FORM OF POETRY
Section 001 / Fall 2004 / Susan Tichy / Tuesday 7:20-10:00 / Thompson Hall 106
This widespread ballad has been recorded in dozens of versions. Its
story can be quickly summarized. A young girl, Mary Hamilton, is placed in
service to the queen ("mary" can also mean a lady in waiting) and is corrupted
by high living at the court. She bears a child to the king and murders it,
hoping to keep its existence a secret. Confronted by the queen, she first
lies, then confesses, and the queen takes her to Edinburgh to be tried.
Condemned to death, she declines pity and acknowledges her crime, sends
benevolent messages to those who have been kind to her, asks that her parents
not be told of her fate, and points out that despite faithful service to
the queen she has been abandoned to her fate and expects no pardon. When
Mary is on the gallows the king comes by and says that night she must dine
with him. Mary scorns his folly and faces her death.
With the ballad before you, you can see that Mary's story is comprised of an introduction setting the situation, followed by three dramatic acts (Act I: Mary & the Queen, Act II: Mary & the Burghers of Edinburgh, Act III: Mary on the gallows facing her death), and finally an epilogue scene with the king. Looking at different versions of the ballad, it is easy to see how different singers have compressed or expanded in each of these parts.
Of the versions you have, Child's Version B (p 94 Norton) is the most complete, with all parts of the story present. This version was collected in the 1820s from Agnes Lyle, a weaver's daughter from the southwest Scottish town of Renfrew. Lyle was a radical for her day, as many weavers were, and her democratic sentiments are reflected in her version of the ballad, which highlights the indifference of the queen in contrast to the pity and friendship Mary has received from others. In this telling of the story, Mary grows in our estimation from mere wanton to a state of moral comprehension superior to that of either king or queen. In all Agnes' Lyle's tragic ballads the aggrieved party gets the last word, and this is no exception. [The reference to Glasgow in the 8th stanza appears logically to be an error. Renfrew is near Glasgow. This odd switch of cities has survived into contemporary times, however, presumably among singers who learned the song from Lyle's text -- Joan Baez sings it this way, for example. Other locations mentioned are in Edinburgh.]
In contrast, Child's A version, collected from John Thompson Campbell in 1824, omits Mary's confession, as well as the queen's reference to death as a wedding. These omissions make Mary's decision to dress as a bride seem a shallow woman's flippancy. The image of Mary as wanton and defiant continues when she laughs her way up the Canongate stairs (only to come weeping down again) and in the ill-luck omen of the heel coming off her (presumably frivolous, high-heeled) shoe. She does say once that she knows why she has been condemned, but neither king nor stranger offers pity. She seems to speak to no one in particular, and to more or less party up to the moment of her death. We don't see her mount the gallows. The king's role in all this, presented way back in the second stanza, is all but forgotten.Other versions of this ballad cast emphasis in other directions. Mary's parents are said to have sent her to court out of too much pride. Her moral fall is attributed to rich, spicy food and soft feather beds. The murdered infant is found more realistically hidden in her bed between the bolsters and the wall. Mary laments her pretty face and blames on it all her misfortune. And so forth..
These comparisons show how a singer can create meaning in an inherited ballad, shaping the story to a theme that reflects her own passions. They also show how ballad structure itself is adapted to this, allowing a story to be compressed or expanded at different points in the narrative.
We can also see how the ballad progresses in binary and trinary (mostly binary) units of parallelism, antithesis, question-and-response, and so forth. Variants abound, but in any skillfully composed version these tightly formal units will be evident. As David Buchan has written:
Two couplet ballads
Oh, what's the blood it's on your sword,
Oh, that's the blood of my grey meer,
Oh, that blood it is owre clear,
Oh, that's the blood of my greyhound,
Oh, that blood it is owre clear,
Oh, that's the blood of my huntin hawk,
Oh, that blood it is owre clear,
For that's the blood of my brother John,
Oh, I'm gaun awa in a bottomless boat,
Oh, whan will you come back again,
When the sun an the moon meet in yon glen,
This exquisite little ballad is built on a structure of questions and responses. After the mother's first question, each of her speeches both answers David and demands from him the truth. Notice that in the device of incremental repetition the slightest change of diction can change a lie to the truth. Once he has told the truth, David takes over command of the dialogue: he speaks, she responds, he responds, and all three of these verses essentially say the same thing. There is no advancement of the plot, just an emphatic reiteration of what "never" means. The ballad ends with the words "For I'll return again" which actually mean he will never return: thus we are sent back to the beginning, in which all his words conceal the truth. Structurally, that concealment dominates the ballad even more than the revelation of fratricide.
When Jeannie Robertson was first recorded singing this ballad, she explained its story as a conflict between two strong-willed sons of a rich man, in which the younger brother would not submit to the elder's authority. In other singers' versions, different series of questions and answers appear, often constructing an implication of either an incestuous conflict over the two men's sister, or the mother's culpability in encouraging strife between the brothers, or both. The question/answer structure of repetitions remains, however, as does some version of the importuning refrain, often "Son, come tell it unto me." Also consistent and definitive is the final exile of the fratricidal brother to the sea. In Scandinavian tradition, a fratricide was set adrift at sea with neither sail nor oars.
The version printed in your Norton is a much 'improved' literary version of this ballad. Notice that among other things fratricide has been converted to parricide and implication of the mother's responsibility has been replaced with an open curse.
Jeannie Robertson recorded this ballad a number of times. The most easily available (and possibly her first) is on Jeannie Robertson: The Queen Among the Heather. Rounder 11661-1720-2. 1998. This recording includes her comments on the ballad.
The Bonnie Banks o Fordie / Babylon
Traditional, arr. Dick Gaughan
There were three sisters lived in a bouer
An they hadnae pu'd a flouer but ane
[had not pulled but
An he's taen the first ane by the haun
[And he's taken
the first one by the hand
Oh it's will ye be a robber's wife
Oh it's A'll no be a robber's wife
So it's he's taen out his wee penknife
An he's taen the saicant ane by the haun
Oh it's will ye be a robber's wife
Oh it's A'll no be a robber's wife
So it's he's taen out his wee penknife
An he's taen the third ane by the haun
Oh it's will ye be a robber's wife
Oh it's A'll no be a robber's wife
For A hae brither in yon tree
in yon woods
Come tell tae me yer brither's name
Oh sister hae I dune this ill tae ye
An it's he's taen out his wee penknife
This ballad is a superb example of incremental repetition and of
the couplet ballad form (single lines alternating with refrain or “burden”
lines) which advance the action so slowly the protagonists appear sculpturally
posed in the most dramatic moments of their story. This kind of narration
is what prompts some people to compare the narrative technique of the ballad
to that of the comic strip, in which action is represented by slight changes
in successive pictorial frames.
Also typical of couplet ballads, and demonstrated here, is use of a four-beat line, rather than alternating lines of four beats and three, as seen in Mary Hamilton.
In keeping with their minimalist narrative technique, couplet ballads are often limited to the barest actions: situation is established, a death results, a revelation follows. It is also common for couplet ballads to be enacted by two, rather than three, characters. (In most ballads the "rule of three" calls for two primary characters, either lovers or antagonists, plus a third character as catalyst or opponent.) "Babylon" multiplies the basic actions (more than one death, more than one sister) and makes a very special use of the rule of three. “She” is represented by the three sisters replacing each other until we arrive at the true heroine of the story, the youngest sister. Each is placed in opposition to the villain, but we see no hero. We are (consciously or unconsciously) waiting for him to appear.
In some versions the third sister unfolds a trio of brothers, to match the trio of sisters, with the last (outlawed) brother’s identity left to occupy the final scene with the last sister. The version we have (with a single brother) has a more concentrated emotional impact, and part of that impact is structural. When the Hero (her brother) finally “arrives” in the words of the surviving Heroine and is immediately identified as identical to the Villain, our shock is intensified by the twisting repetition of diction and by the incestuous violation of the rule of three.
Dick Gaughan has an elegant sense of form and his version of this ballad uses a balanced and expressive structure of verses to unfold the action. Below you'll find the ballad reprinted in sections, side by side with some notes to point out its structure.
After an introduction, each four-verse unit of the action is concentrically structured--its two center verses closely related, its two outer verses closely related and framing the other two. The repetition is exact from sister #1 to sister #2. In each of these narrative units the first verse rhymes haun/staun, while the rest rhyme ominously on wife/penknife/life.
In the third unit, incremental repetition allows sister #3 to drastically change the course of action with just a few words: “Nor will A dee” instead of “A’d raither dee.” She then alters the rhyme structure as well, refusing the fatalistic pairing of life & knife, and we realize that the expected four-verse unit is also being extended, as the dialogue between sister and brother continues through seven verses.
On closer examination, we can see that those seven verses actually form a linked double set of fours, with the center verse forming the last verse of one set and the first verse of the other. Here for the first time the ballad has room for other kinds of repetition besides incremental: causative repetition governs “Come tell tae me yer brither’s name / My brither’s name is Babylon,” and “mere” emphatic repetition marks the moment when Babylon realizes what he has done, then makes his admission in the new “ye” rhyme sound introduced by the defiant Heroine. When this unfolding verse structure finally climaxes--with his death instead of hers--the death occurs in a dramatically ironic repetition of the knife/life rhyme.
These interweavings of form, coupled with the sound and the meaning
of the word "Babylon" -- associated with human language, human evil,
miscommunication, and divine destruction -- make the end of this ballad as
spooky as any you'll find.
Recording available on: Dick Gaughan: No More Forever. Leader n.d. LER CD 2072. Original vinyl 1972.
Text from Dick Gaughan's web site http://www.dickalba.demon.co.uk
Son David / Babylon / Some ballad definitions / Back to Readings for Week 5 / Back to the Top
What Is a Ballad?
These notes are optional -- but interesting! I've extracted several definitions of and statements on "ballad" -- some formal, some social, some temporal. Notice use of past or present tense, and note how many of these statements propose a cultural location for "ballad" and then cut away as "not ballad" all material that doesn't fit. Also important is whether the ballad is recognized as sung or merely identical to its text.
A ballad is a song that tells a story, or -- to take the other point of view -- a story told in song. More formally, it may be defined as a short narrative 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. This last trait is of the very first consequence in determining the quality or qualities which give the ballad its peculiar place in literature. A ballad has no author. At all events, it appears to have none.... Unlike other songs, it does not purport to give utterance to the feelings or the mood of the singer. The first-person does not occur at all, except in the speeches of the several characters. Finally, there are no comments or reflections by the narrator. He does not dissect or psychologize. He does not take sides for or against any of the dramatis personae.... If it were possible to conceive a tale as telling itself, without the instrumentality of a conscious speaker, the ballad would be such a tale.
--George Lyman Kittredge, Introduction to English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited from the collection of Francis James Child. Houghton Mifflin,1904. p. xi
A ballad is a story. Of the four elements common to all narrative--action, character, setting, and theme--the ballad emphasizes the first. Setting is casual; theme is often implied; characters are usually types and even when more individual are undeveloped, but action carries the interest. The action is usually highly dramatic, often startling and all the more impressive because it is unrelieved. The ballad practices rigid economy in relating the action; incidents antecedent to the climax are often omitted, as are explanatory and motivating details. The action is usually of a plot sort and the plot often reduced to the moment of climax; that is, of the unstable situation and the resolution which constitutes plot, the ballad often concentrates on the resolution leaving the listener to supply details and antecedent material.
Almost without exception ballads were sung; often they were accompanied by instrumental music. The tunes are traditional and probably as old as the words, but of the two--story and melody--story is basic.
MacEdward Leach, quoted by Tristam Potter Coffin in The British Traditional Ballad in North America, Revised edition. University of Texas Press, 1977. p 164
“What is a ballad?” The short reply -- “It is a narrative song that has been transmitted by tradition” -- is not entirely satisfactory, as the processes of tradition have varied in response to social change. A longer, more satisfying, but more complicated account of the ballad has to take into consideration, first, ballad transmission, second, ballad-story, and, third, ballad text.
The three stages of tradition correspond to a culture’s periods of nonliteracy, initial literacy, and settled literacy. It is the degree or outright absence of literacy that determines the kind of composition and transmission employed by the folk at different times. The folk of the oral tradition were nonliterate and it is their method of composition and transmission that has given the distinguishing traits to what we normally think of as “the” ballads.
David Buchan, Introduction to A Scottish Ballad Book, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. p. 1-2
To define the ballad...is the equivalent to determining precisely what justifies distinguishing it from other forms of popular song. The most common notion of the ballad, certainly in the scholarship of the English-speaking world, is that it is a narrative song, current in popular tradition, which tells its story in a particular, specified way. Of the various factors composing this definition, the musical is at once the most important and the least useful...[because] the ballad tunes were part of a traditional corpus of melodies which could be applied to all kinds of song, narrative and lyric, traditional and journalistic.
Similarly, insistence on oral transmission, by itself, is of little value in distinguishing the ballad from other forms of popular song...and is an oddly sideways approach to the problem... For many undoubted ballads we have no objective evidence that they were transmitted orally, as they survive exclusively in manuscript or on broadsides, and there are plenty of narrative songs, recovered directly from oral tradition, which no one has contemplated calling ballads.... The most frequent problem confronting any ballad scholar who goes beyond wrestling with definitions to the direct study of texts, is the availability, for any one ballad, of a multiplicity of variants from a wide range of dates and places.
Of the many responses which have been made to this circumstance...[the] more fruitful are the attempts to see oral transmission and its attendant textual instability as factors determining what we, as our title indicates, consider the most salient characteristic of the ballad, its peculiar mode of narration. The ballad, this approach implies, is not merely subject to variation in the course of transmission, but is somehow created by it; not merely in the sense that the text of any one ballad finally recovered from tradition is the compound of all the changes introduced by the singers who transmitted it, but rather that oral transmission is a fundamental cause of the narrative technique, which effectively defines the genre itself...
The traditional ballad belongs, and has always belonged, to that oddly named “little tradition:” of popular culture, as opposed the “great tradition” of the cultural elite, provided we are aware that by "popular tradition” we mean the culture shared by all members of a community, including the cultural elite, who are so distinguished by having access to their exclusive “great tradition” as well. As part of this little tradition the ballad is neither the debris... of some earlier phase of the great tradition--it has never in its recorded history been exclusively the possession of the cultural elite--nor did it become “folklore” until the very recent period when the educated elite rediscovered it as part of that common popular culture from which they had withdrawn in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is for this reason, presumably, that neither folklore...nor literary studies...has succeeded in coming to terms decisively with the ballad problem... We cannot define the ballad, if by that we mean recovering the concept of the ballad current among those who composed, sang or listened to it, for there was no such concept. Nor was the ballad a fixed and unchanging phenomenon, independent of context: the genre itself, as well as the individual song, has been subject to variation. What is needed is observation rather than definition. Return to week 5 readings
Thomas Pettit, in the introduction to The Ballad as Narrative: Studies in the Ballad Traditions of England, Scotland, Germany and Denmark, by Flemming G. Andersen, Otto Holzapfel, and Thomas Pettit. Odense University Press, 1982. pages 2-3.
Our Scottish ballads are amongst the finest and most under-rated and neglected products of our traditional culture. The truth is that today people don't understand the meaning of oral tradition. At school I was told that ballads were passed on by word of mouth and the words changed because singers forgot the words. It was only in the Folk Song Revival of the 1960s that I came to realise what nonsense this was. People who sing ballads with anything up to a hundred verses or more don't have bad memories.
Sheila Douglas, ballad singer & scholar in “The Ballad Tree.”
A true ballad is a folksong of unknown authorship that tells a story in a special way. The stress of the story is on the crucial situation; it is told by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech. Ballads are always objective, impersonal, and unreflective; the language is direct, containing conventional epithets and set phrases.
The main reason that ballads have arrived at this rather mechanical condition is that over the years and centuries--the oldest date from the 13th century--the detailed and complicated features of the verse eroded, leaving the basic pattern and style of the present-day versions.
Anonymous. “The Heritage Club Sandglass,” issued to the members of the Heritage Club, Norwalk, Connecticut, with the release of The Heritage Book of Ballads, selected and edited by MacEdward Leach. The Heritage Press, 1967. [I would like to know how the writer of the above knows about those complicated features that once existed. --ST]
In appropriating folklore genres, the literary tradition is able to create an idealization of itself through a separation of speech and writing. Such a separation, anchored in a mimetic theory of representation, always posits speech as a form of nature. Thus throughout the eighteenth century [the period of intense ballad collecting], the work of “untutored geniuses” becomes the paradigm for the last gasps of an oral culture, a culture now seen to be miming literary form--that is, producing a “natural” variant of it rather than simply imitating it. The taste for the fragment included this preference for individuals...severed from context and collected from the lower classes by an aristocracy eager to promote them. Yet this severance also depended upon the real contingencies of enclosure, industrialization, and the end of the old order of village culture...
...Theories of the ballad--from individual-genius positions to communal positions contending authorship by singing and dancing throngs--have always provided analogies to the prevailing conceptions of the folk held by the middle and upper classes....
Yet the nostalgia of the distressed genre is not a nostalgia for artifacts for their own sake; rather, it is a nostalgia for context, for the heroic past, for moral order, for childhood and the collective experiences of preindustrial life.... In fact, such genres point to the immateriality of all nostalgic objects. Back to Week 5 Readings
Susan Stewart, American poet and literary scholar, in Crimes of Writing, pages 70, 86-87, 91
A Listserv exchange:
Abbey Sale: At least subjectively, all on the list feel the difference between a "song" and a "ballad" may be no more then the balance between text and tune in near identical lyrics. That is, if the tune is emphasized, we'll likely call it a "song," even if the text is really a narrative. Take the ballad's simpl(ish) tune, jazz it a bit, add an electric violin & play loud and it's a different song. At least socially. Yes, I think that a snappy (different) tune takes the meaning to a different place - perhaps making the drama melodrama, the pathos bathos or the surd absurd.
To which Hungry Gulch Books [Susan Tichy] replied: Does this mean that "Glenlogie" when John Strahan sang it was a ballad, but Dick Gaughan's warp-speed version on the live album is not?
To which Abby Sale replied: Not familiar with John Strahan but I get the point. Yes, I would claim that. It's purely a judgment call of gradations, of course. ...The more the presentation upgrades the story aspect (as opposed to the musical or Art aspect), the more likely it is to be thought of as a ballad. That is, not only what's presented, but what can be perceived by the audience... The story has to be appreciateable [sic].. If the audience can only hear the music, no story has been communicated. Ergo, not a ballad. A social dynamic event as well as a literary one.
To which some wise-ass at Hungry Gulch Books replied: So after you listen to the album ten times and can understand all the words, it turns back into a ballad? ;-)
First post to the Ballad Scholarship Discussion List (Ballad-L), subsequent discussion private e-mail.
One moonlit evening..[in summer, in Aberdeenshire]...when the others were dancing “Petronella” and I sat on the fence listening to Harry’s news from his brother-in-law in Alberta, he said unexpectedly: “Wad ye like to hear an auld sang?” That was how I met my first Ballad.
It was “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship”. I did not know its title then or for many years after. Harry [the senior bothy ploughman of the farm where Muir was visiting] did not trouble to announce a title; he went straight into the song, giving me the version I now recognize as Greig’s, though with a less extreme Aberdeenshire enunciation... The tune he sang might possibly be No. 10 from Bronson’s volume; I do not remember it exactly enough to be sure of it. What I do remember is the way he sang it, standing easily and using not much more than a speaking rather than a singing voice. The local speech tended to the falsetto, so that Harry’s heightened speaking voice was altogether a “head” voice, clear in its enunciation, not quite nasal, produced without any strain. There were none of the emotional gurglings one sometimes hears in the renderings of people who think they can sing. It was a flat, impersonal voice.
At first the recurrent refrain at the end of every stanza, with its insistence on: “We’ll baith lie in ae bed, an you’ll lie neist the wa’” [and you'll lie next to the wall] made a faint ruffle of embarrassment in my [teen-age] feelings, but the unselfconscious directness with which Harry drove his way through the song cured me of that. Far from intruding itself, his personality vanished altogether; there was only a voice rhythmically telling a story to a tune.
Willa Muir, Living with Ballads. Oxford University Press, 1965. p 37
We should never forget that the ballad is a sung genre with a whole musical dimension that is not caught by the printed text; to gain a full appreciation, every opportunity should be taken of listening to live or recorded performances. Whatever efforts we make, however, we can never recapture contemporary singings of ballad versions from earlier centuries and it is useful, in thinking about this, to separate out the ideas of text and context. The text can be caught in print and transferred bodily from one context to another and may have quite different purposes and effects in different contexts.
Emily Lyle, Introduction to Scottish Ballads, Canongate Classics, 1997. p. 12
I’ll tell you a we bit o’ my childhood. Within my family there was a lot o’ kids and I was the only one that was chosen out of the family ‘cause I liked to sit on my uncle’s knee--and my mother’s knee--and listen. The rest of them wanted to go out to play. My Uncle Donald... that’s the one who had all the ballads from my grandfather [and] taught them to my mother. But he didnae want no middle man teaching me--so he took me when I was two weeks old and he kept me till I was fifteen. I stayed with him.... Actually, I was severely brainwashed into the ballads, the songs, the stories and because I showed an interest -- It became a function and a natural way of life to me. I never knew anything else. I am glad I did it now but, sometimes I look oot the window at the other kids playing.. I wisnae allowed cause my uncle has just remembered another ballad. I was fully brainwashed -- not just the songs an ballads but the full culture of the Travellers and I had to carry on... That was my function within the family... It was very severe!...
Travellers could never be that way [getting too emotionally involved with a song & spoiling the delivery]. We’re too open-minded. It’s our natural function. It’s like potty training. Once’t you learn how to do it, it’ll never consume ye. It’s just part of life!...This feeling was taught to me... and you can control it. You take it out when you need to use it. It was brainwashed into me... through the culture... through in the oral culture!... [O]ur ballads and stories were so precious to us that we had to sing them in a special way which was completely from the heart -- not from the head. We also had to play with the words and put our identity into it. You know, I used to sit on my uncle’s knee and he would teach me the ballad. He would pause on a word that I would jump over... or I would pause on a word that he would jump over... [d]ragging the words out... jumping over a word... making a word into two syllables... maybe words into three syllable... I’m no singing it exactly the way my mother sang it and I’m no singing the way that my uncle taught it to me. Because I have taken it played with the words and put my own identity into it.
Sheila Stewart, from a conversation with Doc Rowe, during recording sessions in 1998, sleeve notes to Sheila’s From the Heart of the Tradition, Topic Records, Topic CD515.
Don't songs look bloody awful when they're written rather than sung? Yuch.
dg [Dick Gaughan] 95 10/25 rec.music.celtic [newsgroup]
Not a definition, but Scottish singer Dick Gaughan’s remarks on the singing of Jeannie Robertson reveal his beliefs about artistry, intention, and the relationship between personal experience and the “impersonal” ballad style. This is an external link.
Son David / Babylon / Some ballad definitions / Back to the Top