Ballads: fairy tales and music

I realize that my title above is a little simplistic; ballads are rather more than fairy tales set to music. I could have said that ballads are the fairy tales of the musical world, but that’s not quite it, either. The point I was clumsily trying to compress into a catchy title, however is that:

  • ballads and fairy tales, or rather oral stories, share similar origins:
    • they come from the people
    • at some point they were written down or recorded
    • ethnographers and other trained (or not?) peoples were and are fascinated with the form
    • writing, or recording this work of art necessarily changes it
    • enthusiasts, well-intentioned or not, have gone around for centuries making up their own stories
    • these may be fairy tales, or ballads, if by a looser definition, since they have one author/recorder
    • generally speaking, there are distinct regional variants; sometimes the song/story is found in several countries, and varies across as well as within nations
    • some versions, over time, became culturally dominant
    • recreating these works of art is perennially popular
    • sometimes recreation means a performance tailored to a particular audience, done without the intention of making a new, “standard,” or “original” version
    • sometimes recreation means taking a tale and intentionally turning it inside out and upside down
  • ballads and fairy tales share similar concerns:
    • young women and their adventures in love
    • gallant young men
    • persons, whether young or old, set in untenable positions
    • old persons, sometimes parents, and their love for or relationship with their children
    • love
    • murder and justice
    • social dilemmas, such as unmarried pregnancy, adultery, con men, and (as ever) murder
    • there is usually a focus on the folk, that is, the common people; stories with kings and their like are usually from a later date, and kings/judges/authority figures tend to behave more as local powers than as monarchs
    • witches and magic are not necessarily present; often, the focus is on everyday life
    • they often end unhappily
  • also, fairy tales and ballads are bewitching, even when/even though some are downright weird and you’d just as soon forget them. But this last point is only my (rather partial) opinion, and probably shouldn’t be cited as proof of anything.

The relationship between oral story and ballad is such that several ballads have been made into stories (see the many novels and picturebooks based on Tam Lin, for example), and historical events have been made into ballads (see the many laments of Scotland and Ireland on failed uprisings, starvation, unjust treatment at the hands of the English, and other nightmare conditions – rather in the way the Black Death was turned into “Ring Around the Rosies,” only with more of an emphasis on remembrance and mourning).*

More modern phenomenons (comparatively speaking) have been likewise put to song; see, for example, ballads from Australia and New Zealand on the convicts’ plight, working conditions, and the treatment (abuse) of Aboriginal peoples.

If you’re at all interested in how tales change when certain elements, however small, are altered, removed, or added, and if you’re at all intrigued by how the different effects of music and lyrics work together to create something beyond the capability of either alone, much as words and pictures together work together, and sometimes contradict each other, to craft something glorious and new, then you might start by looking at ballads.

Not sure where to start? “Tam Lin” is pretty popular – a young woman named Janet/Jennet/Margaret, depending on the variant, plucks a rose from a forbidden manor that she claims as hers, and so begins her adventure, which culminates with her defiance of the Queen of the Faeries. “Twa Sisters” is notable for having over 23 variants across several languages, and almost as many titles – try “Two Sisters,” “The Cruel Sister,” “The Bonnie Swans,” ‘Binnorie,” “Minnorie,” “The Wind and Rain,” “Bonnie Bows of London;” some titles are specific to certain artists while others are common to several. **

Finally, a newly discovered favourite of mine is “The Trees They Do Grow High” and its lesser-known variant, “Lady Mary Ann.” Even a basic search on youtube will reveal which versions have become (comparatively) dominant, even “standard,” and the slight but telling differences between them.

Happy listening! And now I’m curious – what are your favourites? What ballads have I omitted that really ought to be mentioned as often as possible?

Final words: should the death, pregnancy, and death in ballads (just warning ya!) get you down, here’s a lighthearted take on morals, folksong norms, and “Things I Learned From British Folk Ballads” by Jim Macdonald.

* If this comes across as flippant, I don’t mean it that way. The ballads – and the deplorable social, legal, and political conditions behind them – are enough to bring anyone to tears.

** Also, may I suggest that you listen to at least two versions of “Twa Sisters”? Later this month I will write about a short story based on this ballad. Or else I will have to go overboard with links to songs again :p The hard part is choosing which versions to listen to/link to/buy; there’s something to be said for all of them. *Cough* I hear it’s perfectly natural to have several versions of each song, and to listen to each on repeat. *Cough* Or so I hear.