Skip to main content

Scott Alarik

Help Scott spread the word


Francis James Child: the man who saved the ballads

Francis James Child the man who saved the ballads
The Child ballads are coming back in print. Originally published over a century ago, "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Edited by Francis James Child," quickly became known as simply the Child ballads; and formed the foundation stone for the great folklore movement of the early 20th century. In fact, many of the first scholars to embark on "field collecting" trips in the United States - in which traditional folk songs and tunes still being performed in remote, rural areas were written down or recorded - were interested only in variants of the 305 ancient ballads compiled by Child.
            As late as the commercial folk revival of the 1960's, Child cast such a giant shadow that professional folk singers routinely noted when they sang a song that traced back to his collection. Joan Baez's first album give as song titles "Mary Hamilton (Child 173)," and "Henry Martin (Child 250)."
            The collection was kept available for years by Dover Books, and then by Peter Smith Publishers. But they have been out of print since the mid-80s. Now, a stalwart cottage-house publisher in Northfield, Minnesota, called Loomis House Press (, is, for the first time, publishing them in the form Child originally intended. He died in 1896, before the entire collection had been published. Scores of notes, corrections and variants he wished to add throughout the collection were simply thrown together into a nearly incomprehensible Volume Ten. The new edition adds those notes - and many melodies that Child had assembled - to the appropriate ballads.
            Loomis House editors Mark F. and Laura Sexton Heiman are releasing the collection in five volumes, and hope the gorgeously mounted new editions will stimulate new interest in the ballads which are the true roots of all literature, song and poetry in the English language.
            "I'm hoping to make these ballads readily available to a new generation of students, folk performers, songwriters, and ballad scholars," Mark Heiman says. "In the '60s folk revival, people drew on this material as a rich resource. The current generation really hasn't had the opportunity to do that, because this material hasn't been available. But this is such a vital part of our cultural heritage."
            So what exactly is a Child ballad? The question has vexed scholars for years, since Child died before writing the introduction to his work, in which he planned to explain the precise nature of his collection, and how he decided which ballads to include.
            Basically, he perceived the collection as more a work of history than literature. He did not select ballads based on literary quality, but on whether they could be reasonably traced back to the ballad tradition as it existed in preliterate British culture. "The genuine popular ballad," he wrote in an 1877 essay that is included in the new collection, "had its rise in a time when the distinctions since brought about by education and other circumstances had practically no which the people are not divided by political organization and book-culture into markedly distinct classes, [and] there is such community of ideas and feelings that the whole people form an individual."
            It was this long-extinct, orally composed ballad tradition Child hoped to document. Because these ancient ballads were fashioned by a non-literate society, they have an organic nature and universality, a lack of self-consciousness and subjectivity, that is unlike anything fashioned by literate cultures. Child sought to include every such ballad and variant he could find from British sources, and to note their connections to related ballads in other cultures.
            British folk singer and guitarist Martin Carthy is arguably the world's preeminent living interpreter of Child ballads, and holds them in an awe that is strikingly similar to how Child himself regarded them.
            "They have a totally different feel from the broadside ballads," he says, speaking of songs composed by literate writers, and sold on pennysheets, called broadsides, beginning in the 16th century. "They tend to be subtler, what I'd call Gothic. There are moments of high humor in them, even among the tragic ballads, which you don't find in the later songs.
            "You just get a feeling of age from them, that they've really spoken to many, many generations. The best of all folk songs have that feeling that they've traveled, of course, but there's an extra something about the ballads. You get the feeling they are there as models for living. There's a timeless quality to them that you don't so often get from later ballads and songs."
            The Child ballads can be traced back no further than the 12th century; not because they did not exist before then, but because they were so poorly documented by British scholars, who tended to disregard things that came from the common people. Throughout his life, Child lamented how little collecting had been done in Great Britain, compared to most European countries. He found only a handful of ballads that could be documented as far back even as the 13th century, including "Sir Patrick Spens" (1281), and "Sir Hugh" (1255). But those dates are based on events occurring in the ballads, not on the age of manuscripts in which they were first written down. Only 11 Child ballads exist in manuscripts older than the 17th century.
            "It is an everlasting cause of grief that this had not been timely done in England," Child lamented to his friend James Russell Lowell in 1877. In 1884, he wrote, "The ballads should have been collected as early as 1600; then there would have been such a nice crop; the aftermath is very weedy."
            Child's own life is not so unlike the ballads; one of loud triumph and quiet tragedy; of a brilliant man who rose far above his station to become preeminent among his peers, only to wonder at the end if he had wasted his life's shiny promise on useless pedantry.
            "There's almost a tragic sense I get when I see from his notes how he believed he was preserving something that was essentially dead," Mark Heiman says. "When he started the project, he believed it was possible to create this definitive collection of the ballad tradition in English; and he did not believe that in the end. If he had lived just a little longer - just a few years - he would have seen the golden age of the ballad collector and folklorist. He would have seen how important his life's work had really been."
            Francis James Child was born to working-class parents in Boston on February 1, 1825. His father was a sailmaker, and as a boy, Child loved to wander the Boston waterfront, listening to the sailors sing and swap stories. It was a favorite sport to steal fingers full of sweet molasses from barrels while the sailors were not looking - or at least pretending they were not looking.
            But most of all, Child loved school. He showed such scholarly promise that he was plucked from the Boston Public School, where most working-class children went, and admitted to Boston Latin, where he learned the classical languages that were then essential to receiving a college education; and that were normally taught only to children of the upper classes.
            His father lacked the resources to pay his son's tuition to Harvard, but the principal of Boston Latin, Epes Sargent Dixwell, was so taken with Child that he personally arranged a loan for the boy, who entered the college in 1842. He graduated first in his class in 1846, and remained in the employ of Harvard until his death. There is now both a Child Hall and a Child Memorial Library in honor of the professor who presided over the creation of Harvard's first modern department of English literature, and was a powerful force in the college's growth into one of the world's great universities.
            Child was not only among the brightest, but one of the most beloved students and professors in Harvard's long history. Throughout his life, he carried with him the innocent, fervent joy of a boy who knew he had been admitted to learned halls that were not then normally open to humble people like him. Boston novelist Henry James, a lifelong friend, dotingly said Child's aspect was "all finely circular:" and James's brother William, the formidable philosopher and psychologist, called Child "the only man I ever knew who thought no evil."
            He was a delightful mix of scholar and romantic, liberal populist and stiff-collared Victorian; a meticulous researcher who detested pedantry. "Though I don't value the philosophers overmuch," he mused once to Lowell, "their talk frightens me like ghost stories. When I go back to the poets, I see how I have been fooled."
            At Harvard, he came to love the folk songs and plays of ancient England, particularly the creations of preliterate society, which he fondly described as "a world of sense and fancy."
            The Heimans both have a revealing way of slipping into the present tense when discussing Child, as if they were working with the old professor on a daily basis.
            "I've really been struck by how all-encompassing this project must have been for him, how completely he internalized the whole of his work," Mark Heiman says. "It's clear from the notes and corrections that, as he's working, he's discovering material that relates to discussions he's presented earlier. But he has the whole project so thoroughly on his mind that it's second-nature for him to write, 'Oh yes, add this Estonian ballad from this other source to the ballad I cite on page such and such.' It's phenomenal to me that someone could be so intimate with such a body of knowledge."
            Laura Heiman says, "He has this wonderful, wordy Victorian style, but every so often, you just have to stop and read a passage over and over; he comes up with the funniest lines. He has a dry and pointed, but never cruel, sense of humor."
            They recently came across a note Child prepared about a variant he had discovered to a ballad already published (the original volumes were released between 1882 and 1896). He strongly suspects it is a forgery (by which he means a ballad text written later by some composer, and not really collected from the folk). It is also a terribly done forgery, he thinks, but decides in the end it should be published, "for the same reason thieves are photographed."
            Child was painfully aware how unreliable the collections were that he was working from. He frequently lamented the trampling over of old texts that had been done by forgers and professional minstrels; but saved his hottest wrath for "modern editors, whose so called improvements are more to be feared than the mischances of a thousand years."
            Many of these were called "antiquarians," from a movement of scholars and authors, such as Sir William Scott, who sought to revive interest in traditional music through romanticizing the old songs, and adapting them to contemporary tastes, much as is done today by singers such as Carthy. Child respected the motives of the antiquarians, and the reverence most of them had for the authentic poetry of the folk. But many altered traditional ballad texts so radically that they became unrecognizable as genuine folk poetry.
            "We know how the antiquarians felt about the ballads," Carthy says, "because they handed them to Child. What we don't really know is how much they had to do with the shape of the ballads before they got into Child's hands. I'm wary of drawing too many conclusions from the ballads about the culture they came from, because I'm very aware of how those guys messed with them. I mean, I mess with them myself; why should they have been any different?"
            In the 1850s, Child edited a collection of ballads as part of a 150-volume chronicle of British poetry. His reverence for the genius of folk poetry, spectacular knowledge of ancient British language, and uncanny instinct for authenticity, roused British scholars to urge him to undertake a definitive ballad collection before it was too late. So many ballad texts were being lost to history, and British universities had no interest in such a work.
            Child was already a powerful figure at Harvard. He knew he would have their complete support - and he always did, much to Harvard's credit - but he was still reluctant. It was a lifelong commitment. He refused to consider it until the seminal Bishop Percy manuscript had been made public.
            That was the most important British ballad manuscript in existence, an anonymous collection Percy had saved from a 17th-century scullery, where it was being torn up and used to light fires. In his published version, called "The Percy Reliques," the bishop drastically censored and rewrote the ballads. He never allowed the original manuscript to be released.
            A British scholar named F.J. Furnivall was Child's main ally in wresting the original manuscript from Percy's descendants. They were reluctant to release it, since they feared - correctly - that when scholars saw how much he had rewritten these precious artifacts, the Percy name would be forever damaged. Under mounting public pressure, the family finally donated the ballads to the government, to be preserved as a national treasure.
            On his first examination, Furnivall confirmed what all knowledgeable scholars had suspected. "As to the text," he wrote, "[Percy] looked on it as a young woman from the country, with unkempt locks, whom he had to fit for fashionable society."
            Furnivall dedicated his version of the unaltered Percy ballads to Child, who, now out of excuses for undertaking his epic task, returned the favor by dedicating his entire collection to Furnivall.
            Much has been misunderstood about how and why Child did his work. He did absolutely no field collecting, for example. He wrote to the Danish ballad collector Sven Gruntvig, "I have not received one ballad that has not before been printed."
            Child felt then exactly the same way Carthy does today; that the ballad texts he was working from had been so carelessly collected, and so often altered or stuffed with artfully composed forgeries, that he could not do the kind of definitive work he longed to. He envied Gruntvig, who was working with a much better preserved and timely collected repertoire of Danish folk ballads, much of it tracing back centuries before Child's oldest sources.
            The way Child reconciled this was perfectly in keeping with his impeccable scholarly ethics - and was to become the most profound way he influenced future generations of folklorists. He decided to include every reasonable ballad, variant, fragment, odd line and verse that could be traced to the remnants of the preliterate ballad tradition. He stressed that it was not for the modern scholar to place value judgments on what was worth saving and what was not. Save it all.
            "To forestall a misunderstanding which has often occurred," he wrote, "I beg to say that every traditional version of a popular ballad is desired."
            This attitude permeated the budding folklore movement in America, which Child worked hard to foment. He helped found the American Folklore Society, and served as its president. In Volume 1 of his collection, he wrote, "I have tried to stimulate collection from tradition in Scotland, Canada, and the United States."
            There have been hard feelings among some Irish musicians and scholars over the years because Child included no Irish ballads. He saw his collection as specific to the ballad traditions of England and Scotland, which he felt overlapped so completely as to be inseparable. But he believed the Irish ballad tradition to be so distinct and indigenous that it needed to be collected by someone more familiar with Irish language and history than he was. In 1881, he sent circulars to universities, teachers and clergy throughout Ireland, imploring them - unsuccessfully - to undertake the work.
            In the United States, he urged that field collecting be done, but not reserved to ballad hunting. Everything should be saved and documented. His enthusiasm did much to spur the folklore movement of the early 20th century, and his presence at Harvard was the reason it became the launching pad for that movement. By the time he died, he had amassed over 6,000 books of folklore, all of which remained in Harvard's possession, and were the seedbed of the first modern folklore library in the United States.
            When Child began his collection in the 1870s, he confidently planned to divide the books into ten volumes, neatly sorted into ballads of romance and chivalry, superstitions, tragic love ballads, other tragic ballads, love ballads not tragic, Robin Hood ballads, border ballads, historical ballads, and miscellaneous.
            He soon realized he was fooling himself. Perhaps the tradition had been categorizable once; it was not now. Despite his scholarly desire to be precise, he was increasingly forced to rely on his educated instincts to identify what was authentic and what was not.
            As he grew older, his deep resentment of earlier British scholars who had ignored the tradition gave way to an even deeper awe at the free spirit of the ballads themselves. When William Macmath, a Scottish scholar who worked tirelessly to hunt down sources for Child, apologized for failing to find the meaning of an archaic Scots Gaelic word, Child wrote back cheerily, "It is something to know that nothing is known. To tell the truth, I like to have the ballads quite in the air. It is the next best thing to their flying in the face of history."
            On another occasion, he wrote Macmath that "Strictness is offensive as well as useless. Ballads are not like plants or insects, to be classified to a hair's breadth."
            "The thing I love about Professor Child," says Carthy, "is that I do get the feeling he had his good days and his bad days. There's some songs I read, and I just think, what on earth is that doing here?"
            Indeed, Child's own answer to how many Child ballads there are would be considerably fewer than 305. He was certain, for example, that many of the Robin Hood ballads he included were forgeries, and says in his notes that he includes them only because, at this point, it is better to err by inclusion than exclusion. Save it all.
            Carhy has noticed a decline in the collection's quality in the later volumes. By that point, Child simply wanted to save whatever he could. Better to have a future singer like Carthy sniff over a bad ballad or two than to never see one he might take to his heart.
            The Heimans believe that most of the final volume was tossed together after Child's death. Notes intended for inclusion in earlier published volumes are printed just as he wrote them, revealing his notorious habit of writing in whichever language he was thinking at the time. A note on a well-traveled variant may begin in English, switch in mid-sentence to Latin, then Danish and German, before resolving in Icelandic.
            "There's such a casualness with which he moves from language to language, culture to culture" Mark Heiman says. "The scale of how his mind traveled is really awe-inspiring."
            What troubles Carthy - and many ballad lovers - far more than what Child left in is what he left out. Carthy is particularly vexed that the brilliant and famous ballad "The Bitter Withy" was not included, and no one has ever come up with a definitive reason for its exclusion. Child left out some ballads he felt had been later rewritten with Christian verses, but included others, such as "The Cherry Tree Carol." Since Child died before writing his explanation of such things, we will never know the answer.
            But we do know the old Victorian had his limits. He found some ballads so bawdy he simply could not bear to add them, even though he admitted they were more authentic than many he did include. He dismissed them as "ballads of amorous adventure" when he explained to Macmath in 1894, "There is a small parcel of looses pieces and pieces not loose, which I have left out for the same reason." He added that he had thrown his own copies of them into the fire, "where their original authors have, no doubt, been assigned for centuries."
            As he grew older, and as he came to terms with the limitations of the collection, he brooded darkly at times that he had wasted his life. Who would ever care about this work, he worried, except for a few literary historians and philologists?
            "I am rid of a seventh ballad book, and well into an eighth," a tired Child wrote to a friend in 1890. "I do not care now except to finish them, for the romantic things are all done."
            But those were his bad days. On his good days, the genius of the ballads, what he called their "wild grace," filled him utterly. An avid rose gardener, he wrote to a friend after a day spent first amid his roses, and then among his ballads: "I have had my high festival today. The fine rain made everything grow surprisingly last night, and the green, all full of fire, the unnamed grace, with no suggestion of art or consciousness, are too much for words. Ah, what a world - with roses, sunrise and sunset, Shakespeare, Beethoven, brooks, mountains, birds, maids, ballads - why can't it last, why can't everybody have a good share?"
            It is inconceivable that he could have envisioned the scope of the modern folklore movement he helped inspire. He surely could never have imagined someone like Martin Carthy coming along so many years later, interpreting the ancient ballads for modern audiences with an instinct for their natural beauty that mirrors Child's.
           Asked why people should be singing the Child ballads in 2002, Carthy says, "For the same reasons they sang them in 202; because they're fabulous stories, because they tell you immense amounts about people and how they treat each other, trick each other, cheat and chisel and love each other. There's an extraordinary understanding of humanity in them."
            "You do have to sometimes kick the buggers into life," he adds, "find them a tune, give the lyrics a kick here and there. And they can take it; they're fabulously resilient. I really do believe there's nothing you can do to these songs that will hurt them - except for not singing them."
            The Heimans have already released Volume One, and hope to have the entire collection available within a year.
            "One of the things that drove the revival of interest in folk music," says Mark Heiman, "was his sheer love of the material, the tenderness with which he handles the texts he was working with. Child is so clearly present, in such a personal, human way, throughout the collection."
            It would be wonderful to imagine that, at least once, some dark night in his lamp-lit Cambridge study, Child enjoyed a vision of all that his work would accomplish; of the generations who would be ignited more by his passion than his pedantry, inspired to wander the backroads of human culture where folk songs were still sung, to save those songs, and find ways to place them again on people's tongues and in their hearts.
            On his good days, Child seems to have anticipated at least some of this. "It cannot lose its value," he wrote of ballad poetry. "Being founded on what is permanent and universal in the heart of man, and now by printing put beyond the danger of perishing, it will survive the fluctuations of taste, and may from time to time, recall a literature from false and artificial courses to nature and truth."
        Originally appeared in Sing Out! The Folk Music Magazine