Course Information for Independent Study in

Traditional Ballads

at George Mason University, Spring 2006     


You are responsible for your own course registration. Begin by getting an Individualized Section form from the English department. You may register for 1-3 hours of graduate credit.

Conferences  /  Written work  /  Reading  / 


We expect to meet as a group five or six times, time & place to be determined. Your input may change the agenda as time goes on, but here is how we see it at the outset --

1. Introduction: What is a ballad? What are "ballad studies" and will they bite you?
We'll talk about "types," "versions," & "fragments" of ballads and how they function in local and global contexts. And we'll look at one ballad through time -- "The Unfortunate Rake" from 17th c. London to 20th c. New Orleans & Texas.

2. Verse structure / narrative structure. We'll look at how forms of repetition & balance, stanza and rhyme, as well as the use of verbal formulae, effect the mode of narration that defines the ballad as a genre.

3. Metaphor & symbol: Keeping with our theme of sex & death we'll examine what happens when wells, flowers & rings meet swords, knives, thorns, & horns -- not to mention talking birds, magical corpses, elf knights, ghosts, and riddles.

4. Individual singers & singing communities: At this meeting, Susan & Peggy will each present a portrait of a singer -- one in Scotland and one in Appalachia. We'll talk about repertoire, transmission of ballads from one singer to another, the social meanings of ballad-singing for this singer's community, and how "collection" or contact with scholars and urban audiences affected their lives and their music.

5 - 6. Individual ballads: In our last meeting (more probably two) each of us -- students & faculty -- will present a single ballad, focusing aspects, such as the ballad's variants, its form & structure, its collection history & current vitality, and its social & metaphorical meanings.


Each of you should work out a schedule of individual conferences with your faculty member.

Written Work

Each of you should contract with your faculty member for written work expected.

Each of you will be asked to diagram the narrative & verse structure of at least one ballad. Bring a draft to our second meeting, revise after the meeting.

Each of you should keep a Reading/Listening journal.

Those planning to use "traditional ballads" or "Scottish ballads" as an entry on the MFA exam list should work toward compiling an annotated anthology of ballad texts for the final stages of exam preparation. This anthology, minus the annotations, can also be used in the exam itself. Please talk to Susan if you have questions.

Those enrolled for three credits will complete a major project, such as
a research paper or a casebook. Please talk to your faculty member.

Reading  Meeting 1 / Meeting 2 / Meeting 3 / Meeting 4 /

History & TransmissionComplete List of Materials at Reserve Desk  / 

Use the
Annotated Bibliography  for more detail on the readings we've assigned or suggested.

Most of your readings may be found at the Reserve Desk at the Johnson Center. All required readings are there, as are many optional readings. A complete list of materials on Reserve appears after the sequential reading list.

Optional readings not owned by the library (including those on the "History & Transmission" list) are available from faculty for photocopy.

**Note that the heaviest reading is for our second meeting.**

Ballad Texts:

We may provide texts for particular versions we want to discuss, but otherwise we’ll leave it up to you to find texts for songs we assign or that you become interested in. Let us know if you’re having trouble finding what you need. (See links on the Ballads home page but remember that notes and apparati in the books are generally missing from web versions.)

Francis James Child’s 5-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads will be among the books on Reserve for your use. Most of the ballads we'll discuss can be found there in multiple versions.

If you want a small handy book with a number of good texts, though only single versions of each, we recommend Emily Lyle’s Scottish Ballads, which you should be able to find used (or new from Also useful is the one-volume reduction of Child, edited by Sargeant & Kittredge, if you can find one. Our library has a copy.

More specialized books, collecting the songs of a particular time & place, or the songs of a particular singing community, may also be useful. For Scotland in the 19th & early 20th centuries, for example, you might want to examine The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, edited by Patrick Shuldham-Shaw & Emily Lyle, and Ord’s Bothy Songs and Ballads of Aberdeen, Banff & Moray, Angus and the Mearns. For Scottish Traveller singers, you'd want two books by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger: Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland, and Till Doomsday in the Afternoon: The Stewart Family of Blair.

Introductory Readings (for our first meeting)

We suggest you read these materials in the order listed. "Reserve Desk" means the book is on Reserve. "Photocopy" means a photocopy is on Reserve, or will be distributed.

What Is a Ballad?

A.L. Lloyd: “The Big Ballads.” Folk Song in England.  Photocopy

A major English figure of the mid-century Revival, from a book he says is for beginners, not experts. Not academically rigorous by today’s terms, but a wise and far-ranging introduction.

David Atkinson: “Introduction: accessing ballad tradition.” The English Ballad Tradition. Reserve Desk.

Introduces ballads along with the major trends in ballad scholarship. Defines the “type/variant” concept and the problems that arise when either side of that balance is emphasized. Addresses the issue of literacy among singers. Introduces most issues & many basic terms, such as commonplaces (which he calls “formulaic units”) tale role, audience’s role in completing meaning, etc.

Hamish Henderson: “At the Foot of Yon Excellin Brae.” Alias MacAlias. Photocopy

A great intro to ballad Scots & ballad English, by a major figure of the mid-century Revival and founder of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University.

Susan Stewart: “Scandals of the Ballad.” Crimes of Writing. Reserve Desk

A contemporary American poet & critic critiques the cultural uses of ballad in literary discourse as a location of our various desires: otherness, authenticity, belatedness, and so forth. "Notes on Distressed Genres," in the same volume, also highly recommended.

Further (optional) reading:

Hamish Henderson: "The Ballad, The Folk and the Oral Tradition." The People's Past, ed. Cowan. Photocopy

Readings on Verse & Narrative Structure
(for our second meeting) 

This unit of reading is our longest and most technical. We suggest you read the introduction to McCarthy's book before you read David Buchan.

William Bernard McCarthy: Introduction and Part II of The Ballad Matrix. Reserve Desk.

Part I is not directly related to this week's discussion, but you should read it, now or later.

David Buchan: Part II of The Ballad and the Folk Reserve Desk

Those enrolled for 3 credits should read this whole section. Those enrolled for 1 credit should read, at a minimum, Chapters 8, 9, 12 & 13.

Susan Tichy: structural analysis of Dick Gaughan's “Babylonhere 

Bertrand Harris Bronson: “On the Union of Words and Music in the ‘Child’ Ballads.” Ballad as Song
. Reserve Desk

Fleming G. Andersen: "From Tradition to Print: Ballads on Broadsides." The Ballad as Narrative. Reserve Desk


Further (optional) reading on form & structure:

David Buchan. “Talerole Analysis and Child’s Supernatural Ballads,” in The Ballad as Oral Literature, ed. Harris. Photocopy. 

Albert B. Friedman. “The Oral-Formulaic Theory of Balladry: A Rebuttal,” in The Ballad Image, ed. Porter. Reserve Desk

Shields, Hugh. “Impossibles in Ballad Style,” in The Ballad Image, ed. Porter. Reserve Desk

Stewart, George R. “The Meter of the Popular Ballad,” in The Critics and the Ballad, ed. Leach. Photocopy

Readings on Metaphor & Symbol / Sex & Death
(for our third meeting)

Barre Toelken: readings (not yet selected) from Morning Dew and Roses: Nuance, Metaphor, and Meaning in Folksongs.  Reserve Desk

David Atkinson: “Incest and ‘Edward’.” The English Traditional Ballad. Reserve Desk.

Further(optional)  reading on metaphor/sex & death: 

David Atkinson: “Motivation, Gender, and Talking Birds.” The English Traditional Ballad. Reserve Desk.

Roger deV Renwick: “The Semiotics of Sexual Liaisons.” English Folk Poetry: Structure and Meaning. Reserve Desk

on History & Transmission of Ballads
This set of readings is not tied to any one of our meetings but may help in any.

David Fowler: A Literary History of the Popular Ballad Reserve Desk. See the annotation for this book.

Lyle, Emily. “Parity of Ignorance: Child’s Judgment of ‘Sir Colin’ and the Scottish Verdict ‘Not Proven’,” in Harris, The Ballad as Oral Literature. Argues a position opposite to Fowler's -- namely , that we cannot assume a ballad is no older than its oldest surviving written copy. Photocopy

Thomas Pettitt: "'St. Stephen and Herod' and the Songs of the Sloane Manuscript. The Ballad as Narrative. A demonstration by close reading of early distinctions between what would and would not be called "a ballad." Reserve Desk

Scotland, 18th-19th Centuries:

David Buchan: Part I of The Ballad and the Folk. Reserve Desk

William McCarthy: Part One of The Ballad Matrix. Reserve Desk

Gavin Sprott: “Traditional Music: The Material Background,” in Cowan, The People’s Past. Photocopy

Edward J. Cowan. “Calvinism and the Survival of the Folk,” The People’s Past. Photocopy

History: Henderson, Lizanne. “The Road to Elfland: Fairy Belief and the Child Ballads,” in The Ballad in Scottish History, ed. Cowan. Photocopy

Hamish Henderson: several short pieces are useful, including “The Underground of Song,” and “The Ballad and Popular Tradition to 1660,” in Alias MacAlias, and “The Ballad, the Folk, and the Oral Tradition,” in Cowan’s The People’s Past. Photocopy

Brown, Mary Ellen. “Old Singing Women and the Canons of Scottish Balladry and Song,” in A History of Scottish Women’s Writing.  GMU has this book in electronic form: search for it in the catalog, then click the link & enter your G-number.

Scottish Traveller singers, 20th c.:

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger: Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland. Reserve Desk

Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger: Till Doomsday in the Afternoon: The Stewart Family of Blair.  You'll have to get this via Interlibrary Loan. Highly recommended.

James Porter & Herschel Gower: Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice.  Reserve Desk

Douglas, Sheila. “Belle Stewart, ‘The Queen Amang the Heather,” in Russell and Atkinson. Reserve Desk

Flemming G. Andersen: "The Living Oral Tradition: Jeannie Robertson's 'Little Mattie Groves'." The Ballad as Narrative.
Reserve Desk

Herschel Gower & James Porter: “Jeannie Robertson: The Child Ballads” and a companion article by Allie Munro: “Lizzie Higgins, and the Oral Transmission of Ten Child Ballads.” Lizzie was Jeannie’s daughter. Photocopy

Hamish Henderson & Francis Collinson. “New Child Ballad Variants from Oral Tradition” discusses a number of ballads collected in the 1950s & 1960s in Scotland, with emphasis on their tunes. Photocopy

Hamish Henderson: “How a Bothy Song Came into Being.” Photocopy

England, 18th-19th Centuries:

David Atkinson: The Traditional English Ballad
Reserve Desk

Flemming G. Anderson: "Oral Tradition in England in the Eighteenth Century: 'Lord Lovel'." The Ballad as Narrative.
Reserve Desk

North America:

William McCarthy: “The Americanization of Scottish Ballads: Counterevidence from the Southwest of Scotland,” in Harris.

Revival history:

Munro, Alie. The Democratic Muse: Folk Music Revival in Scotland.

Niall MacKinnon: The British Folk Scene: Musical Performance and Social Identity.

Alan MacNaughton: “The Folksong Revival in Scotland,” in Cowan, The People’s Past.

Britta Sweers. “Ghosts of voices: English folk(-rock) musicians and the transmission of traditional music. In Russell & Atkinson.

Michael Verrier. “Folk club or epic theatre: Brecht’s influence on the
performance practice of Ewan MacColl.” In Russell & Atkinson.

Complete List of Materials on Reserve

Andersen, Flemming G., Otto Holapfel, & Thomas Pettit. The Ballad as Narrative: Studies in the Ballad Traditions of England, Scotland, Germany and Denmark. Odense: Odense University Press,1982.

Mtg. 2. Fleming G. Andersen: "From Tradition to Print: Ballads on Broadsides."

History: Chapters 1, 3, 4, 5

Atkinson, David. The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, method, and practice. Ashgate, VT: Ashgate, 2002.

Mtg. 1. Introduction

Mtg. 3. “Incest and Edward.”

Optional for Mtg. 3. “Motivation, Gender, and Talking Birds”

Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Ballad as Song. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Mtg. 1. “On the Union of Words and Music in the ‘Child’ Ballads.”

Buchan, David. The Ballad and the Folk. East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 1997. [1972].

Mtg. 2. Part II required for those taking 3 credits; chapters 8, 9, 12, 13 required for those taking 1 credit.

History: Part I

Campbell, Olive D. English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. NY: G.P. Putnam’s sons, 1917.

A source of texts. No assigned readings.

Child, Francis James, editor. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 volumes. New York: Dover Publications, 1965 [1882-98].

Principle source of ballad texts, brief but excellent notes.

Dugaw, Dianne, ed. The Anglo-American Ballad: A Folklore Casebook. NY & London: Garland, 1995.

Fowler, David C. A Literary History of the Popular Ballad. Durham: Duke University Press, 1968. One copy on reserve, but library has at least one more copy.

History: Entire book highly recommended. See annotation.

Henderson, Hamish. “At the Foot of Yon Excellin’ Brae.” Alias MacAlias: Writings on Songs, Folk and Literature. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1992.  Photocopy

Mtg. 1.

Lloyd, A.L. “The Big Ballads,” Folk Song in England. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1967. Photocopy

Mtg. 1.

MacColl, Ewan and Peggy Seeger. Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977.

A landmark work of field collection & musical notation. No assigned readings.

McCarthy, William Bernard. The Ballad Matrix: Personality, Milieu, and the Oral Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Mtg. 2. Introduction & Part II

You should read the entire book

McKean, Thomas A., ed. The Flowering Thorn: International Ballad Studies. Logan: Utah State UP, 2003.

Porter, James, editor. The Ballad Image: Essays Presented to Bertrand Harris Bronson. Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore & Mythology, 1983.

Optional for Mtg. 2. Friedman, Albert B. “The Oral-Formulaic Theory of Balladry: A Rebuttal.”

Optional for Mtg. 2. Shields, Hugh. “Impossibles in Ballad Style.”

Porter, James and Herschel Gower. Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

History & transmission: highly recommended. Includes song texts w/ musical notation, sketch of her life, extensive quotation from interviews, discussion of Robertson's beliefs about ballad singing.

Renwick, Roger deV. English Folk Poetry: Structure and Meaning. No city: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980.

Optional for Mtg. 2. "The Semiotics of Sexual Liaisons."

Stewart, Susan. Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation. New York: Oxford UP, 1991..

Mtg. 1. “Scandals of the Ballad.”

Toelken, Barre. Morning Dew and Roses: Nuance, Metaphor, and Meaning in Folksongs. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1995.


We will be referencing around 40 ballads. List will be posted soon!


Susan Tichy,
Master of Fine Arts, Poetry

Dr. Margaret Yocom

George Mason University