Child's Unfinished Masterpiece: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads

By Henigan, Julie | Western Folklore, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Child's Unfinished Masterpiece: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads


Henigan, Julie, Western Folklore


Child's Unfinished Masterpiece: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. By Mary Ellen Brown. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. Pp. xi + 296, acknowledgments, preface, illustrations, appendices, bibliography, index. $45.00 cloth.)

Ballad studies have been a staple of folklore and literary studies since Frances James Child and his students introduced the subject in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with Child's monumental collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads as its touchstone - and sometimes its raison d'etre. Numerous articles have been published on Child's collection, as well as on his presumed assumptions, but curiously diese assumptions - and any major study of Child and his work - have had to wait until now for the kind of elucidation Mary Ellen Brown brings to bodi subjects in her latest book.

In it, Child receives the same kind of careful and sympathetic treatment Brown has given to those otfier giants of traditional balladry and song, William Motherwell and Robert Burns. Brown's scholarly method is admirable, consisting as it does of careful attention to primary sources (in what she describes as an enterprise of "historical etfinography") , in combination with an intelligent assessment and synthesis of these sources. Drawing on letters, diaries, and even account books for information, she offers a diorough examination of Child's collection in the context of his life and the collaboration it entailed. She has structured the book to deal with her major concerns: Child's life, the nature and history of the ESPB, a description of Child's major transadantic collaborators (or "army of auxiliaries," as she calls them), the completion of the collection after Child's death by his student George Lyman Kittredge, and a "posdude," in which she examines Child's concept of what, for him, constituted a ballad.

While presenting her chapter-lengdi biography of Child as a mere sketch, Brown has provided the most comprehensive treatment of his life to date. Breadiing life into her subject chiefly by way of correspondence and diaries, she allows us to see a man loved and respected by teachers, colleagues, friends, students, and family: a multi-faceted human being who exhibited not only painstaking attention to his work but who also lavished tenderness and care on the people in his life - as well as on his beloved roses. No self-absorbed pedant, he was a man with deep-rooted affections, political views (he was an abolitionist) - and a playful, sometimes wry sense of humor. This, in spite of his and his wife's continual healdi problems, four children, lectures, a heavy work load as a professor at Harvard - and, of course, the ballad collection.

We also gain a better appreciation for how Child's interest in ballads, which at first shared a rival fascination with Chaucer, grew from English and Scottish Ballads - part of a series, British Poets, for which he edited the volume on Spenser as well. While the ballad volume drew only on already published works, it laid the groundwork for his Child's life's work, leading to correspondence with other ballads scholars - most importandy Danish folklorist Svend Grundtvig and amateur Scottish song scholar William Macmath - as well as a host of others from Europe and Nordi America, who provided him with copies of unpublished manuscripts, field transcriptions, printed texts, and advice. …

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