Sidebar 3: Young Waters - A Question of Authenticity

The statement that ballads which have undergone oral transmission have a different `feel' from literary creations is obviously subjective. Still, there is something real underlying that subjective judgment. In order for a ballad to survive oral transmission, it has to be worth transmitting. A literary ballad can be remarkably bad, but if the paper on which it was written survives long enough, it will still be around centuries later. A ballad in the oral tradition will die if those who hear it feel no inclination to sing it themselves.

On the perhaps-less-positive side, the process of transmission tends to blur some types of literary flourishes. The particularly clever play on words, the unusual image, the striking metaphor, often rely upon the precise wording of a verse for their effectiveness. In oral transmission, couplets are often swapped for other couplets (perhaps formulae from other ballads) that may serve similar functions. (Maybe they scan better. Maybe the singer couldn't quite remember the words to the original version. Maybe the original got garbled a bit in transmission, and what was left didn't make much sense. Maybe the singer just liked the new version better.) So are entire stanzas. This process is unkind to some literary devices.

"Young Waters" (Child #94) - a fourteen-stanza ballad about a man whom the king executes because the queen praises him - may illustrate both sides. The earliest claimed sighting of the ballad is a 1755 publication titled "Young Waters, an Ancient Scotish Poem, never before printed." If it was a literary creation (a question which occupies much of Child's essay on this ballad - he seems to have decided that it was an embellished version of a traditional ballad), it was a fine one, and the writer clearly made an effort to effect a traditional ballad style. Still, there are turns of phrase that suggest a literary hand. To adduce one example, Bronson points out Waters's description, which begins:

His fottmen they did rin before,
His horsemen rade behind;
Ane mantel of the burning gowd
Did keip him frae the wind.

What I wrote earlier, about ballads not paying attention to how people dressed, was an oversimplification: Clothing is described, but almost always conventionally, e.g. "She dressed herself in silk so fine/Most beautiful to behold" (in "The Demon Lover" - Child #243), or "She dressed herself up in a suit of fine clothes/With merry maids all in green" (in "Lord Thomas and Fair Annet" - Child #73). By contrast, the description of a mantel as useful as well as striking is stylistically unusual.

Following this ballad, and for contrast, Child provides a much longer version of "Young Waters" which is clearly literary hackwork. (The main problem is not that any given stanza is obviously bad - the added text runs to uninspired balladic commonplaces - so much as that the commonplaces drone on, not always coherently, for twenty stanzas after the real story has ended.) In introducing this version, Child writes:

"Buchan, who may generally be relied upon to produce a longer ballad than anybody else, has `Young Waters' in thirty-nine stanzas, "the only complete version which he had ever met." Of this copy I will only say that everything which is not in the edition of 1755 (itself a little the worse for editing) is a counterfeit of the lowest description. Nevertheless it is given in an appendix; for much the same reason that thieves are photographed."

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Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir (Greg Lindahl)