Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 July 2019
IF PRESSED TO OFFER some sort of a conclusion after the foregoing chapters, it might be something along the following lines. The ballad is what Douglas Gray calls a ‘simple form’ (in musical as well as textual terms), and it is also a backward-looking form, resistant to literary modernity in terms of both style and substance. The ballad, so to speak, carries with it, right to the present day, its own generic past. Those same characteristics have imbued the genre with the flexibility to endure for a very long time and to bear the appearance of a substantially unchanging form. The fact that a few individual ballads actually were around at the end of the Middle Ages, and rather more looked as if they might possibly have been, enabled scholars like Thomas Percy, Walter Scott, Francis James Child, Cecil Sharp, and A. L. Lloyd, from their different perspectives, to identify and theorize continuity. But the same simple form was proving just as adaptable to the production of early modern political ballads and satirical libels, and then to ballads about things like shipwrecks and the opening of new railway lines, which proved mostly less enduring and which have to date attracted less scholarly attention. That is beginning to change now and researchers are starting to engage with ballads in the wider contexts of street literature and popular literary and musical culture.
There is no harm in scholars having singled out for study those ballads that can be linked in some way to the collectanea of the Romantic and the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Indeed, there is good reason for their having done so, frequently on aesthetic grounds, but also because they constitute a corpus of songs that held a value for working men and women, especially in the decades running up to the First World War, in the face of rapid social and cultural change. But there are two points to bear in mind here. (i) Those ballads that were actually current in earlier times did not necessarily carry the same cultural status then as they did at this later date, once they had come to be particularly valued for their perceived age. (ii) Both early and late, all of the ballads shared often exactly the same cultural marketplace with all sorts of other verses and songs.