It may seem odd that the foremost collector, compiler and editor of traditional British songs and ballads was an American, and odder still that he has a place among the great, good, and eccentric of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, but the second oddity is of course justified by the first. It would not have been easy to predict from the early trajectory of the life of Francis James Child (1825–96) that his greatest memorial would be the five volumes (in ten parts) of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which we have just reissued.
Child was the son of a Boston sailmaker, whose potential was noticed by the head of the Latin school there: having entered Harvard University in 1842, ‘the close of his college course was marked by the exceptional distinction of his being chosen by his classmates as their Orator, and by his having the first part at Commencement as the highest scholar in the class’. On graduating in 1846, ‘Mr Child immediately entered the service of the college, in which he continued till the day of his death’.
He was a true polymath: the best classicist of his year, he tutored in mathematics for two years, and then (at his own request) he was transferred to a tutorship in history and political economy which also involved teaching English. Between 1849 and 1851, he spent two years in study abroad, partly at the university of Göttingen, where he immersed himself in German and philology. On his return to Harvard, he was appointed professor of rhetoric and oratory, and in 1876 was given the newly established chair of English.
His early publications showed the direction of his interests: Four Old Plays (containing ‘Thersytes’, ‘Jack Jugler’, ‘The Pardoner and Frere’, and ‘Jocasta’) in 1848, and the general editorship of the 130-volume ‘British Poets’ series, including his own five volumes of Spenser’s poetical works (1855). It was another set of books in this series – the eight volumes of English and Scottish Ballads, published between 1857 and 1859, and intended to demonstrate the anonymous ballad tradition – which led to his greatest work
Child’s wider ambition was to ‘include every obtainable version of every extant English or Scottish ballad, with the fullest possible discussion of related songs or stories in the popular literature of all nations’. This led to collection and collation of printed and manuscript versions, with the aid of scholars worldwide. The Civil War (he was debarred from fighting for health reasons, but supported the Union with political pamphlets, collections of patriotic war songs, and even an opera) slowed down the process, but the first volume was published in 1882, and the last (posthumously) in 1898. We have reissued the uniform 1898 edition, with a biographical introduction by his protégé G.L. Kitteridge (1860–1941), the Shakespearean scholar, whose trajectory from Boston poverty to Harvard eminence echoed Child’s own.
There are 305 ballads in the collections, each with sources, contextual essays and variants in many different languages. The volumes remain an essential source for those interested in folksong and the oral tradition, and the works are regularly cited as ‘Child no. X’.
Impossible to choose which ones to mention on any rational basis, so I used the sortes Vergilianae: open each two-part volume at random and see what appears on the verso page.
First, no. 7, ‘Earl Brand’ (also known as the ‘Douglas Tragedy’), which, as Child notes, closely resembles Scandinavian, Icelandic, and Neapolitan-Albanian (!) ballads. Child gives six versions, but –alas – they all end with deaths by violence, grief and sorrow, except the sixth, which is incomplete, but tending in the same direction.
No. 94, ‘Young Waters’, is Scots, and again with Scandinavian ancestry. Only one version is given, from Percy’s Reliques (another, earlier source of ballads, which we have also reissued). A king’s jealousy of a handsome young nobleman: it doesn’t end well.
No. 117, ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’. This one is 465 stanzas long, and comes from seven sources. It ends with Robyn’s death. (For more on Robin Hood, we also have the two-volume ‘Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to That Celebrated English Outlaw’, edited by Joseph Ritson and published in 1795.
No. 237, ‘The Duke of Gordon’s Daughter’: a noblewoman and a poor but gallant captain, three children, and a happy ending (albeit at the expense of another family with three children who all conveniently die to make the gallant captain rich and therefore acceptable to the Gordon clan).
No. 279, ‘The Jolly Beggar’: several permutations on the familiar theme of rich man/nobleman/king disguised as beggar seducing maiden – some endings are happyish, but most have the ex-maiden abandoned and weeping.
It has to be said that Child’s notes, especially on the possible ‘real-life’ historical roots of some of the ballads, are a more entertaining read (to my taste at any rate!) than the ballads themselves – but this set is one of those milestone publications in literary history which really are of ‘enduring scholarly value’, just like it says on our (virtual) tin!