Early Child Ballads

Dani of the Seven Wells
mka Dani Zweig

[ This was originally published as Compleat Anachronist # 91. This version has a few typoes corrected. ]


PART I: "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads"

1. What is a ballad?

a) Historical definitions
b) Francis James Child
c) Typical characteristics of traditional ballads

2. A short history of the traditional ballad

a) Precursors and early forms
b) Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ballads
c) Eighteenth-century balladry
d) The modern `rediscovery' of the ballad

PART II: Child Ballads for SCA Performance

3. A Short Tour of the Early Child Ballads

a) The Ravenscroft ballads
b) Early ballads missing the music
c) The Percy Folio
d) "It's almost period!"
e) More modern ballads

4. Performance

Sources and Resources


A ballad is a story, distilled to its essence and set to song. The song itself tends to be unpretentious - usually a simple verse form set to a modal melody - but an unpretentious song can still be lovely, as many ballads are. It is probable that simplicity has had much to do with the ballad's continued survival and popularity: Ballads have been passed down through the centuries, changing to suit the tastes of the singers, borrowing from the music of the day, borrowing from each other. Every few decades the ballad seems to undergo a revival, with old books and manuscripts being searched for old ballads and new inspiration. The result is a living musical tradition whose roots can be traced back over half a millenium.

This article focuses upon the traditional English and Scottish ballads often referred to as the Child ballads. These are the ballads such as the ubiquitous "Barbara Allen", "Scarborough Fair", "The Cruel Sister", "The House Carpenter", "The Three Ravens", "Geordie", "Sir Patrick Spens", "Lord Randall" (and hundreds of others) that many SCA musicians draw upon for early-music performance.

(I have assumed, in writing this article, that the reader will have at least a passing acquaintance with the traditional ballad. If not one of these titles is ringing any bells, you may want to listen to some of the recordings suggested in the discography before reading on.)

The discussion has been divided into two sections. The first provides a general overview: What are ballads? What distinguishes them from other kinds of song? Where do they come from?

The second section looks at ballads from the perspective of the SCA performer: Which ballads can be traced back earlier than the year 1600, or perhaps 1650? Where can they be found? What can be done with them? What can be done if (as is usually the case) your favorite ballad can't be traced back that far?

PART I: "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads"

1. What is a ballad?

a) Historical Definitions

The word `ballad' has mutated over the centuries. If you find the word `ballad' in a pre-1600 source, it is unlikely to be referring to a song that we would consider a ballad today. In the fifteenth century the word referred to a song meant to accompany a dance. Earlier than that, it referred to the French verse form (possibly set to music) for which we now reserve the term `ballade'. By the sixteenth century, any light, simple song might be called a ballad. ("Passtime with Good Company" was called a ballad in its day.)

At the end of the seventeenth century, the word generally referred to broadside ballads, which were often topical songs, set to the tunes of the day. (The broadsides themselves were the cheaply printed song sheets often sold on street corners. Some of the broadside ballads were songs we would call ballads today, but most were not. )

By the nineteenth century, `ballad' had come to refer to the sort of narrative verse we associate with ballads today. The ballad as popular song, however, had suffered enough of a decline that many academics only knew of it as a form of poetry. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), for instance, cites an 1870 definition of the ballad as "A simple spirited poem in short stanzas...in which some popular story is graphically narrated."

The modern definition of the ballad was captured, and largely defined, late in the nineteenth century, by the work of Francis James Child. Kittredge, in his abridgement of Child's collection of ballads, describes the ballad as

"...a song that tells a story, or - to take the other point of view -- a story told in song. More formally...a short poem, adapted for singing, simple in plot and metrical structure, divided into stanzas, and characterized by complete impersonality so far as the author or singer is concerned."

Our understanding of the ballad has changed somewhat since Kittredge's day (particularly with regards to his identification of the ballad as a literary form first, and only secondarily as song), but his definition is close enough to the modern one to serve as a jumping-off point for a lengthier attempt at characterizing the ballad form.

b) Francis James Child

The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published by Francis James Child at the end of the nineteenth century, embodies a definition of `ballad' which largely holds today. The five-volume collection included every traditional English or Scottish ballad Child was able to find - in manuscripts, in earlier collections, through the efforts of scholars who were beginning to seek such songs out in the countryside. In all, he identified 305 groups of songs, some with over a hundred variants, that he classified as traditional ballads.

Each group of songs is accompanied, in his collection, by an essay which places those songs within a broader cultural and historical context: Many of the tales, themes, and plot devices of English and Scottish ballads also appear in the ballads, tales, rhymes, sagas, lais, chansons, legends, folk-tales, folklore, fables, romances, etc., of other European countries. (Balladry was a continent-wide cultural phenomenon, not one restricted to the British isles. The ballads of any one country borrowed freely from the popular ballads of other countries, and from a shared cultural heritage.) Child's collection not only includes the lyrics of every song the author recognized as a traditional English or Scottish ballad, but also traces the roots of each ballad.

Child's judgment has stood the test of time superbly: There may be a handful of ballads in his collection which, in retrospect, perhaps shouldn't have been included. There may be another handful of ballads missing from his collection which, in retrospect, perhaps should have been included. By and large, though, we will not go too far wrong if we characterize the modern definition of `ballad' as "whatever Child was pointing to when he used the term." This article will deal with songs which Child recognized as traditional English or Scottish ballads (or with variants of those songs), and follows the convention of referring to such songs as "Child ballads".

Sidebar 1: A Note on Notation

c) Typical characteristics of traditional ballads

The traditional ballad has been described as "the only form of medieval vernacular poetry which has continously survived." What are the characteristics of the ballad that might account for its lasting appeal? Defining the ballad as "whatever Child calls a ballad" isn't very helpful in answering this question. However, using Child's collection as a touchstone, we can attempt to come up with a slightly more prescriptive definition of `ballad'.

It turns out to be difficult to produce a useful simple definition (there are always exceptions -- songs that don't meet a given definition but are generally considered to be ballads), but we can identify a number of typical characteristics of traditional ballads:

The first three of these characteristics are already present in Kittredge's definition. The fourth describes real-world practice, as reflected both in modern field studies and in analysis of earlier manuscripts. The issue of anonymous authorship and oral transmission has been a matter of considerable debate, and will be discussed last. All five characteristics are subject to exceptions.

Let's look at these characteristics in greater detail.

(i) A ballad tells a story

A ballad tells a story, or a piece of a story. That's central. I've heard it claimed that every song tells a story, but most songs actually do not do so, except peripherally. To adduce a popular example, "Greensleeves" (I gave her lots of clothes but she still wouldn't have me) doesn't tell a story, in any interesting sense of the word. "Sumer is Icumen In" (Spring is here! Spring is here!) certainly doesn't tell a story.

Conversely, not every narrative song is a ballad: The "Agincourt Carol", for instance, (Our King took his army to Agincourt, fought the French, and trounced them) can reasonably be said to tell a story, but it's too unlike a ballad in other respects.

One can find the odd song that's considered a ballad even though it's lost almost all vestiges of story. For instance, in "Scarborough Fair" (Child #2), the connection to the story has been lost almost completely: All that's left is a pair of singers exchanging lists of impossible tasks. It is included as one of the songs constituting Child #2 because it is so closely related to older ballads (see discussion in Part II) from whose bones we can still see scraps of story hanging.

(The "Scarborough Fair" that most of us know is a modern ballad. Throughout Part I of this article, I have been choosing ballad examples on the basis of their probable familiarity to the reader, rather than on the basis of their antiquity.)

(ii) The emphasis is on action and dialogue, not description or characterization

Ballads tend to cut to the heart of a story: This is what happened. This is who was there. This is what they did. This is what they said. Often the entire story is pared down to a dialogue, as in "Lord Randall" (Child #12):

"Oh where ha you been, Lord Randal my son?
And where ha you been, my handsome young man?"
"I ha been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I'm wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down..."

or in "Edward" (Child #13):

"How came this blood on your shirt sleeve,
O dear love, tell me, me, me?"
"It is the blood of my old gray hound
That traced the fox for me..."

where we leap past the (implicit) action to its aftermath. (Both are question-and-answer exchanges between the protagonist and his mother. In neither case do we see the murder being done; we only find out about it from the dialogue.) Not much attention is paid to what the characters are wearing, how lovely the trees are, or what a broken heart feels like.

Ballads tend to be characterized by impersonality on the part of the singer: The narrator is not personally touched by story, is not taking sides, and typically sings without much dramatization. When a judgment is to be voiced, it comes from within the tale. Consider "Barbara Allen" (Child #84): She rejects him. He dies of a broken heart. She dies of a broken heart. The singer isn't about to exclaim "How could she!"

We can find counter-examples to this detachment, as we can find counter-examples to most any generalization about the `typical' ballad: "The Bonny Earl of Murray" (Child #181) is atypical precisely because the singer is aghast at the Earl's murder, and is exclaiming

Ye hielands and ye lowlands,
Oh where ha'e ye been?
They hae slain the Earl of Murray,
And laid him on the green...

(iii) A ballad has a simple metrical structure and sentence structure

By far the most common balladic stanza form consists of four lines, with either four stresses per line, as in "The Twa Corbies" (Child #26):

As I´ was wal´king all´ alane´
I heard´ twa cor´bies mak´ing mane´,
The tane´ unto´ the ti´ther say´
"Whare´ sall we gang´ and dine´ the day´?"

or four stresses alternating with three stresses as in "Sir Patrick Spens" (Child #58):

The king´ sat´ in Dunferm´line town´
Drink´ing the bluid´-reid wine´;
"Oh where´ sall I´ get a sai´lor bold´
To sail´ this ship´ o mine´?"

Indeed, the latter is sometimes referred to as the "ballad stanza" or "ballad measure".

When the logic of the language calls for a three-line stanza, but the ballad form requires four, we often get a `weak' second line that fills out the count without actually saying anything. For example, "The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood" (Child #132) begins:

There chanced to be a pedlar bold,
A pedlar bold there chanced to be,
He put his pack upon his back
And so merrily trudged o'er the lee.

and "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (Child #156), begins:

Queen Eleanor was a sick woman,
And sick just like to die;
And she has sent for two friars of France
To come to her speedily.

The other common variation is the four-line stanza that is achieved by adding two lines of refrain to what would otherwise be a couplet, as in "The Cruel Mother" (Child #20):

Oh, children dear, if you were mine
Oh the rose and the lindsey-o
I'd dress you up in silks so fine
Down by the greenwood side-e-o.

(In general, refrains are where the music is most likely to force deviations from the common verse structure, and where exceptions are most likely to occur. An extreme instance is the refrain of "The Two Magicians", Child #44, which is twelve lines long!)

The simple verse form, strongly reinforced by the logic of the melody, has a tremendous influence on how the story is told. Speech and actions are typically structured in units of a half or full stanza, and this has a powerful tendency to keep the narrative lean. When things are happening in units of two or four short lines, there isn't much room for convoluted sentences, subordinate clauses, nested conditionals, or long descriptions. Rather, the form enforces simple sentences and descriptions, short story units, and short speech units. A single speech, in particular, will rarely carry over multiple stanzas.

The simple and ubiquitous metrical structure also means that phrases, formulae, and even entire stanzas from one ballad can be borrowed by many other ballads. (A `formula' is a stock wording that tends to migrate from ballad to ballad as a unit. For instance, the formula "Oh saddle to me my milk-white steed/Saddle to me my pony", crops up in numerous unrelated ballads.) Similarly, the standard scansion means that a given ballad can be sung to the tunes of a thousand other ballads.

(Singers tend to discover early that most songs can - with sufficient effort - be sung to the tunes of most other songs, but that the fit is much better if both songs have similar meters. Broadly and irreverently speaking, ballads with four stresses per line will scan better when sung to "Greensleeves", and ballads which alternate four- and three-stress lines will scan better to "Gilligan's Island".)

(iv) It is sung to a modal melody

Bertrand H. Bronson did for ballad music what Child did for the lyrics: His four-volume The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads collects 4120 tunes taken from manuscripts, field recordings, and earlier collections, as well as many lyrics that were not available to Child. Each group of songs is accompanied by a short essay tracing or analyzing its music. His analysis of ballad tunes shows that they are overwhelmingly modal: About 5% had asystematic gaps in their scales (usually a missing sixth); about 5% had accidentals (usually an inflected seventh). The other 90% were purely modal. Popular modern musical practice, by contrast, is heavily chromatic.

There is a strong preference for the major modes - Ionian, Mixolydian, and related gapped scales - but considerable use is made of the minor modes - Aeolian, Dorian, and related scales. (The Lydian and Phrygian modes are rare, except in combination with the other major and minor modes, respectively, and the Locrian mode is almost unknown in western European music.)

Modern musicians have a strong tendency to force early music into major/minor tonality. If you have learned an originally-Mixolydian ballad from another singer, or from a modern recording, there is a good chance that it has been changed to major/Ionian by sharping the seventh. If the ballad was originally Dorian, there is an excellent chance that it has been changed to minor/Aeolian by flatting the sixth.

Sidebar 2: The Diatonic Modes

(v) The ballad derives from an oral tradition, with anonymous authorship

The distinction between traditional songs and composed ones, between folk ballads and literary ballads, was of great concern to scholars (and folk musicians) earlier in this century. Some scholars saw the two kinds of ballads as completely distinct -- the extreme viewpoint being that traditional ballads never had composers, but somehow evolved from the primordial musical ooze through some folk process. Even those who rejected this distinction, however, tended to view ballads which had not undergone some oral transmission with a degree of suspicion.

The suspicion is not unjustified: Literary creations in the style of traditional ballads really do tend to have a different `feel' from those which have undergone the test of oral transmission.

Sidebar 3: Young Waters - A Question of Authenticity

It is worth being aware, particularly if you wish to read older discussions of ballads, that the subject of anonymous authorship and transmission is one over which bitter academic wars have been fought, and barrels of heart's ink have been shed. Personally, I am leery of the stereotyped distinction between county-folk, singing the songs they learned from their grandparents, and city-folk, writing new works of artifice. Songwriters have always been delighted to filch good songs and inspirations from the countryside, or wherever else they could be found, and country-folk have always been as interested in learning the latest songs from London as in resinging their grandparents' hand-me-downs.

For the purposes of SCA recreation, the dichotomy between an oral tradition and a written one is particularly unhelpful: The ballads we can trace to our period are the ones that someone wrote down, or we wouldn't be able to trace them. We can make guesses as to whether they existed in the oral tradition before they were written down, but we can rarely be sure. Nor can we know the extent to which those who recorded them embellished them in the process.

2. A Short History of the Traditional Ballad

The Child ballad is a late-period phenomenon, by SCA standards. Such ballads may or may not have been sung as far back as the fifteenth century. They were certainly being sung by the sixteenth century, but not many of them were being recorded. Our good records don't begin until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the ballads that are popular today are usually nineteenth- or twentieth-century variants. If you want to fit your favorite ballads to SCA use, you will probably have to peel off several centuries of accretions.

a) Precursors and early forms

Were songs that we would call ballads being sung in the England and Scotland of the fifteenth (or even fourteenth) century? It's possible, but we can't prove it The popular metrical romances of the day, such as "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" (which survived to become Child ballad #31), have marked resemblance to ballads, but it is not clear that they existed as popular song, as opposed to the repertoire of minstrels. There is some evidence that the Child ballads that do date to this time were being recited - possibly to some musical accompaniment - rather than sung.

Consider the Robin Hood ballads, for instance. There are thirty-eight in Child's collection (Child #117-154), but we possess almost no music for them, and that little is from the eighteenth century or later. Our oldest reference to these ballads is in "Piers Plowman", in the late fourteenth century, where they are referred to as "rymes of Robyn Hood". One of the earliest surviving `rymes', -- "Robin Hood and the Monk" (Child #119), from about 1450 AD -- refers to itself as a `talking', rather than a song, which makes it plausible that, at least originally, it was meant to be spoken. The last verse of "Robin Hood and the Monk" is

Thus endys the talkyng of the munke
And Robyn Hode i-wysse;
God, that is euer a crowned kyng,
Bryng us al to his blisse!

Once the ballad form became popular, it began to borrow freely from the carols, riddle songs, popular stories, and romances of this time. There is no doubt that many of our ballads have elements that can be traced back to the fourteen-hundreds, or earlier. There is no song we can point to, however, saying "This ballad was being sung in the fifteenth century."

b) Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century ballads

The sixteenth century saw the gradual disappearance of the old-style romances, along with the minstrels who used to sing or recite them. Concurrently, increasing numbers of songs and ballads were being recorded, registered, and printed for sale. This was not just a British phenomenon: Ballads were popular throughout Europe, and the English-language ballad tradition shows considerable borrowing from other lands.

By the end of the sixteenth century, we begin to accumulate a reasonable body of documentable balladry: Most of the Child ballads that we can trace to the SCA's period will be traceable to the very end of the period.

The ballad form remained popular through the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century. What we now call the ballad had established itself as a popular genre, and appeared in broadsides, books (eg, collections of Robin Hood ballads, known as `garlands'), and plays (eg, ballad operas, which were plays in which the actors would periodically break into song for little reason or none -- as they have tended to do in musical productions ever since).

Popular ballad tunes also become easier to locate, as they tended to appear in music collections, dance manuals, song books, instrumental instruction manuals, and broadsides. (This was the age of the broadside ballad. Most broadside ballads are not considered ballads, as we are using the term, but they frequently named the popular tunes to which they should be sung - and sometimes even provided the music - so they are valuable for what they tell us about the popular music of the day.)

c) Eighteenth-century balladry

The eighteenth century saw two major ballad revivals. One came in mid-century, and was marked by Bishop Thomas Percy's collection and publication (in his 1765 "Reliques of Ancient English Poetry") of many of the old ballads he was able to acquire. The other came at the end of the century, through the efforts of Sir Walter Scott and his circle. Most of our obviously-Scottish ballads date to this time or later.

(These revivals are a mixed blessing from our perspective. We are indebted to them for a great deal of our current ballad repertoire. On the other hand, people like Thomas Percy were both eager to impute great antiquity to their ballads, and happy to `improve' them. The combination tends to muddy the historical record.)

Most magical and supernatural ballad themes also tend to enter ballads at this time. If a ballad has ghosts, or people returning from the dead, or magicians casting spells, it is most likely (thought not certain) to have come from the eighteenth century or later. In earlier ballads, supernatural influences are largely restricted to the devil and the occasional elf. (The latter tended to be unnatural minions of evil, not Tolkien-type elves.)

d) The modern `rediscovery' of the ballad

By Child's day, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, many considered the ballad a literary form, only incidentally connected to song. Late in the century, however, scholars began to realize that an oral ballad tradition still survived in both England and the United States. Most of the traditional tunes we know were gathered in the frenzy of ballad collection that followed this realization, and most ballad performances with which people are familiar today are reworkings and updatings of that material.


Take a theme with broad appeal - a love triangle, a killing, an elopement, a haunting, a long-lost lover returned, a sea battle, a land battle, a rejected wooer grieving, a villain outwitted, a husband won, a monster defeated, or any of a hundred others. Set it to a easily-remembered verse form and a singable melody. Modify it as desired to suit the tastes of your audience, to fit a popular new tune, or maybe just to fill in gaps where you don't quite remember the lyrics you originally learned. This is a formula for a song that can survive in the popular domain for centuries.

At least, the idea of the song can survive for centuries through changes in lyrics, changes in melody, loss of old plot elements, and introduction of new ones. The bad news is that the versions of ancient ballads that survive to modern times tend to survive because they have been adapted to modern tastes. Sometimes we are lucky, and can find records of earlier versions of the same ballads, but usually what we have to work with is a relatively modern song in a very old tradition.

The good news is that when we are lucky, we have a song that - possibly with a bit of modification - is likely to appeal to modern listeners. The very factors that kept the ballad tradition alive work in our favor.

Part II: Child Ballads for SCA Performance

3. A Short Tour of the Early Child Ballads

From an SCA standpoint, the continued popularity of the ballad brings both benefit and difficulty. It means that references, lyrics, sheet music, and recordings are relatively easy to come by, and that performances will be accessible to modern audiences. It also means, however, that the ballads people find most familiar will be relatively modern -- or will have acquired relatively modern overlays.

A major purpose of this section is to identify the earlier ballads to which we still have access. If you are interested in finding and performing early traditional ballads within the SCA, this discussion is meant to give you a start, by identifying promising candidates and useful sources.

We have a corpus of literally thousands of ballads. How do we determine which ones date back to our period? Internal evidence for the age of a ballad is an unreliable guide, partly because of an eighteenth-century tendency to cloak new ballads in an appearance of antiquity. (This doesn't mean that if a ballad is convincingly ancient in style we shouldn't feel free to abduct it, just that we can't make confident claims about its antiquity.) Traditions of antiquity are a weak reed as well: Anyone who believes that some village in the English Midlands or the American Appalachians or the Isles has passed its songs down unchanged for three or four centuries is showing more optimism than the evidence will support. For the most part, we are forced to lean on sparse documentary evidence. A short tour of the evidence follows.

a) The Ravenscroft ballads

The only Child ballads for which we can document words and matching music prior to 1650 are "The Baffled Knight" (Child #112) and "John Dory" (Child #284) from Thomas Ravenscroft's Deuteromelia (1609) and "The Three Ravens" (Child #26) from his Melismata (1611). Ravenscroft's books are relatively easy to find in facsimile reprints.

"The Three Ravens" (Child #26) is still popular, and one often hears it. There is persuasive internal evidence (in both the lyrics and the music) that it goes back (in some form) as far as the fifteenth century, but there is no proof. Ravenscroft gives a four-part arrangement, but one most often hears this ballad being sung by a single voice. The "Twa Corbies" version of this ballad (clearly a spoof on the original, with hawks, hound, and maid promptly deserting the fallen knight) comes from the nineteenth century.

Sidebar 4: The Three Ravens

Ravenscroft also provides a four-part setting, with an intricately-timed refrain, for "The Baffled Knight" (Child #112). The decisions involved in singing the piece are somewhat more straight-forward than they are for "The Three Ravens", and the result - whether solo or in four parts - is a sprightly and energetic song. Performers may wish to edit some verses, however, as there is but a limited market today for ballads whose moral is "rape her while you have the chance". This ballad is rarely recorded, but some readers may be familiar with a more modern variant of the ballad, titled "Lovely Joan".

"John Dory" (Child #284) is known to have been sung before 1600. It is a three-part round and doesn't work well as a solo piece. The three parts are staggered at two-measure intervals, each part singing the entire song through once. The song is structured so that two or three of the parts are usually singing identical words simultaneously, thus:

1: As it fell on a holy day, as it fell on a holy day,                 holy day
2:                           As it fell on a holy day, as it fell on a holy day
3:                                                     As it fell on a holy day

1:     and upon an holy tide-a,  upon an holy tide-a               tide-a...
2:                 holy day, and upon an holy tide-a, upon an holy tide-a...
3: as it fell on a holy day              holy day and upon an holy tide-a...

(The long gaps are rests.) Since phrases are constantly being repeated - note that key words and phrases are often sung by two or three singers simultaneously - the audience can readily follow the song even if it is sung quite quickly. (If nine verses are too many - even at close to three verses per minute - verses two, seven and eight (and possibly three) can be clipped without seriously harming the story line.) I will allow that this ballad/round is more notable for its novelty than for its elegance.

I've looked at the Ravenscroft ballads at length because of their documentability and accessibility. The ballads in the sections that follow will require more patchwork. There are also enough of them that it will not be possible to treat them all at length: In many cases, a name and a reference will have to suffice.

b) Early ballads missing the music

We have a modest number of ballads for which we have period lyrics, but no matching music from the SCA's period. If there is no music, or if the out-of-period music is too modern in style for our needs, we can follow period custom and sing the ballads for whose words we have period sources, to whatever period tunes seem to fit. (The simple metrical structure makes the tunes highly interchangeable.)

Broadsides are a good source of recommendations for tunes. While some broadsides, particularly later ones, came with music, the more common custom was to name a popular tune to which the song or ballad could be sung.

John Playford's books also tend to be a rich source of popular tunes - though you will sometimes want to distinguish between a 1650 tune that was already popular in 1550 and a 1650 tune that was composed in 1649. A search of a good microfilm collection, under Playford's name, will not only turn up his 1651 "The English Dancing Master" (printed in 1650), but also song books and collections of instrumental music. (Many of these were meant for beginners, and are good sources of simple popular melodies.)

If you want to slip period somewhat further, other good sources of melodies are later editions of Playford's dance manuals, song books, and instrumental manuals, D'Urfey's 1719-20 "Pills to Purge Melancholy", and John Gay's 1728 "The Beggar's Opera". But be aware of the vitality of the English music of the time: Most of the songs that were appearing at this time were not decades or centuries old. Before you fit lyrics written in the fifteenth century to a tune from an eighteenth-century collection, satisfy yourself that the tune would not have been wildly out of place in an earlier time!

Pre-1600 ballads for which we have lyrics, but lack tunes, are:

"The Fair Flower of Northumberland" (Child #9, 1597). This ballad of an English lady seduced and wronged by a Scot does have a few tunes associated with it, but none from prior to the nineteenth century.

"St. Stephen and Herod" (Child #22, c. 1450). Not only do we have no tune for this tale of Stephen leaving Herod's service and being martyred, but we have no way of knowing whether it ever did have a tune. Note that the original lyrics fit the ballad meter nicely, but that an attempt to modernize the language, so as to make it more accessible to a modern audience, may damage the scansion if not managed with care:

He kyst adoun the boris hed and went in to the halle
"I forsak the, kyng Herowdes, and thi workes alle."

"Judas" (Child #23, 13th C.). An interesting tale of Judas selling Christ and being robbed in turn by his own sister. This is one one of the few members of the Child collection whose inclusion is a subject of debate. The debate centers, however, on the question of whether it was ever a song in the oral tradition or whether it was purely a literary creation. It is certainly an early exemplar of ballad style (though the meter is sometimes uneven). The problem of navigating between language that a modern audience might not understand, and language that might not work poetically, is two centuries more acute than it was in the case of "St. Stephen":

"Be stille, leve soster, thin herte the tobreke
Wiste min loverd Crist, ful wel he wolde be wreke"

"Crow and Pie" (Child #111, c. 1500). Another ballad that may not work for a modern audience: He attempts to seduce her, she refuses, he rapes her. The moral for young maidens: Don't get raped.

"Robyn and Gandelyn" (Child #115, c. 1450); "A Gest of Robyn Hode" (Child #117, c. 1500); "Robin Hood and the Monk" (Child #119, c. 1450); "Robin Hood and the Potter" (Child #121, c. 1500). The `rymes' of Robin Hood were popular very early, and a number have survived - though the first organized collection (`garland') of Robin Hood ballads did not appear in print until 1663. These ballads tend to be long - more fit for an evening's story-telling - and to have little or no musical tradition associated with them. Anyone wishing to work the ballads of Robin Hood into singable shape probably faces a great deal of effort. A special mention should be made of "A Gest of Robin Hood", which is thought to have been a skilled conflation of several earlier ballads, and may originally date back as far as 1400. It's 456 verses long, so don't sing it all in one place!

(This is as good a place as any - for lack of better - to note the existence of "A Tale of Robin Hood" (Child #154), for which we have lyrics from 1632).

"Adam Bell" (Child #116, 16th C.). This ballad was printed numerous times in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the earliest date of registration being 1557. It reads like a Robin Hood ballad with the names changed.

"Sir Andrew Barton" (Child #167, 16th C.). Why Child considered this ballad to be distinct from "Henry Martin" (Child #250) is a minor mystery. Both tales of a Scottish seafarer plundering English merchants are usually just identified as Child #167/250. The "Andrew Barton" version is the earlier. It's also long, and will require considerable editing (in addition to a tune) before a modern audience is likely to sit through it. Sixteenth-century broadsides often came with instructions to sing "Andrew Barton" to "Come follow my Love", which was plausibly the lost-to-us melody of "The Fair Flower of Northumberland".

Early Ballads with Hints of Early Melody

Sometimes, when you can't firmly document a melody to our period, you can at least offer a plausible argument.

"Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child #1) presents a set of (usually the same nine) riddles being asked of a maid. Both in the earliest version we have of this ballad ("Inter diabolus et virgo", c. 1450) and in the modern Appalachian version ("The Devil's Nine Questions") the song consists only of the devil asking the riddles and the maid answering them. Versions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries often add a framing story in which a wooer (either an honest one or the devil in disguise) asks the questions.

We can follow the advice of the restoration broadsides which instruct us to sing the ballad to "Lay the bent to the bonny broom". Although our earliest printed version of "Lay the bent to the bonny broom" is that of D'Urfey, from 1719, Bronson observes that the music is far older in style.

Sidebar 5: Riddles Wisely Expounded

"Sir Eglamore" (Child #18). Sir Eglamore, a hero of fourteenth-century French lais, came to England in the metrical ballad "Sir Eglamore of Artois", in which the knight battles giants and wild boars for his beloved. He experienced a resurgence in popularity at the start of the 1600s, and "Sir Eglamore and the Dragon" (and parodies thereof) continued to appear in broadsides and songbooks into the eighteenth century. Child grouped "Sir Eglamore" with the "Sir Lionel" ballads (Child #18), a mostly-farcical collection which runs to heroes rescuing treed maidens from wild boars and their ilk. (Modern fantasy cliches notwithstanding, period songs rarely featured dragons: Wild boars were much scarier.)

Our earliest written version of "Sir Eglamore and the Dragon" appears in Samuel Rowlands's 1615 The Melancholie Knight. The author suggests an earlier source, writing "The history unto you shall appeare/Even by myselfe verbatim set downe heere:" [italics in the original], but he does not name his source. The song remained remarkably stable, eventually appearing in "Pills to Purge Melancholy" (D'Urfey, 1719/20) with only minor changes.

The song is printed with a three-part musical arrangement in Playford's 1686 "The Second Book of the Pleasant Musical Companion". An earlier two-part arrangement can only be dated back as far as the 1650s.

Sidebar 6: Sir Eglamore

"King John and the Bishop" (Child #45, from the Percy Folio) appears in later broadsides which list tunes to which it may be sung. One of these is "The Shaking of the Sheets" - an Elizabethan tune which appears in Playford's 1650/1 dance manual as "The Night Peece". Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between the Percy lyrics and the Playford tune: The first half of each verse requires considerable distortion in order to match the first half of the melody, though the second half fits quite well:

Off an ancient story Ile tell you anon,
Of a notable prince that was called King Iohn,
In England was borne, with maine and with might;
Hee did much wrong and mainteined little right.

The story itself comes from an old tradition, with King John threatening to kill the Bishop of Canterbury if the latter cannot answer three (unreasonable) riddles.

"The Battle of Otterburn" (Child #161) goes back at least as far as 1550. (The battle in question was fought between the English and the Scots in 1338.) Sir Walter Scott assigned it a tune which is essentially that of the 1627 "Alas I lie my alun, I'm lik to die awld".

"The Hunting of the Cheviot" (Child #162) also goes back at least as far as 1550 (we don't know which of the two ballads was written first), and tells the story of the Battle of Otterburn from the Scottish, rather than the English, perspective (which puts the English in a worse light). Chappell cites Elizabethan broadsides which direct readers to sing this ballad (referred to as "Chevy Chase") to "Peascod Time" - a tune for which we have a number of Elizabethan instrumental arrangements. (A good many broadsides, later in the seventeenth century, call for assorted ballads to be sung to the tune of "Chevy Chase", but we can't be confident that "Peascod Time" was still intended.)

"Captain Car" or "Edom O Gordon" (Child #178) - a tale of a massacre in the north of Scotland - goes back to the late 16th century. Chappell associates this ballad with a contemporary tune also called "Sick and Sick". (Bronson in turn, argues that the fit is a poor one.)

"The Friar in the Well" (Child #276) gives us the opposite problem. We have a tune (and a good one) in Playford's 1650/1 English Dancing Master ("The Maid peepd out at the window, or the Frier in the well"), but our earliest copy of the words comes from a few years later. However, we have scattered references to this ballad going back to the sixteenth century - the earliest being in John Skelton's "Colyn Clout", in 1522:

But when the freare fell in the well
He coud not syng himselfe therout
But by the helpe of Christyan Clout.

An entertaining song.

Sidebar 7: The Friar in the Well

c) The Percy Folio

At some time in the mid-seventeeth century (possibly in the 1640s, possibly in the early 1650s), someone made a concerted effort to preserve what was by then a dying tradition of minstrelsy, and copied down (possibly from dictation) a large body of song. A century later, Bishop Thomas Percy, an antiquarian, found the manuscript in the parlor of a friend, where its pages were being used by the maids to light the fire! Percy rescued it and had it bound - whereupon the binder trimmed the pages even, cutting more lines off the tops and bottoms of some pages! Percy published some material from the folio (well, based on the folio - he wasn't above `improving' it), and the manuscript itself (what was left of it) was published in 1867, in three volumes of about five-hundred pages each.

Among the contents of the manuscript are 31 ballads for which we have no other pre-1650 sources. They tend to be quite long and [politically] topical, and most of them have no known musical tradition. Producing songs with audience-appeal from these ballads is likely to be challenging. Your best bet, if you wish to perform one of them, may be to trim it to a manageable size and find some tune to which to fit it (whether by selecting an appropriate broadside tune or even writing your own).

For the benefit of the terminally ambitious, I have listed the Percy ballads for which we have no musical or oral tradition:

Child #



The Boy and the Mantle


King Arthur and King Cornwall


The Marriage of Sir Gawaine


The Death of Young Andrew


Old Robin of Portinagle


Will Stuart and John


Christopher White


Tom Potts


Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne


Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar


Hugh Spencer's Feats in France


Durham Field


Sir John Butler


The Rose of England


Thomas Cromwell


Musselburgh Field


Earl Bothwell


The Rising in the North


Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas


The Earl of Westmoreland


King James and Brown

A few of the Percy ballads did remain in the oral tradition, though in few cases do we have melodies predating the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries:

Child #



Earl Brand


Sir Lionel


The Maid and the Palmer


King John and the Bishop


Sir Aldingar


Sir Cawline


Child Waters


Child Maurice


Tom Potts


Robin Hood's Death


Jock o the Side


The Heir of Linne

The first four of these are the better-known. "Earl Brand" (Child #7) is best known today for its offshoot, the song "The Bold Soldier". "Sir Lionel" (Child #18), is related to many `wild boar' ballads, as well as to "Sir Eglamore". Fans of Irish folk music may recognize "The Maid and the Palmer" (Child #21) as "The Well Below the Valley-O". "King John and the Bishop" (Child #45) was discussed in the previous section. It is worth noting that the Percy folio does not give refrains for its ballads, even in cases where we have strong reason to believe that such refrains were sung in the oral tradition.

The Percy Folio is interesting to us, as a window on an older tradition of balladry, but its ballads tend to constitute particularly recalcitrant material for the modern performer.

d) "It's almost period!"

Not surprisingly, there are many ballads dating back to the latter half of the seventeenth century, and far more dating back to the eighteenth century. These include variations of some of the most popular ballads so, bearing in mind that they are out of period, it may be worth taking a peek. Among the more note-worthy ballads of the late 1600s...

"Scarborough Fair" (Child #2) is a modern ballad: The "parsely, sage, rosemary, and thyme" lyrics can be traced to the early nineteenth century, and the melody popularized and modified by Simon and Garfunkel can be traced to the late nineteenth century. An earlier form of this ballad, however, "The Elfin Knight", can be documented back to 1670. The impossible tasks are the familiar ones, but to them is added the barest skeleton of a plot: The reason the singer is making impossible demands is so that she won't have to marry an Elvish suitor. Our earliest melodies for "The Elfin Knight" come from the eighteenth century.

We have broadsides going back to 1656 with the words to "The Cruel Sister" (Child #10, in which two sisters are wooed by the same man, and the less favored drowns her sister). It is frequently sung today to the tune of "Lay the bent to the bonny broom". (See "Riddles Wisely Expounded", above.) The 1656 lyrics don't quite scan to the "Lay the bent" melody, and modern singers usually opt for slightly modified lyrics that do scan. For example, you might hear the verse "Somtymes she sanke, somtymes she swam/Until she came unto the mill-dam" rendered as "Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam/Until she came to the broad mill-dam".

We have pre-1620 fragments of "Fair Margaret and Sweet William" (Child #74), of "Matty Groves" (Child #81, for which we have a full set of lyrics from 1658) and of "The Knight and the Shepherd's Daughter" (Child #110, which many will recognize from Steeleye Span's "Royal Forester"). Such fragments give us confidence that the ballads in question were being sung at the earlier date, but they do not suffice to tell us how similar they were to the versions we actually have in hand -- and you're on your own for tunes.

We have later-seventeenth-century lyrics (again, without tunes) for "The Cruel Mother" (Child #20, "The Greenwood Side"), "Queen Eleanor's Confession" (Child #156, "to a pleasant new tune"), "Hughie Grame" (Child #191), and "The Daemon Lover" (Child #243, "The House Carpenter"). The last of these appeared around 1660 as [takes a deep breath] "A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit, the manner how shall presently be recited. To a West-country tune called `The Fair Maid of Bristol,' `Bateman,' or `John True.'" The lyrics have much in common with those of the familiar nineteenth-century "Well met, well met" version of the ballad.

And there is a constellation of ballads whose events are placed in period (e.g., "Edward the Fourth and a Tanner of Tamworth" (Child #273), "Captain Ward and the Rainbow" (Child #287), "The Young Earl of Essex's Victory over the Emperor of Germany" (Child #288). Any of these might plausibly have started life as topical ballads in period -- but we can't prove it.

e) More modern ballads

Many of the traditional ballads with which a modern audience is most likely to be familiar cannot, unfortunately, be documented before the eighteenth century. In view of their popularity, it is tempting to try to establish some tenuous connection to earlier times. In the case of a few modern ballads, we can almost come close to doing so:

"Lord Randall" (Child #12) seems to have roots in Italy, in the early 1600s, but our earliest English versions are from the late eighteenth century, and our earliest musical records (English or Italian) are from the nineteenth century. The children's song "Billie Boy" is generally taken to be based on this ballad, as are the relatively silly "Henry My Son" versions.

"Barbara Allen" (Child #84) is perhaps the most widely-spread of all Child's ballads. It goes back a long way -- Pepys wrote of hearing it sung in 1666 -- but our earliest versions of the text date to the mid-eighteenth century and the music can't even be traced back that far.

"The Jolly Beggar" (Child #279) is traditionally attributed to James V of Scotland, but there is little evidence for this attribution. Pepys (c.1660) printed a broadside ballad with a similar plot, but the earliest version we have of "The Jolly Beggar" proper comes from the eighteenth century.

The familiar "The Death of Queen Jane" (Child #170) is fairly modern, but the text can be traced at least to the mid-eighteenth century, and songs with similar titles were registered in period.

"The Gypsy Laddie" (Child #200), which can only be traced to the early eighteenth century, is widely believed to be based on historical events which took place around 1600. Bronson identifies a 1630 melody ("Lady Cassiles Lilt") which he considers to have plausibly gone with this ballad.

"Geordie" (#209) can't be directly be traced earlier than the late eighteenth century either. The Scottish version of the ballad may be based on a mid-sixteenth century incident involving George Gordon, the Earl of Huntly. ("There was a battle in the north/And nobles there was many/And they hae kill'd Sir Charlie Hay/And they laid the wyte on Geordie.") The English version ("My Geordie never stole nor ox nor cow/He never murdered any/Stole sixteen of the king's royal deer/And sold them in Boheeny.") appears to have gotten tangled with a ballad about "George of Oxford" (who was hanged for robbery), which goes back to the seventeenth century in broadside form.

"The Golden Vanity" (#286) first appears as "Sir Walter Raleigh sailing in the Low-Lands", in the late seventeenth century. It may have deeper historical roots but, as is so often the case, we can't prove it. Our tunes are modern.

A marginal case: "The Riddle Song" ("I gave my love a cherry that has no stone/I gave my love a chicken that has no bone...") is traceable to a song from about 1450 ("Che sente me the cherye / withoutyn ony ston/And so che dede dowe withoutyn ony bon..."). It is not itself a ballad (lacking, as it does, a story to go with the riddles). However, its riddles are embedded within "Captain Wedderburn's Courtship" (Child #46, which is itself, however, out of period).

(I've taken pains to stress the untrustworthiness of oral tradition. It takes time for an ear raised on rock music to recognize how different a twentieth-century folk tune sounds from a popular Elizabethan or Restoration tune -- and the singers least able to tell the difference tend to be the most likely to airily assume that a ballad transmitted by Jean Ritchie or Jeannie Robertson is "practically period". The example of "The Riddle Song" demonstrates that some material - lyrics, in this case, does show remarkable staying power and stability.)

There are dozens of old ballads out there. I've been listing candidates at length because intuition is a poor guide for selecting them out from their more modern companions: The ones whose subject matter we think of as archaic (ballads of the supernatural, for example) generally originated in the eighteenth century; the ones whose melodies sound `oldest' to the modern ear can frequently be traced to the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

There is an ever-present (and long-standing) temptation to attribute antiquity to relatively modern ballads, by arguing that traditional singers passed them unchanged, from generation to generation, for centuries. Avoid it. We can show that some ballads were transmitted faithfully in some respects (e.g., by identifying distinctive names and phrases that survived on both sides of the Atlantic), but there is no way on earth to make the leap to claiming that any given ballad did not undergo considerable mutation, as well.

Something we can do, if we're willing to make the effort, is try to document, convincingly, that a modern ballad is old enough in style that it could have been performed in period without raising eyebrows.

4. Performance

I only have a few comments to offer here, that are specific to the performance of ballads. The first is a warning against adopting modern ballad styles. While modern chromatic/electronic/rock-influenced performance practice is out of place in an SCA setting, so is the stereotypically `ethnic' style often adopted by `traditional' folk musicians in emulation of some American mountain styles. Equally out of place, is the introduction of Scottish or Irish accents unless they are really needed. (For example, "The Twa Corbies" requires the dialect. Without it, we get botched rhymes, long vowels where the song requires short ones, and even a few lines that just don't make sense in standard English. By contrast, "The Great Silkie" is an originally-Orkney ballad that is often inappropriately Scotched, presumably in a misguided effort to make it sound more `authentic'.)

A related warning is to avoid confusing authenticity with dullness. Performers often try to make their ballads sound more `authentic' by making them less interesting, musically, but this is a mistake that does neither the performers nor their audiences a favor. If there is an authentic style to be captured it is that of a musically sophisticated part of sixteenth century Europe, not that of a nineteenth-century backwater.

I regret that I have little specific advice to offer as to the peformance styles that would have been appropriate for a late-period ballad. The little practical advice we can glean from the writings of the timesuggests a clear, natural tone, with clear diction and articulation. Modern performance practices that should probably be avoided are the introduction of vibrato, and the use of loud, forceful singing for emphasis.

Once you have chosen a ballad, it may require adaptation for a current audience. A five-verse ballad will go over better than a fifty-verse ballad, for instance. (Human nature hasn't changed that much. We are as ready to sit through a two-hour Robin Hood movie as our predecessors were to sit through a two-hour Robin Hood "talking". The circumstances are much different, however, when you are performing at a bardic circle, or between courses of a feast: Don't rely on holding an audience for more than three to five minutes at a time under such conditions.)

You may have to make decisions about archaic wording or pronunciation. (Is it worth being authentic if you're the only one in the room who understands the song?) You may have to modify the melody. The refrain from a four-part arrangement, for instance, may sound bare if you are the only one singing. There may be a minor misfit between the lyrics and the melody which will require you to tinker a bit with the words - or with the melody. The bottom line, for SCA performance, is that most of the early ballads we have are not finished songs, but raw materials from which such songs can be crafted.

Sources and Resources

If you wish to find words, music, and background information for the Child ballads, here are some starting points:


Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898. This is the grand-daddy book, and the first place to look for background information. It will rarely provide your final singable text, however.

Bertrand H Bronson, The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads, 1959-1972. Bronson did for music what Child did for lyrics. This four-volume collection contains every tune Bronson could find in print or in tradition. (An excellent paperback abridgement of this book is still in print from Princeton University Press.) Bronson's bibliography is also likely to serve as your best jumping-off point in your search for original sources.

William Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Times, 1855-1859. This is one of the first places to look for tunes to which early ballads can be fitted. Chappell's scholarship is shaky by modern standards, however, so you'll want to check his material against original sources, once he's pointed you in their direction.

Simpson, Claude M., The British Broadside Ballad and Its Music, 1966. This is the best available reference on the subject of the broadside ballad. The music of the British broadside ballad is one of your best available sources of popular tunes which are likely to fit a ballad.

Percy's Folio Manuscript, Ballads and Romances, edited by John W Hales and Frederick J Furnivall, 1867-1868. A three-volume publication of the Percy folio.

See also:

Thomas D'urfey, Wit and Mirth or Pills to Purge Melancholy, 1719-1720, which often provides our earliest good source for a song or its music.

John Playford, The English Dancing Master, 1650-1651, which is one of the best sources of popular end-of-period English music.

The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, edited by Maitland and Squire, 1899, a late-Elizabethan compendium of musical arrangements, a fair number of which are based upon popular songs, though distilling a melody from the virginal arrangement may be difficult.

Gregory Blount of Isenfir's ballads web page at http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/ballads/. Greg Lindahl has compiled a considerable collection of materials specifically pertaining to the SCA's period of interest, with an emphasis on pre-1600 broadside ballads.

Modern Recordings:

There are many early-music collections that contain one or two early ballads, but I don't know of any collection that concentrates on early ballads and achieves an early performance style I would advise people to emulate. The brief discography which follows will therefore be devoted to modern balladry. Its purpose is to enable the reader to become acquainted with a portion of the ballad repertoire, in a variety of current styles. These three sources represent three `generations' of modern ballad interpretation:

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger. MacColl and Seeger went to considerable efforts to record as many traditional ballads as they could. Their most comprehensive collections is the ten-record set The Long Harvest, Argo Record Company, London, 1967, which presents ballads in multiple variants from multiple traditions or sources.

Joan Baez. Baez repopularized the traditional ballad in the sixties and seventies. The recordings in "The Joan Baez Ballad Book" represent the most widely-available snapshot of the balladry that is likely to be familiar to a modern audience.

Steeleye Span. The most recent widely-popular reinterpretation of the traditional ballad is the folk/rock interpretation of Steeleye Span. I regret to note that electric guitars and overdriven amplifiers are outside our immediate scope of interest, but these recordings - besides being worth hearing in their own right - have tended to popularize uncommon ballads. There is no single ballad collection, but each of their albums is likely to contain two or three Child ballads.

Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl)