll Weevil,” the latter dealing with the pest which began its depredations on cotton as late as 1895. Dates, generally so undeterminable, are relatively unimportant. It is the character of the song, acquired largely from tradition, that constitutes it a ballad.

Professor Gerould takes care to see the English and Scottish ballad specimens in their international relations, and his conclusions offer small comfort to those who would use the ballads as a subject for racial enthusiasm or national satisfaction. The ballad is not an isolated phenomenon peculiar to one country, but has often extensive Continental relations. “Lord Randal,” for instance, has been found “as far east as Czecho-Slovakia and Hungary, as far north as Scotland and Sweden, and as far south as Calabria,” while “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight” has obtained even wider circulation. Moreover, other European peoples, notably the Spanish and the Scandinavian, have ballad heritages perhaps finer, or better preserved, than the English.

Ballads are stories, which may be classified according to their themes; they are folk-lore, in which the customs and beliefs of the past are recorded; they are narrative poems showing certain characteristics; and they are music. To each of these aspects Mr. Gerould devotes a chapter. That on “Ballad Tunes” is a remarkable verbal tour de force in that it explains folk music and its modes with the assistance of only one musical notation, the only one in the book. A most valuable chapter on “Ballads and Broadsides” reviews the history of the shifting meanings of the word “ballad,” and discusses the tangled relations of the two types, traditional and broadside ballads. “Some Phenomena of American Balladry” relates the story-songs of American origin to the whole stream of the English-speaking tradition. Having read his dozen specimens of made-in-America ballads, one may or may not agree with the implications of Mr. Gerould’s concluding remark, “While songs like this remain alive, balladry is not yet dead.”

In two central chapters, on “The Nature of Ballad Variation” and “The Origin and Development of the Ballad as Musical and Poetic Form,” Professor Gerould deals with the more mysterious and controversial aspects of his subject. His position is not startlingly original, yet he has made a contribution not only in the care with which he distinguishes fact from conjecture, but also by the rather complicated mosaic procedure by which he works the many suggestions and part-truths of previous scholars into a satisfying pattern of his own. Usually he is tactful and careful to acknowledge his obligations. Only in the case of Miss Louise Pound is his urbanity slightly shaken, and he fails to make clear, as perhaps he fails to see, how much he and other latter-day theorists owe to her. A polemical past has doubtless led him into this unintentional ingratitude.

Following Cecil Sharp, Mr. Phillips Barry, Don Ramon Menendez Pidal, and others, Professor Gerould believes that the process of oral transmission under the shaping influence of a traditional art is more important than any theory of ultimate origins—the constant remaking is more interesting than the original making. The direct question of origin, however, Professor Gerould confronts with becoming modesty, with ample warning that he is entering the doubtful realm of inference, and with almost too formidable a series of preliminary distinctions. But he finally gets under way and steers a skilfully discreet course among the many currents and counter-currents of opinion. He concludes:

All in all, we are forced to the conclusion that most ballads, both those that have been in circulation in later times and those of earlier date, have been composed by individuals. The qualities they possess with respect to music, to structural organization and to poetic style are the result of two equally important and inter-related factors: the development, at least as early as the twelfth century, of a traditional art in folk-song, which included the composition of ballads that were sharply focused, dramatic, impersonal; and, secondly, the constant reshaping of ballads, once they were launched on the stream of oral tradition, by the cooperation of later generations, each of which learned the popular art and passed it on to the generation following.

Professor Gerould is careful to distinguish in his discussion the origin of the ballad form from the origin of particular ballads. His notion of a controlling and moulding tradition makes it clear that he regards the ballad as a highly artistic form, very far indeed from primitive poetry. With Miss Pound, he recognizes the influence of the Church in shaping this tradition; more than she, he emphasizes (I think properly) the importance of melody in moulding the ballad pattern. He confirms the compromise conclusions of the present reviewer, published in 1929, when he admits the possibility of cooperative or group composition—”Songs have indeed been thus made”—but adds, “At all times and in all places individual composition has been the rule.” Here the matter may well rest.

“The Ballad of Tradition” is a work of ripe scholarship, almost strong enough in its common-sense to break through the misty jargon of previous discussions; a work, too, of genuine literary cultivation and charm. Minor corrections may have to be made, and soon there will be need of expansion, for it is not a large book, on an immense subject. Indeed, one of the virtues of the book is that it points out various problems that need further investigation. But at the moment it takes its place definitely as the best general discussion, and a very good one, of the ballad tradition in English.

What Child did for the texts of the ballads, Cecil Sharp has done for English folk music. His is the most important name in connection with the revival of interest in English folk-song, with emphasis on its musical side, at the turn of the century and after. He came to America in 1916, lured by the folk-song richness of certain regions, some at least of whose isolated inhabitants had emigrated from Britain before the broadside ballads had exerted the full effect of their on the whole harmful influence on traditional song. In 1917 he published, in collaboration with Olive Dame Campbell, his original “English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians,” now out of print, including the songs collected in nine weeks in 1916. Two subsequent trips he made to the same region (nineteen weeks in 1917, eighteen weeks in 1918), and amassed a great collection which is now published under the original title, but revised and greatly enlarged, in two handsome volumes edited by Miss Maud Karpeles, who accompanied him on his American trips and took down the words of the songs while Sharp noted the airs, just as they were sung. The new “English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians,” comprising 274 songs, classified as ballads, songs, hymns, nursery songs, jigs, and play-party games, with 968 tunes noted by the greatest authority on English folk music, is, of course, an invaluable addition to the treasury of American-English folk-song.

The new “English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians,” like the old, is primarily a book of songs, without accompaniments and without elaborate annotation or critical discussion—though Miss Karpeles has supplied additional references and a few comments in the notes, and has brought the bibliography up to date. These two musical scholars from the Old World, Sharp and Miss Karpeles, again come forward to redress the balance of a too insistent emphasis, in this country, on the academic and textual study of folksongs. They also call authoritative attention to the folksong wealth of the Southern Appalachians, and add this wealth to the main stream of our English-speaking folk-song tradition.

We have not in this country a tradition of musical scholarship. We have produced few “musicologists.” Exceptions there are, of course, to this generalization. A most recent book in a pioneer field seems to satisfy, in the person of its author, the demands of music and of scholarship. Dr. George Pullen Jackson’s “White Spirituals in the Southern Uplands” is a fascinating and discerning study of the rural religious singers of the South, from Virginia to Texas. The singing habits of these “Fasola” folk, their old-fashioned shape-note singing books, their earlier singing schools and later singing organizations such as the “Sacred Harpers,” their camp-meetings, their songs, their gradual yielding to the “Do-re-mi” system, their continuing struggle for existence in the country churches of various denominations-all this is sympathetically and racily treated, with abundant musical illustration, in “White Spirituals.” Dr. Jackson presents a mass of new evidence showing the derivation of Negro spirituals, both texts and tunes, from the religious songs of the whites. This authoritative musical history of Southern Fundamentalism is both lively and genuinely moving. It has sociological and human, as well as folk-song, interest.

That Dr. Jackson bases his study chiefly on the old printed song-books need not blind us to the fact that these spirituals are a genuine type of folk-song that has been long neglected by collectors. These songs are traditionally known and widely varied, though the song-books act as a conservative influence on variation. A background, or historical parallel, is provided in Professor Gerould’s discussion of the influence of the Church on old ballads, and the accolade is given by the inclusion of five “hymns,” really spirituals, in the new Cecil Sharp volumes.

Ballads, folk-songs, spirituals—these are three important recent books in a field that more and more engages the public interest.


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