|From Topic CD – A.L. Lloyd, Ewan MacColl, Anne Briggs, Louis Killen, Mike Waterson and Norman Kennedy|
THE FOLK BALLAD IS A FOLK TALE put into verse and set to music. Among British ballads are some of the oldest as well as greatest folk songs we have. Romantic writers used to consider them the essence of all that was most deeply national in poetry and music and theme; but now we know that in fact the ballad-type, in form and subject matter, is remarkably similar over the greater part of Europe, and many of our most prized ballad themes are shared by peoples living as far apart as Spain, Scandinavia and the Balkans. That need be no cause for disappointment; the best British folk song ballads are the equal of any for fine poetry, handsome melody, mettlesome spirit and high imagination.
The oldest of the ballads originated among a wild proud people in a barbarous time, and the qualities of that society reflect clearly in the ballad texts. In the hillier stonier parts of Britain lived a rough people, cattle grazers and cattle thieves, petty nobility and their peasants who sometimes comprised a large gang or small private army to engage in raiding or the settlement of family feuds. Life in these parts was poor, stirring, bloody.
Matters of loyalty and pride counted for a great deal. Such was the society that produced the earlier folk ballads, which might be made by the lord himself (who was often a man indistinguishable from his neighbours except through his fierceness and rapacity, and who had been awarded or had snatched his distinction by virtue of those qualities) or by one of his peasants or by a professional or semi-professional minstrel engaged to entertain the rough company.
The names of the ballad-makers are not known to us. Indeed as Professor F.J.Child has said: 'Though a man and not a people has composed them, still the author counts for nothing, and it is not by a mere accident, but with the best reasons, that they have come down to us anonymous'. Those 'best reasons' are mainly that the ballad producing society, was in its primitive way, oddly democratic. In it, men were more or less equal, or if one better than another it was on account of his strength, courage and wits rather than on account of his possessions.
As the historian, A.L.Morton puts it: 'Even if class divisions existed class oppression was much less evident than the universal oppression of harsh necessity, the prevailing poverty, the barrenness of the earth, the relying and raiding that were part of the life of a wild (stretch of) country. Joys and fears hopes and doubts, deeds and beliefs were largely common to all.
It used to be thought that the ballads were somehow local to the strip of bare hilly country extending from Newcastle up to Edinburgh, and from Berwick across to Carlisle and on that account they became known as 'Border Ballads'. The name is utterly misleading. We now know that the ballads circulated all over England and Scotland and were made up in many different regions. In fact the two areas that have proved most rewarding to folk song collectors searching for ballads are Aberdeen and — Somerset! It is the case, however, that the peculiar way of life that is mirrored in the ballads lasted longest in the border country, where a few freebooting families still survived in the eighteenth century, and also that a number of good ballads mention Border place and family names. Still it is high time we broke ourselves of the habit of too readily attaching the label of 'Border' to our traditional ballads.
Of course, by no means all our ballads are concerned with themes of raiding and feuding. Nor were all of them created by members of such society as is sketched above. Some are ancient pieces of moralising symbology, such as The Prickly Bush and The Cruel Mother (though in our version the symbolic element is overlaid). Some are genial peasant improvisations on religious legends, such as The Bitter Withy. Others are novelistic adventure stories, such as The 'Sweet Kumadiel , or romances such as The Demon Lover which in some versions has lost its element of magic and emerges as a simple story of crime passionel.
But the kernel of our folk ballads, the most characteristic productions, are doubtless the proud brave hard tragedies of the kind of Hughie the Graeme and The Baron of Brackley, the nearest thing we have to the great hero-epics of early times and more primitive societies. Our ballads are well-known in book versions, though it must be said that the great anthologies don't always contain the best specimens. They are less well-known in sung versions though they were made to be sung not read. In this connection, the poet Robert Frost has something pertinent to say: 'Voice and ear are left at a loss what to do with the ballad until supplied with the tune it was written to go with... Unsung, it stays half-lacking.' May this CD do something to repair a lack.
A.L.LLOYD – From the CD Notes