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Ballads in Virginia

ISSUE:  Winter 1930

Traditional Ballads of Virginia. Edited by Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr. Cam– bridge: Harvard University Press. $7.50.

That Virginia holds an enviable place among the commonwealths of American balladry is fully attested by such an anthology as “Traditional Ballads of Virginia.” The songs included in this important volume were collected under the auspices of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society and are edited by Arthur Kyle Davis, Jr., Archivist of the Virginia Collections of Ballads, Virginia’s preeminence or even supremacy as a ballad country has only, recently, it is true, been challenged by Maine, an abode of song that has found convincing voice dn “British Ballads from Maine,” an admirable anthology of songs coming to us this year from the capable hands of Phillips Barry, Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, and Mary Winslow Smyth. That two suoh significant publications should appear in the same year is indicative of America’s scholarly interest in balladry, And it is noteworthy that in both these anthologies this interest centers about the Old World traditional ballads or “genuine antiques” as they survive in this country. Other collections—Professor Cox’s “Folk-Songs of the South,” for instance—excellent though they, are, have included not only ballad importations but native American songs as well. In the number of ballad texts recorded and in the capable editing of these texts, Dr. Davis’s volume will command the serious attention and respect of ballad scholars both in America and in Great Britain. With commendable reliance on Professor Child’s introductions, the head-notes for each ballad are extensive and adequate. “The foot-notes perform the usual service of their kind,” says Dr. Davis. “They supply variant readings, interpret or comment upon difficult words or passages, and now and then offer comparisons with other texts.” So far as the texts are concerned there is nothing of emendation—literary or otherwise. In every case the text “is given as it was sent in, presumably as it was sung. . . .” That one is grateful to the editor’s refraining hand goes without saying.

In the present volume we find fifty-one British ballads, nearly all of them represented by numerous versions or “variants.” For example, there are nineteen versions of “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight,” five of “The Cruel Mother,” eleven of “The Twa Sisters,” four of “Earl Brand,” and fifteen of “Fair Margaret and Sweet William.” Many of the texts, so far as length and content go, will bear comparison with the Child versions. Some of them, to be sure, are fragmentary, but such generous representation of these old pieces gives our volume an impressive bulk that will insure for it a conspicuous place on any shelf of ballad books.

Needless to say, a popular ballad is not a ballad without its air or melody. In his anthology Dr. Davis is fortunate in being able to give the airs for all but seven of the fifty-one songs included. That these tunes are not printed along with the ballad texts but are entered toward the end of the volume may be a matter of regret to those who feel that even scholarly arrangement and book format should have more regard for the dependency of the ballad on its tune. But the several illustrations in the volume may be taken, along with the tunes, to show how far a book may go toward reproducing the ballad background or milieu, detached from which folk-song loses much of its charm and meaning.

Among the illustrations are “Glimpses along Ballad Trails in Virginia” and “Homes of the Ballad Singers in the Mountains of Virginia.” A portrait of C. Alphonso Smith, Founder of the Virginia Folk-Lore Society, and the inscrip-tion of the work to his memory are an appropriate tribute of one ballad scholar to another.

In the fore part of his introduction—an introduction some sixty pages in length—Dr. Davis discusses such matters as the definition of the ballad, the opposing theories of ballad authorship or composition, and the ballad as it is found in America. His clarification of Gummere’s views on the origin of folk-song and his attempt to show that in their theories concerning ballad authorship scholars are “not far apart on essential points,” reveal Dr. Davis as one who would find a middle ground. He says, however, that he has avoided the controversial and has refrained from “elaborating his own personal views.”

Under the general heading “The Virginia Volume” the greater part of the introduction is given over to an interesting and valuable discussion of the contents and “method” of the book. Among other things, it points out that the “Virginia volume is somewhat more specialized than other recent American ballad and folk-song publications” in that it is “rich enough in these genuine [ballad] antiques to devote a whole volume to the older type of traditional ballad.” Such a collection of genuine antiques will be received as a highly important addition to the growing list of ballad anthologies. And one can say, without reservation, that Dr. Davis, as scholar and anthologist, has done justice to the rich folk-song materials at his command. Several important appendices round his volume out as a work of scholarly achievement.


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