Placed, Replaced, or Misplaced?: The Ballads' Progress

By Brown, Mary Ellen | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer-Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Placed, Replaced, or Misplaced?: The Ballads' Progress


Brown, Mary Ellen, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Since my days as a graduate student in the 1960s, I have both heard and participated in many interrogations of the historical placement of the ballad genre in the Middle Ages. These verbal assaults on received academic tradition did finally eventuate in action: the replacement of the ballads in the eighteenth-century section of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. While singularly unheralded by literary scholars, perhaps indicating the ballads' slippage from critical view, the resurgence of interest in balladry, its history, and even ideological salience--witnessed by the present gathering of articles--offers a timely stimulus for scrutiny of this positioning of the genre in the eighteenth century itself.

Certainly institutional politics and disciplinary drift influence the questions we ask. And they have led me to ask again old interconnected questions: what is a ballad and where should the ballad be placed?

Formerly the queen of verbal art, the subject of the first and one of the most frequently taught "folklore" courses in the United States (largely in English departments), the ballad once figured prominently in two courses at my own university, taken by almost everyone who sought a postgraduate degree in what is now the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology: as a general course on the ballad and folk song, and as a postgraduate seminar (with both English and Folklore course numbers) on The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The very name of this seminar signals the centrality of Francis James Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898), generic definitions derived from that collection, and the importance of Child to the study of the English/Scottish language ballads. This is the very same Child who has been called a forefather of English literary study, he who left behind the Boylston Chair of Rhetoric and Oratory to occupy the first professorship of English--both at Harvard--thus inadvertently providing fodder for today's intradisciplinary tension between adherents of composition and literary studies. (1) What is almost always left out of this appropriation of Child is his role as ballad editor, his roots in the comparative philological tradition of the Brothers Grimm, and the centrality of his edition to virtually all subsequent scholarship on the subject. He would share my concern for the ballads' current invisibility in the curriculum.

General disciplinary shifts help explain this near erasure. The shift to synchronic ethnography, to performance theory and semiotic analysis has left the study of a "genre" figured as literary and especially historical (subject of invented genealogies and elaborated but closed pasts) very much on the margins in Folklore. Ballad texts (and tunes) occupy curricular space when they can be used to illustrate current paradigms, most particularly ethnographic, synchronic, and performative analyses. (2)

The situation in literary study has a different trajectory with deperiodization, generic confusion, and canonical interrogation as partial culprits. All PhDs in English were once familiar with the ballad as genre, with the Child collection, and with the ballads' medieval affinity. My question of place or location derives from literary study, from the idea that literary productions are best seen as historically located with similar works produced during the same time frame--that is, periods: the medieval, the eighteenth century, and so on. For probably two hundred years, the ballad hovered in the medieval period, thanks to Thomas Percy's eighteenth-century interventions. His discourses on the pre-history of English literature gave the ballads an author, the minstrels ("literature" must have author and thereby a period location), and the objects themselves pride of place, privileging the manuscript over orality as source. (3) And so in fact it remains, in some quarters. Yet the inherited supposition of the ballads' medieval location and recent interrogations of that placement suggest the need to re-examine the history/histories of the ballad as well as the definitional foundations of its study. …

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