Lessons learned while reading the ballad collection of Francis James Child.
by David Kessler
I have never looked at a woman and thought:
"Would you look at the breastbone on HER - I bet I could make a great harp from THAT!"
The Ballads collected by F.J. Child are ones that survived a generations-long distillation by we, the
folk - so naturally they are a little more lurid, violent, tawdry, and fantastic than normal life. The
fact that we sing this pulp fiction shouldn't keep us from looking at what the words mean and making
fun of their messages. Some songs I learned back before I understood what their words meant - every now and
then I'll be humming one of them when I suddenly realize just what its content is - just how weird or stupid it
is. I mean, why wouldn't a woman deck her long lost lover if he tried to convince her he was dead
just to test her faithfulness?
Then there are the questions of what happens between or after the verses of the story. After that cabin boy is
left to die on the lowland sea, or when the local sheriff gets called in to investigate a sister's murder... or
if lady Brackley feels any remorse at all. If the ballads are taken as non-fiction, then certain
questions/reactions/jokes are just natural. It's only the medium of fiction that keeps us from really
thinking about the content of songs. Well, the ballads havenít been consigned to a museum yet, and as
long as theyíre alive, out here among us folk, I plan to have my fun.
This project began several years ago while driving through the highlands with a friend and joking
about how we might solve a problem if only we were in a folk song ("...If this were a ballad then we could just
kill them."). I donít have the right disposition for murder and rape, but a write-in
advice column, that I can commit.
My fodder is Child's collection of 305 ballads, plus any ballad that deserves to be number 306.
So here's a thanks to Cinda, and to the countless lovers, fighters, schemers, and braggarts of history
whose inspired, if slightly formulaic, behavior made this work possible!