Published online by Cambridge University Press: 03 July 2019
THUS BOOK ORIGINATES out of research into ballads printed in England and Scotland from roughly the sixteenth century up until the period just before the First World War. Francis James Child famously referred to the Roxburghe and Pepys collections of broadside ballads as ‘veritable dung-hills, in which, only after a great deal of sickening grubbing, one finds a very moderate jewel’, but the fact is that the particular ballads Child favoured, largely on aesthetic grounds, have always coexisted with and comprised part of a much more substantial culture of ballads in print. This book is in some sense an attempt to redress the balance. Indirectly, it takes up the insistence of the great ballad scholar Roger Renwick, in his Recentering Anglo/American Folksong (2001), that studies should be founded on the underlying evidence of the data accumulated over the centuries. However, in doing so it brings into the open the very real discontinuities that there are in ballad history, contrasting with the implicit continuities that have frequently been inferred both from the discipline founded by Child, and from the folk song collecting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These discontinuities in turn demand a reconsideration of the past: the shifting literary histories of the ballad genre itself, the inherently backward-looking nature of a core repertoire of ballads, and the historical past as it is remembered and reworked through ballads – the past of the ballad and the past in the ballad
‘Ballad’ is taken here to embrace an entire, dynamic culture of cheap verse literature and song, with an emphasis on its narrative varieties, such that it is not amenable to ready definition, even while most of the examples discussed in the pages that follow will seem relatively familiar. Study of the subject has surely advanced to a stage where strict definition is not demanded, and in any case the first chapter addresses some of the variety that falls under the ballad heading. The book is concerned specifically with literary (even bibliographical) histories, but reference is made to melodies where the evidence suggests they could have a bearing on continuity (or discontinuity) among ballads.