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Article MT286

Among the Blue Flowers and the Yellow ...

Why ballads matter

"Willie, Willie, I'll learn ye a-wile"
And the sun shines over the valley
"How this pretty fair maid ye may beguile"
Among the blue flowers and the yellow

Willie's Lyke-Wake (Child 25)1

There is an ancient Greek myth which tells of an elderly wedded couple, Philemon and Baucis, who one day entertain the god Zeus, who is disguised as a wanderer.  As a reward, Zeus responds to their wish that they might die together by allowing that they might live on in the form of two trees standing side by side.  It is a similar tale to that told of the Irish couple Deirdre and Naois, who were buried on either side of a loch.  Fir trees sprang from their respective graves and, bending over the loch, they became entwined in the form of a true-lover's knot.  Apparently, Patrick Fitzgerald, a Sinologist, has found a Chinese tale from the Han Dynasty (200 BCE - 200 CE) which contains the same closing motif, 'After their deaths two trees sprouted from the graves, the branches intermingling and joining together'. 

Another tale, this time from the middle ages, concerns Tristan's love for Iseult, the wife of his uncle Mark.  Both lovers die and from Tristan's grave there grows 'a green and leafy briar, strong in its branches and in the scent of its flowers.  It climbed the chantry and fell to root again by Iseult's tomb.  Three times the peasant cut it down, but three times it grew again, as full of flowers and as strong.  They told the marvel to King Mark, and he forbade them to cut down the briar again.'

Stories such as these give us some insight into the world of our ancient ballads.  Ballads such as Lord Lovel (Child 75) or Barbara Allen (Child 84) often end with a couple of verses which tell of two plants, a rose and a briar, growing from two lover's graves.

Ballads are magical things.  Where else can one finds mystery, the supernatural, heroes and heroines, romance (in all its many forms), stories of battles and feuds or any of the other hundred and one topics that enrich our traditional ballads?  Some ballad stories have existed for thousands of years.  Others, in one form or another, have been found throughout Europe.  Some have travelled even further.  Many ballads date back to actual historical events, most of which occurred between the 13th and 18th centuries.  Others are timeless.

In 1876 a Harvard professor of rhetoric and oratory, Francis James Child, was appointed Harvard's first Professor of English.  Child had a love of traditional balladry and he soon set about collecting all the traditional versions of British ballads that he could find.  His collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, appeared in five volumes between the years 1882 and 1898.  The title is interesting.  By 'The' Child meant 'the lot' and he included every version of 305 ballads that he could find.  The words 'English and Scottish' are self-explanatory, although Child did mention other European versions of the ballads in his introductory notes whenever he could.  Today we would say 'Traditional', rather than 'Popular'.  Sadly, Professor Child never actually said what he meant by 'Ballad'. 

Nevertheless, we may say that a ballad is a story which is sung and, as such, belongs to a tradition that stretches back to Homer who, as we now realise, was a 'singer of tales'.3  Of course, not all stories set to music are ballads.  Some story lines are relatively weak, whereas those chosen by Child often carry a strong narrative.  Usually the ballads take us straight into the story, without any superfluous introductions.  Take these three opening lines, for example:

Ballad texts are often 'impersonal' and 'un-judgemental'.  Events unfold just as they are, without any external moralization.  If somebody does something, then something else will happen as a result of this first action.  In other words, actions have consequences and it comes as no surprise when such consequences arise.  In the ballad of Lamkin (Child 93) we are told that a mason is owed money by a Lord, who fails to pay the man.  So, Lamkin, the mason, seeks revenge by killing the Lord's wife and child, assisted by the child's nurse.  Their terrible come-uppance is stated in a very matter of fact way.  At times a whole range of emotions can be expressed in a single line or verse, as is the case with this verse, spoken by Johnny Armstrong (Child 169) when he realises that he has been betrayed by his King: Other lines appear to be formulaic and, as such, could be remnants of a linguistic system used as far back as Homer and his contemporaries.  Takes these two interchangeable verses from Cas Wallin's splendid version of Fair Ellender and Lord Thomas (Lord Thomas and Annet Child 73).  They can be used, and indeed are used, in a number of ballads where the subjects have to move from one place to another. and I said above that ballads are often 'impartial' and 'un-judgemental'.  However, Professor Child did include a handful of religious ballads into his canon, some of which do contain the seeds of Christian morality.  In the ballad of Dives and Lazarus (Child 56) we find the rich man, Dives, being condemned to Hell for failing to help the poor man, Lazarus, who, on the other hand, is promised a place in Heaven. A similar sort of thing also happens to the adulterous lovers in the ballad James Harris (The Daemon Lover) (Child 243), which singers like to call The Housecarpenter.  On the surface we appear to have a simple story, one where a married woman elopes with another man.  The song was published on 17th century broadsides as a warning to married women (a form of social control), but the mentions of Heaven and Hell in recently collected versions are but a shadow of the ballad's supernatural element in which the seducer turns himself into a cloven hoofed devil. The Devil appears in a number of ballads and singers have always been on their guard whist singing such pieces.  One English folksinger once told a collector that he had to stamp his foot hard on the ground whilst singing his version of The Farmer's Curst Wife (Child 278) because that was the way to keep the Devil at bay whilst singing the song.  Other supernatural ballads incorporate refrains mentioning herbs - 'Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme' being one of the best known refrains - the idea here is that the singer and audience will be protected from supernatural harm by the power within the herbs.  Simply mentioning the herbs, which have magical qualities, is sufficient to ward off evil.7

All of the ballads that Child included in his collection were taken from printed sources, such as those published by Bishop Thomas Percy, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, Peter Buchan, Allan Ramsay, David Herd, James Johnson, George Kinloch, Thomas Evans, James Maidment and Sir Walter Scott, and also from early broadside collections made by such men as Samuel Pepys, John Bagford (on behalf of the 1st Earl of Oxford) and the Duke of Roxburgh.8  It should also be noted that Child was only concerned with the texts of the ballads and not with their tunes.9

It may have been that Child was unaware that many of the ballads were still being sung by traditional singers, not only in Britain but also in North America and other parts of the English-speaking world.  When the English folksong collector Cecil Sharp visited the Appalachian Mountains of North America during the period 1916 - 18 he was able to collect 367 versions of 45 so-called 'Child ballads'.  In the early 1950s the British Broadcasting Corporation instigated a scheme whereby a number of song collectors were sent out across the Britain and Ireland in search of singers whose repertoire could be recorded.  Not only were the collectors surprised as to how many people were still singing folksongs, but they were also surprised to find that singers had also remembered many of Professor Child's ballads.10

In 1925 the Scottish folksong collectors Gavin Greig had produced a book of recently collected ballads.  This was Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs and the title made it clear that he believed these ballads to be rapidly disappearing from tradition.  However, when Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies began to collect throughout Scotland in the '50s they found that this was not the case.  Their collectors, led by Hamish Henderson, often chose to visit members of Scotland's Traveller community, where they found an amazing number of ballads.11  When the American song collector Alan Lomax visited Scotland in the '50s he had this to say about the singers that he met:

Lomax may also have been thinking of the renowned ballad-singer Anna Gordon who, as Mrs Brown of Falkland, is remembered for preserving some of the oldest Anglo-Scottish ballads, most of which were learnt before 1759.  In 1972 David Buchan had this to say about Mrs Brown and her ballads: Buchan, however, offers an answer to this apparent contradiction: Collectors were also at work in Ireland where, in the 1990's, one Irish song collector estimated that at least 50 Child ballads were currently being sung by traditional singers in Ireland.

In fact, if we consider the English-speaking world as a whole, I would suggest that versions of about 125 Child ballads have been collected from tradition during the 20th century.12  In other words, just over one third of Child's ballads were being sung during the 20th century.  This might suggest that there has been a decline in ballad singing.  However, it should perhaps be remembered that many of the ballads selected by Professor Child may never have actually been 'in the tradition' in the first place.  For example, of the thirty-seven Robin Hood ballads listed by Child (Child 117 - Child 154) only a handful have been collected from traditional singers, a fact which suggests that many of these ballads were literary constructs which probably never really entered the oral tradition.

One Robin Hood ballad that did pass into oral tradition was The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood (Child 132) which probably survived because it was printed on an early 19th century broadside by James Catnach of London.  In 1964 Frank Purslow told me of a Susssex singer who knew a version of the ballad and so I set off in search of this person.  Sadly, I was unable to find him, but I did find another singer from the same area who knew the song.  This was George Trainer who was then staying with his sister-in-law in Haywards Heath.  Interestingly, George's sister-in-law also knew the piece, which she had learnt from her brother.  So, at one time, it seems that Robin Hood and the Pedlar was relatively well-known, at least in one part of Sussex.

Robin Wood (The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood) (Child 132)

It's of a pedlar both stout and bold,
As fine a pedlar as ever you see;
He takes his pack all at his back,
And away goes pedlar right over the lea.
He takes his pack all at his back,
And away goes pedlar right over the lea.

The first he met was two troublesome men,
Two troublesome men all on the lea;
And one of them was bold Robin Wood,
And the other was Little John so free.

"What have you in your pack", cried bold Robin Wood;
"What have you in your pack, come tell to me."
"I've several silk (suits) of the gay green silk,
And bow strings, by one, two, three."

"If you've several silks of the gay green silk,
And bow strings, by one, two, three,
One of your packs shall belong to me
Before you go one step from me."

Then Robin Wood he drew his sword,
And the pedlar unto his pack did stand;
They heaved about till the blood did flow,
Till he cried, "Pedlar, pray hold thy hand."

So they heaved about till they both did sweat,
Till he cried, "Pedlar, pray hold thy hand;
I'll find a man of a taller stand
That can whop the pedlar, likewise thee."

"Now, I'll go, master," cried Little John,
"Now I'll go master, and try my hand."
They heaved about till the blood did flow,
Till he cried, "Pedlar, pray hold thy hand."

"What is your name", cried bold Robin Wood,
"What is your name, come tell to me."
"My name unto you I never will tell
Until both your names you have told to me."

"My name it is bold Robin Wood,
And the other is Little John so free."
"Now it still lies at my good will
Whether I'll tell you my name or no."

"Now my name it is Gamble Gold,
And Gamble Gold from the merry green wood,
And Gamble Gold from the foreign count-er-y;
For killing a man in my father's land
And from my father's country I'm forced to flee."

"Now if your name it is Gamble Gold,
And Gamble Gold from the merry green wood,
And Gamble Gold from the foreign count-er-y;
Then you and I are two sister's sons,
What nearer cousins could ever be?"

Then up to the tavern they all did dine,
Where they tapped their bottles and drank their wine.13

Robin Hood is one of the great heroes of English folklore, though whether or not he ever existed is a matter of conjecture.  There have been many theories as to his origin and readers wanting to know more should consult books such as J C Holt's Robin Hood, London, 1982 (reprinted), or Mike Dixon Kennedy's The Robin Hood Handbook Thrup/Stroud.  2006.

Other rarely heard ballads, such as Jamie Telfer o the Fair Dodhead (Child 190), Prince Robert (Child 87) or The Maid and the Palmer (Child 21) have turned up on only one or two occasions, while others, such as Barbara Allen (Child 84) and Our Goodman (Child 274), have been collected in hundreds of versions.14

My own interest in the Child ballads began when I heard my grandfather singing Barbara Allen (Child 84) at home.  I liked the song, but thought little about it until a few years later I heard a recording of another ballad, Henry Martin (Child 250), sung on the radio by the American singer Burl Ives.  This time I became interested and, checking in my school library, I came across an abridged edition of Child's collection.  Interestingly, this was found in the literature section, rather than in the section devoted to music.  I was quickly hooked on the ballads and, from about 1965 onwards, I began to visit tradition singers in their homes to record their songs and ballads.

In 2006 the English Folk Dance and Song Society published a book of songs that I had recorded from English and Scottish Gypsy and Traveller singers during the period 1965 - 2005.  The book included versions of the following fourteen Child ballads: The Two Turtle Doves (Child 13), ), Hindhorn (Child 17), Down by the Greenwood Side o/Fine Flowers in the Valley (Child 20), The Little Footman Boy (Child 65), Barbara Allen (Child 84), Johnny o the Brine (Child 114), Queen Jane (Child 170), The Brothers (Child 188), Bonnie George Campbell (Child 210), Tifty's Annie (Child 233), The Laird o Drum (Child 236), The Cruel Grave (Child 248), The Creel (Child 281) and The Golden Vanity (Child 286).

But these were not the only ballads that I had recorded during this period.  I also recorded ballads from non-Gypsy singers in England, Scotland and in the Appalachian Mountains of North America, bringing the total of Child ballads that I found to about 60.  There are now many printed collections of ballads, but these are often limited to specific geographical regions.  Clearly some ballads, such as Mary Hamilton, The Bonnie House o Airlie, The Baron of Brackley or The Braes o Yarrow, are more likely to be found in Scotland as they are concerned with Scottish history, although some 'Scottish' historical ballads have been found in North America.15  On the other hand many 'English ballads' have been found not only in England, but also in Scotland, Ireland, North America and other English-speaking countries.  Often, and rather surprisingly, many of the North American ballads have survived in forms which are older than those now sung in the Old World.  This may be because they were taken to the States and Canada a long time ago and were preserved in isolated communities which continued to value these ballads after many of them had almost ceased to be sung in their country of origin.16  This is what Cecil Sharp had to say about one ballad that he collected in North Carolina in 1916:

I think that more recent collectors must have felt the same when they encountered Maggie Hammons Parker, a West Virginia singer, who had an excellent version of the rare Scottish ballad Hind Horn (Child 17).17  Interestingly, this ballad, which is related to a number of medieval gests, such as King Horn, of c.1550, and the 14th century Horn Childe and Maiden Rimnild, can only be dated to early 19th century Scotland.18

Two ballads that have survived well in North America are James Harris (The Daemon Lover) (Child 243) and Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard (Child 81).  Both ballads are based on the theme of adultery and, as several singers have told American collectors that they refuse to sing the latter, calling it a 'dirty song', it is rather surprising then that these two ballads have remained so popular with American singers.19

One thing that I discovered in the Appalachian Mountains of America was the fact that the singers had so much enthusiasm for their songs and ballads.  And this reminded me strongly of similar traditions that I had heard within Gypsy and Traveller communities in England and Scotland.  As with the Gypsies and Travellers, here was a living tradition, one where singing and music making was an essential part of the community.  Everybody knew who the singers and musicians were and everybody seemed to value them.  I was asked, on more than one occasion, if we still rode around on horses in England and whether or not I lived in a castle.  No doubt such ideas came from the singers own knowledge of the ballads that they sang.  It also suggested that, so far as the Appalachian ballad singers were concerned, they were singing about a present-day world, one where the ballad stories told of events that were happening at this very moment.  These events were as 'real' as the news that could be heard on the radio and television.

Professor Child's great collection has now been with us for over one hundred and thirty years.  Critics have come, and gone, yet the collection remains in print today.  Over the years a number of suggestions have been put forward regarding ballads that Professor Child failed to include in his collection.  It has to be said that these ballads are few in number.  Two ballads that Professor Child might have considered, had he known of them, come from the singing of Packie Manus Byrne.  These are The Rich Man's Daughter and Young Alvin.

Several of Professor Child's ballads are concerned with incest between a brother and sister, and in both Sheath and Knife (Child 16.  Roud 3960) and Lizie Wan (Child 51.  Roud 234) the ballads end with the sister's death at the hands of her brother.  R S Thomson has suggested that these ballads stem from a scandal which occurred in the French Court of Henry of Navarre and which, no doubt, was soon a topic of conversation throughout Europe.  The Rich man's Daughter clearly belongs to this group of ballads, although Packie's ballad has not been reported elsewhere.  Packie learnt it in 1946 from Tom O'Connor of Cork when they were both employed as cattle drovers and he uses an air that is related to the well-known Boyne Water family of tunes.  In verse 5 Packie pronounces the word travern as tav-er-en, a fact which suggests that at some point the ballad may have been learnt from print.

The Rich Man's Daughter (Roud 2987)20

The rich man's daughter lay on her bed
As morning stars were paling
And to her faithful servant maid
Her secret was unveiling.

"Do not tell my father dear
Do not tell my mother
But saddle a horse and ride to Bath
Wherein you'll find my brother."

"Say, I ask him to come home
Our child is due tomorrow
And if it be that he won't come
Then I shall die of sorrow."

So the maid she saddled a fleet young grey
The fastest in the stable
And unto Bath she rode that day
As fast as she was able.

She search-ed high and she search-ed low
Until at length she found him
In a tavern where good wine did flow
And with many fair maidens round him.

"Oh master, oh master," the maid she cried
"Your sister pines to greet you
But she is sick and bearing child
So she cannot ride to meet you."

He cast aside the maidens fair
His goblet he threw over
Saying, "I must ride to my sister's side
For once she was my lover."

And when at her bedside he did stand
Her cries rang through the chamber
"Oh brother, brother, take my hand
For this night I fear great danger."

"Fear you not, my sister dear
I'll lift you from your covers
And carry you to the greenwood side
Where you and I were lovers."

And when they arrive-ed at the greenwood side
He said, "My foolish lover
'Twas to take your life I carried you here
Where no-one will discover."

The from his belt a blade he drew
A blade both sharp and slender
And with one thrust he plunged it through
Her heart so young and tender.

Then he buried her there that eventide
With grass her grave he covered
And there she sleeps in the greenwood side
And never was discovered.

So the rich man's daughter she died that day
And her child it died within her
And the rich man's son still goes his way
A vile and dreadful sinner.21

The Rich Man's Daughter has all the hallmarks of a Child ballad, although I am a little concerned about that final moralizing line - 'A vile and dreadful sinner' - which does seem at odds with other ballads.

Packie's other ballad, Young Alvin, is more problematical.  This ballad caused something of a stir when I included a recording of it on Packie's Topic LP Songs of a Donegal Man in 1974.  For a start, the ballad was unique to Packie - no other version had ever been collected - and some people found the names Alvin and Melanie odd, especially as pop singers Alvin Stardust and Melanie were both in the pop charts in 1974.  So had Packie written the song himself in 1974?  The simple answer was 'no', because I had first heard Packie sing Young Alvin in 1972, when we first began thinking of songs that could be recorded for the Topic album.  At the time Packie told me that he had heard the song in the 1930's at Ballysadare horse fair, where it was sung to him by a 15 year old tinker girl called Kathleen Collins.  Apparently Packie was on the way from Ballysadare to Ballybofey when he met the Collins family close to Ballyshannon.  Packie was taking a couple of horses to the fair and so the family let him spend the night with them at their camp.  Later, Packie expanded on this event in his autobiography Recollections of a Donegal Man, published in 1989.

The song was called 'Young Alvin', and I don't know where it came from, but it was one of the best and the most obscure stories that I ever heard.  After she sang it I asked her for the words and scribbled them down on a bit of paper.  It wasn't so easy trying to get the words down because there were about four of them all singing it at the same time and all talking at once.  Mrs Collins could not shut up.  She would be telling me one line of the song while I would be writing another, and it was most confusing.  Little Kathleen wouldn't say a word at all.  I would ask her something and she would look at her mother!  They were never in England, the kids, but they could name the places so well that appeared in the song, like 'Woostershire', and 'Airl's Coort'.  Probably I didn't pick up the song exactly as Kathleen sang it, but I did pick it up well enough to add in my own bits where I didn't catch it.

I played the ballad to various people prior to writing the Topic album notes in the hope that somebody would recognise it.  I happened to be at Topic one day when the Irish collector Hugh Shields showed up.  He listened to the ballad and expressed surprise that Packie had got this from a Traveller.  He thought that the text was just too complete, unlike most ballad texts that he had recorded from Irish Travellers.  I then played it to Bob Thompson, who was in the process of completing his PhD on the subject of broadside ballads, and Bob said that he had seen the words in a late 18th century chapbook, though he could not remember where he had seen it.  Finally, I played it to Frank Purslow when I called at his home one day, and Frank said that he too knew the words and had seen them in a chapbook.  Like Bob, though, he was unable to remember which chapbook! 

So there you have it.  Packie leant the song in the 1930s, though he probably changed it a little due to not being able to remember all of the words when Kathleen Collins and her family sang it to him.  In fact, I would suggest that this is not unusual.  People do tend to forget bits of songs and ballads and they will quite often replace the missing bits with their own words.  Also, there is a good chance that the ballad was printed in the 18th century in chapbook form, although I am still unable to trace a source for this.  As to the names Alvin and Melanie, well they are probably older than most people would suspect.  Alvin probably comes from the Old English name Aelfwine, which means a special friend, or, possibly, a magical friend, while Melanie was originally a Greek name, meaning dark, which first entered Britain with the Normans. 

I think that we all agree that there is something 'odd' about this ballad.  But, I must say that the opening line, 'Young Alvin lived in Worcestershire' does intrigue me.  Why Worcestershire?  (And was there once a Lord Farthington who lived in Worcestershire?  Or, if not Farthington, then somebody else with a similar name?) It is surely not the sort of place name that belongs to an Irish ballad.  So, after all, could there be an English origin?  Let's hope that, someday, somebody will be able to tell us.

Why Ballads Matter

We love stories.  The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials and Star Wars are cherished by generations of children and adults alike.  In fact we may say that storytelling, from the days of Gilgamesh onwards, has been one of the factors that define us as being truly human.  In the days before radio and television there would have been little to occupy the long, dark winter evenings.  Little, that is, except for the telling of tales and the singing of songs and ballads.  When I first met the Shropshire singer Fred Jordan in the early 1960s I asked him about his ballad of The Outlandish Knight (Child 4), which Fred had first heard being sung round a camp fire one night by some Gypsies.  Fred had asked them if they would teach the ballad to him and they did so.  When I asked Fred what had drawn him to the ballad in the first place, he simply said that he 'liked the story'.23

A few years back I mentioned that the Scottish ballad singer Joe Rae had been raised in a home that had no radio, so there was nothing to distract him from listening to older members of his family singing their ballads and telling their stories.24  Surprisingly, a couple of Scottish academics queried this with me.  They just could not accept that when Joe was a young lad (he was born in 1937) there was no home radio to listen to.  But, and I repeat this here, that was the case, and this may help towards explaining why Joe managed to pick up so many ballads and folk tales.

Many Child ballads have survived on the lips of Gypsy and Traveller singers.  It is only relatively recently that such people have had access to electricity and so I would suggest that many generations of traveller singers would have lived in caravans, or tents, which were homes that lacked facilities to power a radio.  On one occasion, after a Sussex Gypsy singer had sung me a very good version of the ballad of Lord Bateman (Child 53) her daughters, who had not appeared to have been listening to their mother's singing, pitched in with questions about whether or not a person could marry two people in one day, as the ballad suggested.25  And this suggests to me that stories and ballads are not simply listened to as entertainment, rather it suggests that the stories and ballads carry underlying meanings.

The wonderful Scottish Traveller story-teller and singer Duncan Williamson was once talking about the character Jack, who appeared in so many of his stories.  'Jack', said Duncan, 'was not one particular person (but rather) a piece of everyman.' Shortly afterwards I recorded the following from Duncan:

Clearly, as Duncan says, the Jack tales were 'teachings' that could be carried throughout one's life as aids and guides.  And no doubt the better the story, the easier it was to remember just what it was that was being taught.  In a way the Jack tales are similar to many children's fairy tales, stories which have evolved to help children through their early development in what can easily be seen, by them, as a very scary place indeed.

But what of the ballads?  Can we say that the same thing also applies here?  The answer is, I suppose, yes and no.  When I first heard Belle Stewart singing The False Knight Upon the Road (Child 3) I doubted if it really mattered that she was giving advice - that one should stand still if you ever met the Devil.  But, with hindsight, I am not too sure.  Belle and her family were quite happy to recount how they had seen fairies and other such beings; so why not the Devil?  And I really wondered whether or not Walter Pardon believed in the Devil when he sang me his version of The Farmer's Curst Wife (Child 278).27

However, when it comes to relationships and how we should respond to various domestic scenarios, then many of the ballads can, and indeed do, offer help and advice.  The ballads contain our collective memory.  Indeed, at times it seems strange that so much can be included in such a relatively short space.  Take, for example, the ballad of William and Lady Maisry (Child 70), a version of which I recorded from Joe Rae, under the title Sweet William and Lady Marjorie.28  According to Child the ballad has much in common with another ballad, Clerk Saunders (Child 69), except for Willie's killing of the King's guards.

Joe learnt William and Lady Marjorie from Edward 'Ned' Robertson, a retired shepherd (born c.1885) who once lived next door to Joe in the small East Ayrshire village of Sorn.  It seems that Joe was close to Ned, who also taught Joe several other songs and ballads, and no doubt Joe would remember his friend while singing those songs.  Joe remembers Ned saying that he, in turn, had learnt the ballad from his father who had picked it up in the vicinity of Selkirk, where he had once worked as a shepherd.  Today Joe believes that the ballad is set in the area around Selkirk - possibly at Thirlstane Castle, in Lauderdale, to the north-east of Selkirk - although Professor Child makes no mention of a possible location in his short note to the ballad.  It is quite common for singers, and story tellers for that matter, to locate events to nearby localities.29  In a sense, it gives the story more meaning by doing so.  But Joe also reads more into the ballad.  Here is Joe's opening verse:

Mention of a 'milk-white weed', in the second line, suggests to Joe that Willie was some kind of monk, possibly a Cistercian.  Joe, who is well-read when it comes to Scottish history, also believes that the ballad predates the middle of the fifteenth century, when it became the law in Scotland for the eldest son of a landowner to attend school.  Prior to that date, only the clergy, in general, were literate. 

So, in Joe's case, we have not only a ballad that tells of love and romance, but also one that tells of Scottish history which is set in a known place and, possibly, in a known period.  And I am certain that it helps Joe come to terms with just who he is and what his relationship is with his Scottish forefathers.  At one period of my life I lived in the Scottish Borders and many local people knew of the ballads of Johnie Armstrong (Child 169) and Kinmont Willie (Child 186).  I would frequently drive past Gilnockie Tower, Johnie's home, and, on occasion, visit the graveyard where his body now lies.  There are many other historical ballads.  Belle Stewart, for example, not only sang about The Bonnie House o'Airlie (Child 199), but she was also well aware of where the event had occurred.  When Stanley Robertson sang about The Laird o Drum (Child 236) he too was aware of Drum Castle and of the events that led up to the story that is told within the ballad.  On one occasion Stanley took me to see the Harlaw Memorial, set on a barren spot where the Battle of Harlaw took place in 1411, just to the north of present-day Inverurie in Aberdeenshire.  As we walked around the ancient site he began to sing of the battle (The Battle of Harlaw (Child 163)).  The battle may have occurred several hundred years ago, but it seemed to me, that, for Stanley, it was an event that still lived within his memory and he sang of something that was still very real to him.30

And this, I think, may be the key to understanding just why so many people have sung the ballads for such a long period of time.  There is a line in Herman Melville's great book Moby Dick which, taking about places, says, 'You won't find it on any map.  Real places never are.'  You may find Drum or Airlie Castles, Gilnockie Tower or the site of the Battle of Harlaw on maps, but these are not the real places.  Instead, for these we must look within the heart, rather than the head, to find that which we seek.  Real places abound in the ballads, which are, after all, also filled with real people.  We can sympathise with those whose sorrows we share, just as we can shout and laugh with those who find joy and true-love.  All of life's scenarios can be found there, both good and bad, and so, like Duncan Williamson and his Jack tales, we can turn to the ballads for solace, advice and hope ... and, of course, for a good story!

Mike Yates - 29.5.13


Article MT286

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