from Forget Me Not Songster, 1840

Wikipedia refusing to beat about the bush, tells us that “Ballads are often 13 lines with an ABABBCBC form, consisting of couplets (two lines) of rhymed verse, each of 14 syllables. Another common form is ABAB or ABCB repeated, in alternating 8 and 6 syllable lines.”

Ballad and folk song, almost synonyms, typically appear in anthologies as by “Anon”. When the ballad was only an oral form, a narrative usually set to a simple melody as an aide memoire, it was an organic, constantly evolving form. Different performers would tweak the ballad intentionally or just by accident as they forgot a word here and there. Once the ballads were written down though they could stop evolving. In Phaedrus Plato has Socrates declare of writing “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.”* I think even more important than forgetfulness was the ability of writing to provide authority/authenticity. Before there was a written source nobody could accuse you of quoting it wrong.

Ballads were an early commodity of the publishing business: broadsides, single sheets of paper, would be printed often with a woodcut illustration, and sold around the country. They were probably the commonest printed document in early modern England.

The printed version of “Barbara Allan” shown above is quite different from others which have come down to us from different sources, including the version I learned at school. But such differences don’t contradict the idea of an end to textual evolution. What we see is several different versions, all frozen in time, all coming down to us in parallel. Joan Baez’s version (accompanied here by some fairly extravagant illustrations) is closer to what I remember singing. If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

If anyone can “edit” an oral form, why should collectors like Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, et al. not “improve” their finds? Surely they can be said to be as legitimate “balladeers” as that busker at the local hiring fair. Bishop Thomas Percy used a “parcel of old ballads”, including two versions of “Barbara Allen”, as the basis of his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). William Shenstone described them as “pure gold in dust or ingots” in a letter to Percy suggesting that printing them as is, unimproved, would be to miss an opportunity to reactivate their power, and would make them merely “a prize merely for . . . virtuosoes”. Percy did fiddle with the language and included modern ballad imitations, a decision which, contra Shenstone, we would now regard as an error. The need for authenticity in all things is a modern phenomenon. The word originates in the eighteenth century, just when ballad collection was getting going. It’s a bit odd isn’t it that we think of Robert Burns’ ballads as Robert Burns’ unaided work and Sir Walter Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border as an academic collection (which is how it was presented) though Scott certainly intervened in the text as much as Percy? In an age eager to accept Ossian such concerns were not prominent.

Here’s a nice post about the ballad from The Book Wars.


* I’m not sure Socrates is right in any general sense though. True we can rarely remember entire ballads, but I suspect we use our memories just as much as Plato did. We have something like a hundred trillion synapses in our brains, and I suspect that we use pretty much the same number of them today as Plato’s contemporaries did. We just remember a whole lot more different things.