THE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE BALLAD, the object of dedicated study from the time of Francis James Child – if not a good deal earlier (John Selden and Samuel Pepys, Thomas Percy, Walter Scott, William Motherwell) – is inherently backward-looking. That is to say, on the one hand, the ballad looks indefinitely to its own past, the history of the genre, in consequence of its multiplicity and the absence of a single authoritative text. On the other, the ballad is in many instances engaged with a historical past, which may be more or less specific and more or less real or imagined. Yet this very observation that the ballad is backward-looking is also a problematic one because it encourages the thought that there is an inherent continuity to the genre, which continuity in turn equates to ‘tradition’, which is also frequently taken to be the defining characteristic of ‘folk song’. The argument is in a real sense circular, because tradition itself carries the implication that something is ‘age-old’. For Cecil Sharp, folk songs and folk singing formed ‘part and parcel of a great tradition that stretches back into the mists of the past in one long, unbroken chain, of which the last link is now, alas, being forged’. And it is not just an outmoded, romantic view from a previous century. Here is the folk song scholar C. J. Bearman, usually a stickler for precision, prefacing a list of the songs Sharp collected most frequently in Somerset: ‘Most of these were in print and available as broadsides, but that is not the point here: they were “traditional” in the sense of having been in circulation time out of mind, and had not been made up by ballad-mongers between 1800 and 1850.’
The purpose of this chapter is to sketch in just why anyone should want to impose that sort of assumption of continuity on to a genre that actually manifests a great deal of observable discontinuity, and then to develop a theoretical position that is capable of reconciling the fact of discontinuity with the backward-looking nature of the genre. This is not a book about tradition per se, but fundamental to it is the recognition that tradition is something that does not have an autonomous existence, but that is rather an idea about the past that is enacted in the present, identified with particular cultural artefacts and activities.