The Lost Art of Ballad Singing (and Ballad Listening)…

We love ballads, and we don’t mean Everything I Do I Do it For You type ballads.

Ballads are folk songs that tell a story. They are often quite long. Actually, they are often very very very very very very long! The longest one Corwen knows to sing is Sir Orfeo which has twenty some verses and takes around 6 minutes to sing, Kate wins over him with The Raven (33 verses), but we are learning one at the moment that is 93 verses long (which will be on Fish or Fowle)! Takes about 40 minutes to sing. Maybe it feels even longer if you are listening…

They aren’t boring though, that’s the thing about ballads. They are often oddly concise, almost haiku like, for their length. They don’t waste any time on character development, characters are fairly two dimensional, often social stereotypes, but character isn’t the point. The ballad is all about plot. They cram lots of incident into their verses, they are often like mini Greek Tragedies (or Shakespearean tragedies come to that). And they are old, did we mention that? Not only are individual ballads often quite old (a few hundred years) but the stories they tell are old, and the worldviews they express are positively ancient. Magic is a reality in the ballads, but not the miraculous Christian magic of the lives of saints, no, its the deep Pagan magic. To quote Steenstrup:

“Concerning all others the rule holds good that however many remarkable and marvelous things happen, miracles never take place. It is not by prayers and petitions to the saints that metamorphosed Knights and maidens get their shapes back again, nor is it by making the sign of the cross nor by reading the Scriptures that evil is bested. The intervention of the Virgin Mary or of holy men is un-necessary; that which heals or reshapes, that which draws the frigid lover to longing is mysterious remedies, the various instruments of superstition, the token and the mystic word. Runes have a wonderful alluring power, a man’s life is bound up in his name as if with a mathematical power, and with or against this one can work as though it were the man himself. In a kiss lies witchcraft which releases that which is bewitched, and drinking of a man’s warm blood and tasting of his flesh leads to metamorphosis.

They really are remarkable pieces of art, of real interest to folklore fans, musicians, and Pagans. And great stories too. You can even dance to them. Dance is an almost lost aspect of ballad singing, but for those who have been reintroducing it, it is a powerful way of a whole community to immerse themselves in a shared and ancient common culture.

Many folk fans will have heard Raggle Taggle Gypsies, The Silkie or Matty Groves but few will have heard of Sir Aldingar, Hind Etin, Earl Brand, Lamkin, Gil Brenton or Young Waters. Some folk musicians put a token ballad (often heavily abridged) on a recording, yet the recognition of these songs seems low among folkies and extremely rare among the general public. But these are some of the great works of British native culture. So why don’t we hear more of them?

There are obstacles to their performance. Firstly the language. Many ballads were first collected in the Scottish borders and the musician must decide whether to sing them in a dialect few will understand or whether to rewrite them partly or fully in modern English. Many ballads are lacking their tunes and were recorded as texts alone. Some versions are incomplete or corrupted. It does sometimes take a bit of detective work to come up with a singable piece, tracking down a tune, compiling verses from several collected versions and where necessary altering dialect words. No wonder many people who do sing ballads often trot out familiar versions from Fairport Convention or Martyn Carthy. It’s well worth the work to perform a lesser known ballad in my opinion though, and this sort of creative work puts the musicians personal stamp on the song

Also it comes down to audience demand I suspect. Most folk musicians shy away from performing anything more than 6 verses/4 minutes long, and many ballads can’t convincingly be cut down to this length without losing much that makes them special. People have increasingly short attention spans and find it hard to follow a story unless it has pictures to go with it, let alone if it is sung rather than spoken. Ballads are all about the story, and ballad singing all about telling it. The skill of ballad listening needs to be developed too.

With that in mind it is worth reading some ballads and listening to some to get familiar with their conventions, style and language. You’ll find all the texts of the most well known collection (the so called Child Ballads, collected by Francis Child) online here. Googling the title of any of them will bring up articles with explanatory notes, and searching for many on Youtube or Amazon’s MP3s will find you performances to hear. Take some time if you aren’t used to ballads, think of it as educating your palette, you will be rewarded.

If you are a singer and don’t know any ballads, why not learn one? Mudcat will furnish you with many tunes. If you are serious about it then Loomis Press have reprinted both the Child Ballads and Bronson’s invaluable work The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. For style I recommend listening to field recordings, and to Chris Foster, who is the best ballad singer I’ve come across. Sadly only a few of his albums are currently available.

In 2012 Kate was lucky enough to go to the annual gathering in Denmark of the small but mighty group of people who have brought Ballad Dance back to life in that country. She spent a weekend dancing and singing burdens in Danish, and generally immersing herself in this ancient form of ballad performance. The songs get into the core of a community when they are remembered and celebrated in the feet as well as the voicebox. We hope to run an event like this in the UK, at the end of 2013, so watch this space.

Good luck with your ballad mission if you choose to accept it, and when we see you next, we want you to sing us a song, and it had better be very very very very long! 

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5 comments
  1. Great post….very imformative…good links too. Think I ‘m going to enjoy this blog…

  2. Chris Foster said:

    Thanks for the compliment. I would add listening to some of the great singers, now dead but who that I was lucky enough to hear in the past such as Lizzie Higgins, who can be heard on the Topic Records ‘Voice of the People’ series. Also searching out recordings of some of the wonderful traveller singers from England e.g. Queen Caroline Hughes. Then of course there are all those American singers, especially from Appalachia.and here’s Elizabeth La Prelle, a young singer in her 20’s showing that there is new life in the old tradition yet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycmpn1bLN14

  3. Hi there. I would also add Jess Smith, Scottish tinker (that’s the name they gave to their culture, its not an insult!) To that list. I have seen her a few times talks she gives about life on the road, where she sings in Cant – tinker dialect).

  4. Gwion said:

    A late reply to your blog because I’ve only just discovered it.

    I’m a great fan of ballads but agree that most people today don’t have a mind set that allows them to listen to a “long” story. Listening is not a passive process and you need to learn how to listen – which is not a skill that is taught or encouraged any more.

    There are some places where ballads thrive though: for example, quite a number of folk festivals have ballad forums. At the Sidmouth Festival near me I try to get down to the ballad forum most days. It runs for 2 hours each day (usually about 15 or so ballads). You simply go in, put your name down on the list and sing your ballad. The guidelines include that they should be traditional and there is often a brief discussion after each one by the very knowledgeable “audience” (who are all singers themselves). We also nearly always fit a couple of ballads into our twice monthly singarounds in two local pubs (where I can also try out my non-traditional, ballad-style songs inspired by some of the welsh myths).

    One factor you don’t mention though which limits the singing of ballads is that, at many singarounds and clubs, in order to allow all those who want to sing to do so, you need to keep your performance time down. (Life is probably different in the world of the (semi-)professional performer who has a longer time slot – but then they’re limited by what is commercially acceptable to their paying audiences, most of whom seem to be the passive “I’ve paid, entertain me” variety.)

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