Known as "The Child Ballads", this landmark work by Francis James Child
was published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
, in five volumes between 1882
. Though criticized on several grounds, it is considered the primary work in ballad
First, it is important to understand what is meant here by "ballad." Originally the term refered to music accompanying a dance; then it refered to any light song; finally, it was narrowed to mean a song which told a story. Child's collection certainly fits this mold.
Child himself was Harvard's first English professor, and specialized in early English literature, lecturing on the works of men like Chaucer, Spencer, and Shakespeare. This background lead him to work towards creating the ultimate corpus of English and Scottish ballads.
Criticisms towards Child are that he relied on printed material instead of doing actual groundwork, seeing the ballads performed. He might not have even had to leave the United States--the Appalachians are renowned for retaining the folksongs of the British Isles. Worse than that, however, is that while he is careful to present all the variations of words for a ballad--different verses, different versions--he never provided the actual music for these ballads. For the Scottish ballads, he relied on William Motherwell's Minstrelsy: Ancient and Modern. They amount to little more than lyric sheets, with no musical notation whatsoever. This was corrected in 1959 with the publication of Bertrand H. Bronson's The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads, wherein 4120 tunes were collected and presented.
Having said that, it's an impressive work. It is so influential that the ballads are simply refered to by their number: Child #12 is "Lord Randal", for example. There are some 305 groups of songs, with hundreds of variations. For myself, volumes one and five are the best; the former contains legends, King Arthur, and supernatural ballads, while the latter is concerned with Robin Hood.
Child's collection has been out of print for years; only collections, greatly abridged, were available. Recently, Loomis House Press has slowly begun reissuing the five-volume set.