Traditional Ballads

An overview by Adelaide de Beaumont (Lisa Theriot)


What makes a ballad a ballad?


            A ballad tells a story...  Just about the only thing on which ballad scholars agree is the idea that a ballad tells a story; you can change the rhythm, melody, setting, details, virtually any element of a ballad and it remains a ballad; remove the story, and you have a song, but not a ballad. The popular music of the last few centuries is filled with "Oh, my love is so wonderful and I'm so happy" songs as well as "My baby done left me and the sheriff shot my dog" songs; either may relate events, but they cannot really be described as stories. 


            A ballad tells a story much like a newspaper article does, basically answering the questions “who, what, when, where, why and how” and not much else; for this reason, ballads frequently appear emotionless.  Consider, for example, these stanzas from Cruel Sister (Child#10):


There were two sisters in a bower

There came a knight to be their wooer

He courted one with gloves and rings

But loved the other above all things



And as they walked along the shore

The elder threw the younger o'er


            Though obviously we are going to view the elder sister as a villain (and she gets varying degrees of punishment depending on the version), there are no judgmental or emotional words to lead our feelings.  The author could have said:


There were two sisters lived in a wood

One was evil and the other was good

A knight fell in love with the girl so fair

Which made her sister tear her hair



The evil girl crept behind the good

And shoved her in the rushing flood


            The greater the emotional content of the lyric, the harder it is for an audience to listen to details.  If you want them to get every nuance of the story, and especially if you intend them to be able to turn around and perform the piece themselves, it’s better not to have such visceral lines.  The important thing to any balladeer is to get the story across, so dispassionate is better.  (For those of us who like to make our audience laugh or cry, we might bend this rule quite a bit, but it does give a piece a later feel.)


            A ballad tells a story with detachment, not only of emotion, but a certain distance as well; you can often identify later versions of ballads by the use of "I" and "my".  This is another subtle reminder that we’re meant to take the story as fact, uncolored by the speaker’s personal involvement.  Think of most ballads as the medieval equivalent of the "urban myth"; you know, "a friend of a friend of my cousin bought a Porsche for $5 because the guy who owned it dumped his wife and ran off with his secretary, then wrote the wife and told her to sell the car and send him the money..."  These are stories which we know in our hearts aren't true, but we’d like them to be, and it's so much easier to believe if you don't actually know the people involved.  Some ballads, of course, are based on actual events, though they still seem to achieve that same level of detachment.  (For a sample of ballad stories, see Appendix I: Plot Synopses and Notes for Child, Volume I.)


            A ballad has a simple melody...  Few original ballad melodies survive; however, it's easy to tell what a ballad melody could not have been, which is complex.  A difficult piece of music focuses attention on the music, or on the musician, and the ballad emphasis is always on the story.  Obviously, performers of ballads would have made changes in melodies based on their own tastes and strengths as musicians, but they would not have sacrificed the story for a nifty set of trills or high notes.  When you’re singing “fa-la-la” or “derry-derry-down”, who cares if the melody obscures the lyric?  But if your audience misses a crucial story element because you’re showing off, you’re not going to make a lot of fans.  (Ever notice that you can’t understand opera even when it’s in English? Or even most madrigals?) 


Ballad scholars, even in studying tunes collected as late as the 20th century, find that the overwhelming majority are pure modal melodies, with none of the accidentals and key changes that so often occur in modern music [1, 2].  Few traditional ballad melodies have much range to them, either.  Most traditional melodies do not extend more than a note or two beyond a single octave, if that [3].


            A ballad is rhythmically structured…  You’ve probably heard of the poetic form known as “ballad meter”; its proper name is “alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter” [4].  One example is “Amazing Grace”:


Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost but now am found

Was blind but now I see [5]


It’s known as “ballad meter” because it became the predominant meter in traditional ballads by the 16th century.  The earliest ballads, however, were written in rhyming couplets, usually of eight syllables or so, at least in English.  (It’s important to remember that over the course of the centuries from which these songs arose, modern English was developing from Middle English, and many pronunciations were changing radically, often affecting the number of syllables in a word.)  As the lines to the couplets got longer, they just naturally “wrapped around” and broke into a second line, so the couplet became a four-line stanza:


Saint Steven was a clerk in King Herod’s hall,

And served him of bread and cloth, as every king befall.


--"Saint Stephen and Herod" (Child #22)

from Sloane MS 2593, British Museum (dated to 15th c., spelling modernized for clarity)


You can see how that’s a short step from “ballad meter”:


St. Stephen was a serving-man
In Herod's royal hall.
He serv-ed him with meat and wine
That doth to kings befall.

--"Saint Stephen and Herod" (Child #22) Collected in Maine, 1942


By the 16th century, a ballad audience would expect to hear something like:


Wherefore, shoot, archers, for my sake

And let sharp arrows flee

Minstrels, play up your warison

And well quit it shall be


--"The Battle of Otterburn" (Child #161)

from Cotton MS Cleopatra C.iv, British Library (ca. 1550, spelling modernized for clarity)


So this would sound impossibly old-fashioned:


What is sharper than is the thorn?

What is louder than is the horn?


--“Riddles Wisely Expounded” (Child #1)

from Rawlinson MS D.328, Bodleian Library, Oxford (dated to 15th c., spelling modernized for clarity)


In order to make the old ballads look more like the new ballads, a “burden” (also called a “chorus”) was added in.  Burdens were lines that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the song (and in fact were used interchangeably between songs) but filled out the stanza:


Or what is louder than a horn?

Lay the bent to the bonny broom

Or what is sharper than a thorn?

Fa-la-la-la, fa-la-la-la-ra-re


--“Riddles Wisely Expounded” (Child #1) from a 17th c. broadside sheet


Note the burden lines were rarely restricted to six syllables; usually they were about the same length as the lines in the couplets, though sometimes they were longer or shorter.  (One I particularly like from another 17th century broadside is “What next? What next?,” an obvious attempt to stir up interest in the listener!)


This rhythmic bias also leads to the famous ballad phenomenon that all horses are either milk-white, snow-white, coal-black, etc.  From the late 15th century on, English had settled into the “iambic” rhythm:  an iamb is a two-syllable poetic “foot” where the beat falls as it does in the words “belong” and “above”.  (If you don’t believe you actually talk this way, try saying “I think he went to Wal-Mart yesterday” and marvel at your perfect iambic pentameter.)  “White horse” is two stressed syllables, but “a snow-white horse” alternates stressed and unstressed syllables such that the phrase fits nicely into the standard rhythm.


From the earliest specimens up to modern forms, ballads retain a strong rhythmic structure, which is why they so often turn up as examples in poetry textbooks (credited, of course, to the prolific “Anonymous”).


            A ballad is often repetitive...  Because ballads were not (until late 1500s) generally written down, a balladeer needed as many memory cues as possible, and this need was filled by repetition.  As we’ve just seen, a ballad may have a burden line or chorus (a metric or rhyming line which stays the same for every verse); they might also have a refrain, a line or set of lines repeated between each verse or at the beginning and end of a piece.  (I know, we call that a chorus now.  We’re horrible about messing with our language, aren’t we?)  A balladeer sought to make the story as accessible as possible; the repetition which allowed him to turn a few couplets into a lengthier piece also allowed people to learn it more easily.  In addition, he would have probably used existing tunes with little or no change so that people could sing along right away.


Ballads also contain a lot of conventional phraseology: you can bet “our gallant ship” is going to spin around three times before she sinks.  Many ballads re-use chunks from other stories.  Any story ending in the deaths of two lovers will have a version somewhere that includes a rose growing from one grave and a briar from the other.  Most ballads where a person dies a lingering death have versions which feature the "will" discussion ("What will you leave to your father dear?").  Any ballad character that leaves on a journey will be asked when they are coming home.  Most testing songs will have the same riddles employed.  Many start with setting the season (“It fell about the Martinmas time”).  When you want a piece to seem familiar to your audience, why re-invent the wheel?


This also proved a boon when it came to creating a ballad, which was a good thing because the creators weren't necessarily very learned.  Which brings us to...


Who wrote the ballads?


            Ballads are folk-music largely because they were written by the “folk”...  This is a British/Germanic bias on my part, but then most of the ballads we are discussing come from this stock.  Many of the French troubadours and trouveres were nobility and they wrote some ripping tales, several of which were later turned into British ballads.  (The English, after all, have a fine plagiaristic tradition from Chaucer to Shakespeare!)  The authors of British ballads weren’t so famous.  By the time a story-song has been subjected to decades, if not centuries, of oral tradition, who can say who “wrote” which part?  It’s tough to conceive in our modern world of copyrights and royalties that no one actually cared about getting the credit, but even if they did, how do you credit many?  Not one of the traditional ballads known as “Child ballads” can be credited to a single author in its oldest form.


The main reason songs like "Greensleeves" have been handed down pretty much unaltered from their original form was that they were printed as soon as they were written.  But even those rare ballads which we have in written form from periods near their creation are virtually all without credit as to authorship.  (Many of the later collections credit performers of traditional works, but the performers do not lay claim to authorship.)  Maybe the work was considered too vulgar; many troubadours wrote under pseudonyms, fearing they would be ridiculed for writing such scurrilous stuff.  Maybe the ballads were just considered community property.  Whatever the reason, it’s virtually impossible to put one name to any traditional ballad.


Where were ballads made?


            Wherever there are “folk”...  As I mentioned earlier, the story-song belongs to the areas of Europe where oral tradition is the strongest, namely within the peoples of early Britain, Northern Europe, and Scandinavia.  These are people whose history was predominantly oral; they were accustomed to listening for content, unlike cultures whose idea of music was primarily one of entertainment.  In any culture where the literacy rate is low, you can bet they pass on their favorite stories orally.  So why do we focus on British and Scandinavian ballads so much?  Because there was no analog to F.J. Child of which I am aware to make folk ballads of Southern and Eastern European cultures an important area of study.  (Plus, there might be a fabulous collection of Polish folk ballads written by some nice Polish fellow, but I don’t read Polish.)  Child was actually quite determined in citing foreign examples of songs with common story elements to most of his ballads, and he does often find versions in French, Spanish, etc.


When were ballads made?


            The heyday of the ballad was from about 1200 - 1700...  The oldest English ballad is "Judas" (Child #23), which is found in a manuscript from the 13th century (Trinity College, Cambridge, B.14.39).  "Saint Stephen and Herod" (Child #22) can be found in the Sloane Manuscript (British Museum Library), while "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child #1) can be found in the Rawlinson Manuscript (D.328, Bodleian Library, Oxford), both dating from the 15th century.  Several other ballads, Child and otherwise, can be found in pre-1600 manuscript evidence, and many more can be identified with lines or story elements dating near or even well before 1600.  Few traditional ballads have no close cousins (either closely related stories or versions from other countries) dated before the early 18th century.  In fact, the folk process in major cities had stopped long before that; cheap printing and a rise in literacy made broadsides so available that it was easy to get a copy of the “right” words, and oral transmission slowed to a trickle.


The main problem with finding early forms of ballads is the fact that the ballads themselves were just not considered very important.  Most surviving ballads are incidental to the text of the manuscript rather than being the main feature.  So how do we go about dating a ballad?  Let’s look at “Barbara Allen” (Child #84), for example:


Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary on January 2, 1666, “In perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing (Mrs. Knipp, an actress), and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen...”  But the first full text of the song wasn’t printed until 1740.  A tune was also printed in 1740, but it wasn’t associated with the lyric until 1790.  The tune most people sing wasn’t published until 1850.  So how old is the song?  You see the problem.


 Many ballads were preserved almost by accident.  Bishop Percy published Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765 based primarily on a manuscript dated ca. 1650, which he recovered from the home of his friend, William Pitt (the Elder).  Pitt’s maids were using the manuscript pages as kindling to light fires.  There were 191 ballads and fragments when he got to it; how much did we lose in order to warm someone's backside?  (If I ever meet Pitt in the afterlife, I have a few choice words for him!)


Even when we have undeniably period texts, there’s still a problem:  the very oldest ballads are in Middle English, and few of us really want to perform them.  After all, if the whole idea is to get the story across and your audience doesn’t understand Middle English, what’s the point?  The latest documentably period pieces (in what we might call Elizabethan English) still sound stilted and unlovely to us.  Thus we are left with the basic argument regarding ballad dating:  while we can prove beyond doubt that ballad stories, ballad structure, and in some cases the texts themselves are pre-1600; the modern English versions which most of us choose to perform are definitely dated to the 1700s and later.  I could take a Middle English text, set it to a period tune, and have a 100% documentably period piece, but I wonder how many people would want to hear it?


Here’s some sample language from old ballads:


Hit wes upon a Scere-þorsday þat ure loverd aros;

Ful mild were þe words he spec to Judas.

"Judas, þou most of Jurselem, oure mete for to bugge;

þritti platen of selver þou bere upo þi rugge.


--"Judas" (Child #23)

from MS B.14.39, Trinity College, Cambridge (dated to 13th c.)


Seynt Steuene was a clerk in kyng Herowdes halle,

And seruyd him of bred and cloþ, as euery kyng befalle.

Steuyn out of kechone cam, wyth boris hed on honde;

He saw a steere was fayr and bryzt ouer bedlem stonde.


--"Saint Stephen and Herod" (Child #22)

from Sloane MS 2593, British Museum (dated to 15th c.)


Wol ze here a wonder thynge

Betwyxt a mayd and þe fovle fende?

Thys spake þe fend to þe mayd,

"Beleue on me, mayd, to day.

Mayd, mote y thi leman be,

Wyssedom y wolle teche the."


--“Riddles Wisely Expounded” (Child #1)

from Rawlinson MS D. 328, Bodleian Library, Oxford (dated to 15th c.)


In Middle English, the vowel sounds are different and you typically pronounce the <e> at the end of words (the ale you drink sounds like “Allah”), so not only do these not look like English, they don’t sound like it, either.


            In examples where we have versions dated before and after the 1600 limit line, we can see that near-1600 language was becoming comprehensible to a modern audience, but definitely wasn’t there yet:


The Persë owt off Northombarlonde,                                      The stout Erle of Northumberland

     and avowe to God mayd he                                                                 a vow to God did make

That he wold hunte in the mowntayns                                     His pleasure in the Scottish woods

     off Chyviat within days thre,                                                          three sommers days to take

In the magger of doughtë Dogles,

     and all that euer with him be.                                                          --“The Hunting of the Cheviot”

from Percy MSS, Harvard, (ca. 1650)

--"The Hunting of the Cheviot" (Child #162)

from MS Ashmole 48, Bodleian Library, Oxford (ca. 1550)


Yt fell abowght the Lamasse tyde,                               It fell about the Lammas tide,

Whan husbondes wynnes ther haye,                            When the muir-men win their hay,

The dowghtye Dowglasse bowynd hym to ryde,                     The doughty Douglas bound him to ride

In Ynglonde to take a praye.                                        Into England, to drive a prey.


--"The Battle of Otterburn" (Child #161)                                 --“The Battle of Otterburn"

from Cotton MS Cleopatra C.iv, British Library (ca.1550)      from Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders, 1833


A lot of archaic language persists, especially in rhyming lines:


Kinge Arthur liues in merry Carleile, and seemly is to see,

And there he hath with him Queene Genever, that bride soe bright of blee.


--"The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (Child #31)

from Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1765 (based on MS dated 1650)


Do you tell the audience that “blee” here means “eye”?  Or do you assume they’ll get it?  Or do you figure it’s not very important?  A ballad performer is constantly forced to choose between authenticity and preserving the comprehensibility of the material, let alone pleasing an audience.


            Further confusion erupts when people use the term "traditional" beyond its application to ballads.  Material, usually songs or rhymes, credited as "traditional" can mean any or all of the following:


            a) Everyone knows it, and it's been around for years (like 50 at least).


            b) Either we don't know who wrote it, or we know, but he's dead and no one has any right to claim royalties as his heirs.  This is the definition of a much more specific term, "public domain"; because this is a term in law, publishers do not use it lightly, so for anything listed as "public domain" you can be fairly certain that your use of it is safe.  (Beware the recently deceased --most copyrights now run for the life of the artist plus 70 years.)


            c) The editor of the source book did not know the author and was too lazy to try to find out (or believed in good faith that it really was an old piece).


            Before you perform a piece credited as traditional, you need to do a little research to discover which definition of traditional was used, and whether it is true.  There are many sloppily researched folk song books available which list songs as traditional that are not.  A good test is to look for "The Whistling Gypsy Rover" (you know, ah-dee-doo-ah-dee-doo-dah-day); if it's listed as "traditional" or "adapted from Child #200", take everything the book says with a grain of salt, because you've already caught them in one error.  If it's listed as "copyright Leo Maguire, Waltons Music, Dublin, all rights reserved" you are safer trusting the book.


            Another fly in the ointment is the fact that our forebears liked to hearken back to bygone days as much as we do.  Some Scottish ballads (such as The Battle of Otterburn, Child #161, and The Hunting of the Cheviot, Child #162) not only detail period events, but they are documented to period by manuscript evidence.  Some Scottish songs by Burns and his contemporaries also detail period events, but date from 1750 onward.  (The Scots were pretty downtrodden about then and they loved to talk about the gude auld days when they could regularly kick English butts.)


The same is true of the Irish: A song considered a standard in the SCA, “Follow Me Up to Carlow”, details the events in the Battle of Glenmalure, which happened in 1580, but it was written by Patrick Joseph McCall (1861-1919), so it’s not even close to period.  (I love it.  I sing it.  So sue me.)  You can tell, upon inspection, that “Carlow” doesn’t fit the ballad mold.  It doesn’t actually relate the particulars of the battle, or the events leading up to it; it’s really more a pep rally, an attempt to fire up the troops.  So it’s not necessarily modern in concept, since the “Saint Crispin’s Day” speech from Henry V is pretty much the same thing, but it’s definitely not a ballad.


            So is it period?  As I mentioned above, although Child was gathering his ballads in the 1800s, many came from manuscript evidence and are demonstrably period.  Many are NOT.  Ballads known as broadsides (small leaflets on which the lyrics were printed) abound; a few date to period, most date from 1600-1700 and later.  A little research will reveal if a specific piece is likely to be period or not.  Here’s a hint: songs with few versions are usually later, since they appeared in print shortly after their creation.  If you can only find a couple versions, and the changes between versions are limited to names of characters, names of ships, and place-names, you're probably looking at a late piece.


Even if you cannot document a piece itself as period, you can document lyrical components (the story), style, etc. as long as you avoid the blatantly post-1600 stuff.  Scrutinize the lyrics-- does that sound like a description of events or life in period, or an expression of a period belief? Then it probably is, or was in some earlier version.  Only you can decide where to draw the authenticity line.


            The ballad narrative style, the facts-only cut-to-the-chase style, is ancient in England, Scotland and Scandinavia.  The oral story tradition incorporated this style, and the "folk" involvement became crucial to preserve English after the Norman Conquest, when the court language became French for more than a century.  Chaucer's publication of the Canterbury Tales in English brought the language out of the closet for good, causing English tales to flourish.  Ironically, the rise of literacy and the availability of printed matter at the end of the sixteenth century spelled the end for the folk tradition, because the pieces were written down and widely disseminated, and the subtle changes which resulted from fallible memories ceased to occur.  The folk process did continue for awhile in Scotland and America, where literacy rates were lower and the remote places still did not have access to printed material, but by the time Child and his cronies were collecting ballads in the 1800s, the process had slowed to a crawl.




            Why do we describe most traditional ballads as "Child Ballads"?  F.J. Child was a very anal-retentive man who lived in the 1800s and thought it would be a good idea to write down every possible ballad he could find, and catalog them by major story elements.  Was this a good idea?  Maybe, because not only does much of our knowledge of ballads today rely on Child's work, but it is infinitely easier to talk about a ballad by number than rely on titles which change from version to version (in folk tradition, no one would have mentioned titles, but once songs were being written down, you began to see changes, especially in the ballads which are named for main characters-- Child #12 is usually called "Lord Randal", but there are other versions called "Lord Donald", "Lord Rowlande", "King Henry" [which is especially confusing as Child #32 is usually known as King Henry and it has nothing to do with Child #12], "Billy, My Son", etc.).


            Many scholars praise Child for his "amazing" thoroughness since few traditional ballads have been discovered subsequently which he "missed"; since, as I mentioned earlier, the folk process had practically halted by this time, it shouldn't be surprising that he was able to get most of them.  If Child had been collecting a few hundred years earlier, he likely would have found far fewer than the 305 ballads he did catalog, because there are sets of different Child ballads which appear to have come, at some point in their development, from a common story.  For example, the "loathly lady" ballads:


            Child #31, The Marriage of Sir Gawain.  Arthur is saved from certain death by a hideous woman, who demands that one of Arthur's knights marry her as a reward; Gawain volunteers, and later discovers that when he allows the woman her own way, she turns into a beauty.


            Child #32, King Henry.  Henry's castle is attacked by a hideous woman, who demands meat and drink, and finally the pleasures of Henry's bed; Henry gives her everything she asks for, and in the morning she has turned into a beauty.


            Child #33, Kempy Kay.  Kempy, a bum, falls in love with a hag.  They live ickily ever after.


            Child #34, Kemp Owyne.  Kemp Owyne encounters a hideous woman who gives him magic gifts in return for kisses; after enough (usually three) kisses, she turns into a beauty.


            Child #35, Allison Gross.  The unnamed hero encounters a hideous woman who promises him magic gifts in return for kisses; he refuses, and she turns him into a beast (he gets better).


            It’s plausible to suppose that these sprang from a common story, an allegory for treating your woman right: she can be a beast when crossed, but when allowed her own way and given plenty of loving, she will become a treasure who will make your life wonderful.  (Well, it's true, isn't it?)  #31 and #32 differ only in the cloak of chivalry laid over the former, not surprising in that #31 is English and #32 is Norse (in their oldest forms).  The story was known to Chaucer:  “The Marriage of Sir Gawain” appears as “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales.  #34 and #35 differ only in the response, and accordingly the reward, of the hero.  #33 is an aberration, a humorous upside-down version of the story, and indeed this is the most modern of the five, dating from the early 19th century.


            Child also seems to have forgotten some of his catalog in later days, because he has a lot of duplication between early numbers and late numbers.  "Child Waters" (Child #63) is identical in virtually every way to "The False Lover Won Back" (Child #218):  A pregnant girl is abandoned by her lover, who declares that he will marry another.  He rides off, she follows, asking for his love.  At or near the time of the birth, he relents and agrees to marry her.  Child was often quoted as saying that "Child Waters" was his favorite ballad, so we could think that he wanted it to have its own number, except that he does the same thing with "Fair Janet" (Child #64) and "Lord Salton and Anachie Gordon" (Child #239):  A girl (who may or may not have had an illegitimate child) is told to renounce her low-born lover in favor of a marriage to a rich lord.  She agrees that her father can force her to marry, but declares that she will not go to bed with the new husband.  On the wedding day, she dies of grief, and her lover turns up to kiss her and then he dies of grief as well.


            On the other hand, Child dismissed highly variant versions as "the same" in terms of his numbering.  "Glasgerion" (Child #67) has hugely different versions:  the basic story is that the king's harper so impresses a lady that she invites him to her bedchamber later that night.  The harper decides to take a nap and asks his page to wake him at the proper time.  The page, of course, goes to the lady himself (one supposes it was too dark for her to realize the difference).  The versions disperse at this point; when the harper wakes, he goes to the lady and:


a) the lady, on finding she has slept with a mere page, replies that she is so shamed that she must die, and kills herself, at which point the harper kills the page and then himself;


b) the lady decides that she likes the page and throws the harper out;


c) the lady decides that it was a fine joke and they all have a good laugh together.


Depending on which denouement you choose, this piece can be a comedy of errors, a romance, or a Greek tragedy.  Since most ballad scholars agree that the defining characteristic of a ballad is a narrative which skips most of the incidentals and goes straight to the conflict-resolution portion of the story, wouldn't you think that drastically different resolutions would rate their own number?


            Another such song is "The Three Ravens" or "The Twa Corbies" (Child #26).  In the "Three Ravens" version, the birds comment that they can't eat the dead knight because his hawk, hound, and lady are guarding the body; they end by praising such steadfastness.  In the "Twa Corbies" version, the birds discuss their upcoming meal which will be easily had as the dead knight's hawk, hound, and lady have all gone off to amuse themselves elsewhere; they end by describing a lonely, nameless death.  How can a treatise on loyalty and one on cynicism be considered the same story?


            Perhaps Child's best virtue was that he did not change the songs he found.  Most of the other great ballad collectors (Bishop Percy, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Jamieson) were frustrated by partial texts and poor style so they "fixed" the ballads before they were published, thereby corrupting the original material; fortunately, in some cases later scholars went back and restored the original version.  Even very early sources dealing with ballads can be unreliable if the "editor" couldn't resist being an author; beware in your ballad research that you get versions from reliable sources!  [The books listed in the reference section are excellent except for Percy.]


            Are Scottish versions or English versions typically older?  The answer varies from ballad to ballad.  Sometimes the source material is a clue.  If the underlying story is of Scottish origin, like the “Battle of Otterburn”, the Scottish version will most likely be older.  Many of the ballads which come from Scandinavian stories are older in the Scottish versions as well, because the Norse influence lasted so much longer in parts of Scotland than it did in England.  Supernatural ballads were banned by law in England during the reign of Henry VIII, so Scottish versions are typically superior for that genre [6].  Classical or biblical stories, like “Judas”, or stories from a well-known written source, such as the Decameron, are frequently older in the English version.  Likewise an English story, like “The Death of Queen Jane.” 


Scotland’s geography is such that some parts remain fairly remote even to this day, allowing the “folk process” to carry on a lot longer than in most parts of England.  There are also features unique to Scotland; in the Northern Isles (Orkneys and Shetlands), for example, ballads have been collected consisting of couplets in English interspersed with burden lines in Norn, a form of Norse [7].


            Why do we want to study and preserve ballads?  Because not only were they the entertainment of choice for most people for most of our period, but they are unique in that they still sound good to us today (take that, court musicians!).  Folk musicians still draw on the stories and style of traditional ballads.  The modern difference is that we now choose to evoke emotion from our listeners.  We have become more poets and performers than mere vessels for the story. 


When I sing, I am more concerned that the listener leave with feelings in their heart and pictures in their head than that they can turn around and sing the song for someone else, because anyone who wants to learn the song can ask me for the words or record my performance.  I admit that I rewrite the lyrics to most of the traditional ballads I perform, and add bits where I feel a lack.  Hey, it’s traditional!  But I encourage all new balladeers to go back to the best (oldest) source they can find and make their own changes.  That way, you’ll know exactly where and why your version differs from mine, and from the version produced by our nameless forebears.  We owe a debt to the "folk" who felt a greater need to preserve the stories than to preserve their own fame; if we choose to alter those songs to our own ends, at least we should give a kind thought to our teachers and remember we are stealing from the best.


How do I get started?


            You have! Now get thee to a library (the bigger, the better-- universities are great), and look up "ballads, traditional" and go from there.  Haunt used record shops and eBay for old folk albums (yes, those are black things that look like big CDs).  Many 60's folkies did pretty high-quality traditional stuff, and there are many traditional artists like Jean Redpath and Jean Ritchie whose work isn’t widely available on CD.


Ballad resources online, like all online resources, are wonderful for the lazy, but equally fraught with peril. is loaded with lyrics, and most songs have a midi attached so you can hear the tune.  They sometimes include good information.  They sometimes also include bad information, and often neglect to mark songs which are under modern active copyright. is much better researched, but far less prolific.  Cantaria ( is also a good learning resource, though not all songs feature much in the way of notes.  If you go to a site called something like “Big Al’s Real Old Time Ballads”, don’t be surprised if they tell you that “A Hard Day’s Night” is based on a traditional ballad.  Use online resources to supplement your reading, not replace it (because print publishers have standards and most web publishers don’t!).


Read a lot, listen a lot, play around with different versions, mix and match the bits you like best.  Get to know the songs and make them your own.


"O fare you well, my good friends all,"

 The lady sang but sweetly

"O fare you well, as well fare I

I leave you all compleatly."







Bronson, Bertrand Harris.  The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads, paperback, Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1976.


Chappell, William, _Old English Popular Music_ (a new edition, with a preface and notes and the earlier examples entirely revised by H. Ellis Wooldridge), New York, 1961 [originally published 1838].
Child, Francis James,  The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 vols.,  NY:  Cooper Square Publications, 1965 [originally published 1882-88].

Hodgart, M. J. C., The Ballads, Hutchinson House, London, 1950.


Leach, MacEdward.  The Ballad Book,  NY:  A. S. Barnes, 1955.


Lyle, E. B., editor, Ballad Studies, D.S. Brewer Ltd., Cambridge, 1976.


Percy, Thomas.  Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3 vols. (paperback),  NY:  Dover, 1966 [originally published 1886].



[1]  A mode is a type of scale.  The most common modes for tunes to traditional ballads are Ionian, Dorian, Aeolian and Mixolydian.  Ionian mode is identical with a modern major scale; Aeolian is identical with a modern minor scale.  Dorian mode is similar to Aeolian, but with a sharped 6th.  Mixolydian is similar to Ionian, but with a flatted 7th.  In a ballad tune in C Ionian, you would expect to see only the natural notes, C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, and no half-tones like F# or Bb.


[2]  Bronson, p. xli, notes that of over 4000 traditional melodies he analyzed, only about 6% had accidentals.  Accidentals are notes used either sharped or flatted when the natural note has already been used (or is the expected note for the mode of the song).  A common modern example is the American tune to “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: the opening line “O little town…” is sung (in C major) as E-E-E-Eb.  You can’t have both E and Eb in any natural mode.  There is no pure scale in which you can get that interval without an accidental.  The most common accidental Bronson found was at the 7th, like you find in some versions of “Greensleeves”.


[3]  Guido d’Arezzo, Micrologus, written ca. 1025-1028.  Arezzo detailed the structure of Gregorian chant music based on the notion of a hexachord, or the first six notes in the given modal scale.  Most chant melodies did not stray beyond that six-note range.


[4]  That’s lines of four “feet” of two-syllables where the beat falls as it does in the words “belong” and “above” alternating with lines of three similar feet, resulting in eight syllables alternating with six syllables.


[5]  You’ve probably heard the joke that you can sing the theme to “Gilligan’s Island” to the tune of “Amazing Grace” and vice versa; that’s because they’re both written in alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter.


[6]  Chappell, pp. 54-55 cites an act passed in 1543 as follows:

“An Act for the advancement of true religion, and for the abolishment of the contrary... froward and malicious minds, intending to subvert the true exposition of Scripture, have taken upon them, by printed ballads, rhymes, &c., subtilly and craftily to instruct his highness’ people, and specially the youth of this realm, untruly.  For reformation whereof, his majesty considereth it most requisite to purge his realm of all such books, ballads, rhymes, and songs, as be pestiferous and noisome.  Therefore, if any printer shall print, give, or deliver any such, he shall suffer for the first time imprisonment for three months, and forfeit for every copy 10L., and for the second time, forfeit all his goods and his body be committed to perpetual prison.”


Chappell notes that “the persecution ended with the accession of Elizabeth, but the educated classes did not again bestow their patronage upon this kind of amusement...”


[7]  Child’s example for #19 “King Orfeo” (vol. I, p. 217) runs:


Der lived a king inta da aste

Scowan ürla grün

Der lived a lady in da wast

Whar giorten han grün oarlae


The Ds are probably errors for the Norse/Old English character thorn, or þ, making the words “there” and “the”.  The burden lines translate, respectively, as “the grove greens early” and “where the hart goes yearly”.

Appendix I: Plot Synopses and Notes for Child, Volume 1



1.         Riddles Wisely Expounded      Rawlinson ms.D.328, before 1445      testing song      J


A man asks riddles of a maiden, which she correctly answers (the oldest version is a challenge from the Devil to a virgin; in later versions the man uses the riddles to test the maiden's suitability for marriage).


2.         The Elfin Knight          b/s 1673; “Gesta Romanorum” c. 1300                       testing song   KJ


            The impossible tasks, aka “Scarborough Faire”.  A man vows marriage only if the woman can complete several impossible tasks; in response, she sets him several impossible tasks to illustrate that she doesn't want him after all.  In some versions, her quick wit impresses the guy, usually a king, and he marries her.


3.         False Knight on the Road                     after 1825                                testing song      J


            Young man encounters the devil, but manages to hold onto his soul through some snappy wordplay.  The notion that you can defeat demons, witches, and evil spirits by wordplay is pan-European, noted from Apollonius of Tyana to Martin Luther.


4.         Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight            b/s Spain, 1550; b/s Germany 1560     murder             J


            Man charms lady into accompanying him to the greenwood (in the oldest version, an Elf Knight casts a spell on the lady; later versions feature a mortal man using charm alone), where he reveals that he has murdered several other ladies.  Lady tricks man (either charms him to sleep or convinces him to turn his back) and kills him.  Versions of this ballad exist throughout Europe; it has been compared to “Judith and Holofernes” as well as the various “Bluebeard” stories.


5.         Gil Brenton                                          1783; ms. Sweden, 1572         testing song      J


            The Prince of Faerie (Gil Brenton) seeks a bride; he tests for virginity first and has rejected and shamed several women already.  Lady presents herself; she is also found to be no virgin, but she reveals to the Queen of Faerie by love-tokens that the prince himself took her maidenhead.  They are married, and the birth of the child magically proves out her story.


6.         Willie's Lady                            1783; ms. Danish 16th c.                                  spell breaking           J


            Willie's lady is in labor, but cannot bear the child because Willie's mother, who hates her daughter-in-law, has cast a spell to make her die in childbed.  Willie tricks his mother (by pretending the child has been born) into revealing the secret of the spell, which he then breaks.  The child is born and all turns out fine.


7.         Earl Brand                               1803; 1857; ms. Danish 16th c.                        abduction         L


            Earl Brand abducts a lady; her father and brothers come after.  The father and most of the brothers are slain, but Earl Brand is mortally wounded (optional elements: Earl Brand is invincible until the lady speaks his name, which then allows the last brother to slay him; Earl Brand takes the lady to his mother and begs that she be married to his brother).


8.         Erlinton                        1803; “Waltherius”, 10th c. Latin/German        abduction      J


            Erlinton abducts a lady; her father and brothers come after.  The brothers are slain, but Erlinton extorts a fortune away from the father and the two ride off (the lady having decided that Erlinton is hot).


9.         Fair Flower of Northumberland                       1633 (“9th ed.”, 1st ed. 1597)   romance           L


            Handsome lord in dungeon pledges love to jailer's daughter, convincing her to release him.  Once free, he rides away with her in tow; when they arrive at his home, he admits to being a married man and dumps her.


10.       Cruel Sister                                          b/s, 1656                                  murder                         JKL


            A knight woos two sisters and affiances one; the other kills her sister (pushes her into the river to drown) out of jealousy (optional elements: a miller has the chance to save the drowning girl, but instead robs her and throws her back in; the living sister marries the knight and her crime is revealed at the wedding feast by a magic harp which two minstrels have made from the dead girl's remains; the evil sister is killed)


11.       Cruel Brother                                       1776                                        murder                      L


            A knight woos several sisters and affiances one; the girl asks permission from every member of her family except her brother, and consequently the brother stabs her on her wedding day.  The dying girl makes a will wherein she disposes of her possessions to her family and curses her brother for the murder (optional: the girl also curses her brother's wife and children).  Similar to German ballad “Graf Friedrich” from a broadside dated 1535, though in that story the brother kills the bride unintentionally.


12.       Lord Randal                                         1803; b/s Italy, 1629                murder                      L


            A young man comes home feeling ill; upon questioning him, his mother learns that he has been to see a woman (usually his sweetheart) who has fed him dinner (usually snakes or eels) which was evidently poisoned.  He makes a "will" statement similar to that of the imminently deceased girl from "Cruel Brother".


13.       Edward                                                            Percy Reliques, 1765               murder                      L


            A young man comes home with a bloody sword, and his mother inquires from whence came the blood.  After several lame excuses (which the mother discounts at each turn), he admits to killing his brother (or father or sister).  The mother asks what punishment he will endure for this; the young man agrees to banish himself forever.  There follows the "will" statement from #11.


14.       Babylon (The Bonnie Banks o Fordie)                        1800s                           murder       L


            Three sisters are traveling through the woods, when they are accosted by a man (who has been banished there).  He asks the first and later the second to marry him; when they refuse, he kills them.  The third warns him that their brother will be revenged upon him; she reveals her brother's name as Babylon, which is (of course) the bandit himself.  He commits suicide out of grief for having killed his sisters (in some versions, the third girl kills the bandit and the relationship is not revealed).  Similar to Swedish version from “the last half of the 17th c.”


15.       Leesome Brand                                                1825                                        tragedy                      LLL


            A lady is discovered to be with child by a lowborn man; they flee to avoid punishment.  While journeying, the lady goes into labor; she sends the man for water (mostly so he won't see her give birth) and while he is gone, she gives birth and dies.  A bird magically tells the man that the lady and child (or children) are dead, and he returns to find it so.  He buries the dead, but in his grief still hears their cries from the grave, so he kills himself.  Two Danish versions dated c. 1570.


16.       Sheath and Knife                                 1825                                        incest, murder  LL


            A lady is pregnant by her brother.  He kills her to avoid discovery, and then (of course) can't stand the guilt and so kills himself.

17.       Hind Horn                               English geste c. 1300               token romance                      J


            A young man goes away, having been given a ring by his love which will darken if her love grows cold.  When the ring darkens, he returns to find her marrying another.  He assumes a beggar's rags to enter the castle (to beg alms) and shows her the token.  She chucks the new man and runs off with Hind Horn.


18.       Sir Lionel                                 Percy ms. c. 1650                    fantasy romance       J


            Sir Lionel meets a lady whose knight has been slain by a boar; he kills the boar, and is then accosted by a giant, the boar's owner, who challenges Sir Lionel to combat.  Sir Lionel triumphs and rides off with the lady.


19.       King Orfeo                              1880; ms. 14th c.                     fantasy romance/abduction      J


            King Orfeo goes out hunting, leaving his lady alone and unprotected (variant: the lady has a dream in which the Fairy King threatens to kidnap her; Orfeo sets guards but the abduction succeeds anyway).  The King of the Underworld happens by and abducts her; Orfeo journeys to the Underworld (after living as a hermit for awhile) and harps for the king, who is so moved by the performance that he grants Orfeo any payment he desires.  Naturally, he desires his lady back.  Happy-ending version of the classical “Orpheus and Eurydice”.


20.       Cruel Mother                                       1776                            tragedy/murder                     L


            An unwed mother gives birth and kills the baby (or babies).  Later she sees a beautiful child and comments that she wishes the child were hers, at which time the child reveals itself as a vision of the murdered baby (optional: she asks the child to describe her death and penance, includes several verses from Child #21).


21.       The Maid and the Palmer         Percy ms. c. 1650; John 4:16-19                     cautionary tale                      K


            A young woman is at a well, when a beggar asks if she has a cup from which she can give him a drink.  When she says no, the beggar comments that her lover could give her a cup.  When she claims to have no lover, the beggar calls her a liar and points out her illegitimate children (both living and dead).  Having figured out that the beggar is really a prophet, she asks him to describe her penance.  Similar to Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, though Jesus comments that the Samaritan woman has known many men, not that she has borne many illegitimate children.


22.       Saint Stephen and Herod                     Sloane MS. 2593, c. 1450        miracle                         K


            Stephen is a servant in Herod's hall; he declares to Herod that he is leaving to worship the babe born in Bethlehem.  Herod asks Stephen if he hasn't his every want fulfilled, but Stephen replies that the Christ child shall fill all his needs.  When Herod scoffs that this is about as likely as his roast chicken crowing, the bird leaps off his plate and cries "Christus natus est".  Herod orders Stephen to be driven out and stoned.


23.       Judas                                                   13th c. ms. (bible)                    Bible story    K


            Judas denies having been paid to betray Christ, but he is found out when he falls asleep.  Also includes Peter's defense of Christ and Christ's warning about denying him three times before the cock crows.


24.       Bonnie Annie                                      1827 (bible)                             retribution        K


            Annie gets pregnant by a sea captain who instructs her to steal her father’s gold and run away with him.  While sailing, the ship begins to founder, and the crew cast stones to see who is the cursed person aboard (of course, it’s Annie).  She is put overboard; her body comes to shore and is buried by the captain after the ship arrives safely.  Most of the story is identical with Jonah 1:3-15.


25.       Willie's Lyke-Wake                 1828; 16th c. Danish ms.                      romantic comedy         J


            Willie is in love but the girl won't accept his proposal, so he fakes his own death and when the distraught girl shows up for the lyke-wake (watching the body before the burial) Willie nabs her and declares that she'll only go home married and pregnant.


26.       Three Ravens                           Melismata, 1611; 1803                        etude on death, loyalty         JL


            Two or three carrion fowl debate about eating a man newly slain in battle (romantic version: the man's hawks and hounds prevent the birds despoiling the body, and the lover dies of grief; cynical version: the man's hawks and hounds abandon the body, the lover finds a new man, and the birds dine to their heart's content).  Unusually, the romantic version predates the cynical version by 200 years.


27.       The Whummil Bore                             1825                            whining stalker                        K


            A king’s servant spies on the princess for years through a spy-hole; when discovered, he is thrown out.


28.       Burd Ellin and Young Tamlane                       1824                            jilting                           K


            Fragment similar to Tam Lin/Great Silkie; lady is twisting thread, her lover (Tamlane) arrives and refuses to rock the (presumably his) baby, saying he’s already rocked his share and more.  He goes to sea.


29.       The Boy and the Mantle                      Lai du Corn, 12th c.; Cort Mantel, 13th c.        testing song      K


            A child appears in Arthur's court with a magic mantle which will cover a faithful wife but leave an unfaithful wife naked; he also possesses a magic drinking horn which will spill the wine from the lips of a cuckold.  Chaos ensues.


30.       King Arthur and King Cornwall                       Percy ms. c. 1650, 12th c. poem                       fantasy             K


            Arthur is polishing the round table when Guinevere tells him of a better one, belonging to the fabulously wealthy King of Cornwall.  Arthur and several knights disguise themselves as palmers and visit the king, who turns out to be a sorcerer with a seven-headed fire-breathing pet.  Arthur kills the king.  The particulars are from “Charlemagne’s Journey to Jerusalem and Constantinople” (12th c.) and “Galien” (15th c. romance).


31.       The Marriage of Sir Gawain     Percy ms., c. 1650; Chaucer, 14th c.    fantasy romance       J


            King Arthur loses a fight and must answer a riddle ("What is it that women desire above all else?") or forfeit his life.  As the appointed time nears and he despairs, the answer ("To have her own way") is given him by a horribly ugly woman, who demands the hand of one of his knights in payment.  Gawain marries the hag, only to find her beautiful when they reach the bedchamber.  She tells him that she can be beautiful by day OR by night, but not both, and asks him to choose which he prefers.  When he says that it shall be whatever SHE desires, the spell is broken and she is beautiful all the time.  Appears in “The Canterbury Tales” as “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”.


32.       King Henry                  1801; Hro/lfr Kraki’s saga, 14th c.       fantasy romance       J


            Henry is at dinner when in walks a hideous giantess, who demands Henry's dinner, then "more meat", namely Henry's hounds, hawks, and his horse.  She then demands that the dead horse's skin be stitched up and filled with wine, then demands that Henry take her to bed.  In the morning, Henry finds himself next to a beautiful woman; he has broken the spell on her by giving her everything she asked for.  (In the saga, it’s just an old woman who asks to sleep in the king’s bed.)


33.       Kempy Kay                                         1817                            fantasy romance          J


            KK, no prize himself, woos and wins an ugly slattern.  They have disgusting sex (graphic description of their drool).


34.       Kemp Oweyne             1776; 16th c. Danish ms.                                  fantasy romance       J        

            A lady is enchanted by her step-mother and turned into a hag; she can only be freed from the spell by three kisses from the hero, Kemp Oweyne.  When Kemp Oweyne meets the hag, she tricks him by offering him three magic weapons -- price, one kiss each.  After the third kiss, the spell is broken.


35.       Allison Gross                           1783                                       fantasy romance          K


            An ugly witch offers a hero numerous enticements -- price, one kiss each.  He refuses, and she turns him into a worm, but he is healed by the Queen of Faerie on the next Hallow's Eve (in some versions, the hero attempts to kill the witch, unsuccessfully).


36.       The Laily Worm and the Machral of the Sea               1802                fantasy             L


            Wicked stepmother turns her two stepchildren into foul creatures.  They complain to their father, who demands that the stepmother lift the spell.  The son is cured, but the daughter declares that she’d rather stay a fish than let their stepmother lay hands on her again, so the father takes his wife out and burns her.  “Laily” is a shortening of “laidely” from the French <laide> ‘ugly’.


37.       Thomas the Rhymer                            1800; 13th c. person                 fantasy romance          K


            Thomas meets the Queen of Faerie, who takes him there for seven years.  Along the way, she shows him the roads to Heaven and Hell.  Thomas Rymor of Ercildoune appears in an undated Scottish legal record, and his heir (of the same name, presumably a son) appears in a document dated 1294.  Many writings about Thomas exist from the 13th c. onwards.


38.       The Wee Wee Man                              1776                                        fantasy                      K


            A woodsman sees a sprite lifting a huge stone; he asks the sprite where he lives, and the sprite takes the man to the palace of the Queen of Faerie, but when the man turns his back, the sprite (and everything else) vanishes.


39.       Tam Lin                                   ms. 1791; cited in a book, 1549                      fantasy romance       J


            Headstrong girl goes to spot where fairies reportedly despoil young women and gets despoiled.  After some time, she returns pregnant, and asks the fairy lover if there's any future for them.  He (Tam Lin) tells her that he is human, but the Queen of Faerie has kidnapped and ensorcelled him.  She (Janet) can break the spell if she returns on Hallow's Eve, grabs him, and holds on in spite of all the horrible things the Queen will turn him into.  The plan succeeds; the Queen of Faerie curses them and rides off, leaving the lovers behind.  Cited in “Vedderburn’s Complaint of Scotland”. “A ballet of Thomalyn” was licensed in 1558 in the records of the Company of Stationers, but no copy apparently survives.


40.       The Queen of Elfland's Nurse             1802; 13th c. legend                 fantasy             K


            A new mother is kidnapped to be wetnurse to the Queen of Faerie’s son “until he can stand”, then she will be returned.  Along the way, she is shown the roads to Heaven and Hell.  Gervase of Tilbury notes (c. 1215) that no one is more exposed to being carried off by water-sprites than a woman in milk, that they sometimes restore such a woman and pay for her services after she has nursed their child for seven years.


41.       Hind Etin                     1827; three 16th c. Danish versions                  fantasy romance       JL


            Headstrong girl goes to spot where fairies reportedly despoil young women and gets despoiled (alternately, she is kidnapped after refusing a number of marriage offers).  After several years (and several children), she grieves to return.  Variants: she is allowed to return, and the children all get baptized and everybody is happy; or, she is allowed to return on condition she not talk about the fairies, which she does and either is forced to return to Faerie or dies.


42.       Clerk Colville              1769; German poem c. 1300; Danish ms. 1550                       fantasy                         L


            Man has fling with mermaid but dumps her for a mortal woman; mermaid kills him.  The German poem is “The Knight of Staufenberg”.  In Clerk Colville, the wife knows he’s been dallying and commands him to break it off.  In “Staufenberg”, the knight has a fine relationship with his magical lady and has no desire to marry; unfortunately, the king offers the knight his niece in marriage.  When the knight says that he has a wife but cannot produce her because she only appears to him, the king cries that the “lady” must be the devil and the sacrament of marriage will save his soul.  He is forced into the marriage, and of course dies.  The bride, realizing she has been the means of his destruction, goes into a convent.


43.       The Broomfield Hill               1769; 16th c. Scottish               fantasy romance JL


            Girl fears to keep a date with boyfriend because he lusts for her, but she's afraid to back out; a witch tells her that thanks to the sedative (and hallucinogenic) effects of broom flowers, the guy will be asleep and she can put her ring in his hand as proof that she kept the date.  He wakes, finds she has been and gone, and spends the rest of the story conversing with his animals about why they didn't wake him (the animals declare innocence, owing to the powerful effects of the broom plant).  Several songs featuring “brume on the hil” exist in fragment from 1549, 1568, 1575.  Some elements appear in the Gesta Romanorum, c. 1300.  Some variants make clear that the “boyfriend” has brought soldiers to aid his with his planned rape (and often, murder) of the girl.


44.       The Twa Magicians                  1828, also pan-European                     fantasy romance J


            Woman disdains the affections of a "coal-black smith" and seeks to avoid him by turning herself into various non-human items; he turns himself into whatever he must be each time to catch her, and eventually has his way.  The chase of two shape-shifters occurs in The Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400) where Cerridwen pursues Gwion in the Romance of Taliesin.


45.       King John and the Bishop        Percy ms. c. 1650                    testing song      J


            King John accuses the Bishop of Canterbury of treason, and gives him three riddles to prove his innocence.  The Bishop is home pondering when his twin brother, a shepherd, offers to trade places.  The brother answers the riddles correctly, the deception is revealed, and John thinks it's such a good joke that he pardons the Bishop and gives the shepherd lots of money and land.  The first and third riddles are recorded by Nicolas de Troyes in 1536.


46.       Captain Wedderburn's Courtship         1776; Sloane ms. 2693, 15th c.                        testing song      J


            The Captain comes upon a lady and takes her home to town, but she won't consent to marry him unless he answers several riddles (cherry with no stone, chicken with no bone...).  He does, and they marry.  Sloane ms. has the riddle potion only.  Compare to Child #1 and #2, testing a mate’s worthiness with riddles.






47.       Proud Lady Margaret               c. 1800, earlier elements                      testing revenant            K


            Lady Margaret will not marry unless the man answers several riddles (some suggestion that wrong answers are punishable by death).  A man shows up, answers the riddles, then reveals himself to be her dead brother who asks her to come down off her high horse and get married already (some versions he takes her off to the netherworld for her pride).


48.       Young Andrew                                    Percy ms. c. 1650                    retribution                    L


            Man seduces girl, gets her to rob her father, takes the money and her clothes and sends her home naked.  She dies of grief, he gets torn apart by a wolf.  Much like #9, but the guy gets payback this time.


49.       The Twa Brothers                    c. 1800                                                tragedy       L


            Two brothers have a wrestling match; one unwisely has a knife in his pocket and stabs the other, and they finish the piece discussing how the living brother will break the news (or not) to several family members.  In some versions, the killing is intentional.


50.       The Bonny Hind                      1776                            incest tragedy               L


            Man comes home from many years at sea and seduces a girl only to discover it is his sister, who promptly kills herself.


51.       Lizie Wan                                1776                            incest murder tragedy L


            Lizie is pregnant by her brother; she tells her father (who oddly has no reaction).  She then tells her brother, who cuts off her head.  Brother goes to mother who asks him about his bloody sword; the piece finishes with most of the text from #13.


52.       The King's Daughter Lady Jean                       c. 1800                                    incest tragedy               L


            Very much like “Bonny Hind” except the girl pulls the nut and sloe to find the guy (a formula for summoning fairies) and both die in the end.


53.       Young Beichan                                    1783; legend, 1300 ms.                       romance      J


            Handsome lord in dungeon pledges love to jailer's daughter and convinces her to release him.  Once home, he finds he has been betrothed on pain of death to another.  Heroine shows up on wedding day and the couple run off, leaving the bride at the altar.  The legend is of Gilbert Becket, Archbishop Thomas’ father, who reportedly was captured by Saracens in the Holy Land and was released by a Saracen lady whom he later married.



Note:  Sources and notes are according to Child, with some additions from Leach.  The synopses, “genre categories” and editorial marks (i.e., the smiley faces) are mine.  The mark b/s indicates the work appeared in a printed broadside; ms. indicates a manuscript.  Dates refer to a variety of published collections of ballads and songs.