The slippery nature of folksongs

Now folksongs, being an oral tradition, are fluid and slippery things, shifting form to match place and time. They contain mnemonic tricks and formulae, as in any oral tradition, and this can lead to one story getting horribly tangled into another as singers misremember what they’ve heard (so lots of mondegreens creep in) or blend deliberately. This presents singers and anthologisers with a problem: what to include for a given audience so as not to outrage modern sensibilities or exhaust modern attention spans. As Quiller-Couch writes in his Preface to the ‘Oxford Book of Ballads’ (1910),

‘Maybe I should have resisted the temptation altogether but for the necessity – in a work intended for all sorts of readers, young and old – of removing or reducing here and there in these eight hundred and sixty five pages a coarse or a brutal phrase. To those who deny the necessity I will only answer that while no literature in the world exercises a stronger or on the whole saner fascination upon imaginative youth than do these ballads, it seems to me wiser to omit a stanza… or to modify a line… than to withhold these beautiful things altogether from boy or maid.’

To be fair to Q-C, if you compare his version of something like ‘Little Musgrave’ with those being sung today it is far bloodier than any recorded version in my collection or any live version I’ve heard. Like American film raters, it’s sex he tends to cut rather than violence. Modern folk preference is for the opposite, at least in the UK. Everything is a product of its age.

But choosing one text necessarily means excluding others. Q-C is working from the texts collected by others, mostly Child. However, where Child or Sharp meticulously recorded multiple versions collected from different sources, Q-C selects one example, or puts the ‘best bits’ together from several, as with ‘Patrick Spens’ (Child Ballad no. 58). And Child himself gave numbers to the ballads in his collection, which implies that the songs are distinct entities.  It’s impossible, however, to draw the line at which point a song stops being in essence ‘The outlandish knight/Lady Isobel and the Elf-Knight’ (Child Ballad no. 4) and becomes ‘The elven knight/Scarborough Fair’ (Child Ballad no. 2); they are at different points of a continuum. And, of course, there’s people like Rabbie Burns who rewrote old songs for their own purposes, and then got their versions remembered rather than the originals. Same happens today of course – someone influential records a song and their version is then picked up by others: you can tell who listens to who. Like species, how many there are depends if you are a ‘lumper’ or a ‘splitter’. Anyhow, there is, I’m sure, material for a cladistic analysis of the ballads and someone, somewhere has probably done one.

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