Academic journal article Ethnologies

Fictional Landscapes and Social Relations in Nineteenth-Century Broadside Ballads

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Fictional Landscapes and Social Relations in Nineteenth-Century Broadside Ballads

Article excerpt

* La Broadside Ballad [complainte traditionnelle imprimee] constitue une des formes les plus anciennes de culture populaire en Europe et en Amerique. Meme si notre comprehension du genre, surtout en Amerique du nord, a ete faconnee par des textes tires de la tradition orale, beaucoup de ses caracteristiques thematiques et stylistiques revelent que ses origines sont a chercher dans la presse populaire moderne. L'article examine les paysages fictionnels des "whiteletter ballads" tels que representes dans le catalogue de G. Malcolm Laws et plus particulierement les categories de la lettre "M" a "P". Ces ballades ont toutes pour theme central les relations amoureuses ; cependant, les espaces occupes par les personnages principaux et la maniere dont les relations evoluent temoignent d'un interet marque pour des problematiques sociales plus larges, telles que la separation par l'emigration, les tensions entre les classes sociales et l'influence des institutions bureaucratiques.

* The broadside ballad constitutes one of the oldest forms of popular culture in Europe and America. Even though our understanding of the genre, especially in North America, has been shaped by texts drawn from oral tradition, many of its thematic and stylistic traits reveal its origins in the modern popular press. The article examines the fictional landscapes of "whiteletter" ballads as represented in G. Malcom Laws catalog, especially categories "M" through "P." These ballads all have love relationships as their central theme, and yet the spaces occupied by the principal characters and the manner in which the relationships unfold show a marked concern for larger social issues, such as separation through emigration, interclass tensions, and the influence of bureaucratic institutions.

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The interaction between popular and folk culture has been a focal theme in Peter Narvaez's writing, from his early exploration of the syncretic merger of country and Irish music hall influences in Newfoundland (1977), to the seminal collection of essays exploring the "Folklore-Popular Culture Continuum" (Narvaez and Laba 1986), his work on Newfoundland media legends (1986), and his essay highlighting the relevance of Cultural Studies for Canadian folkloristics (1992). The present essay surveys a genre of folksong that has spanned the folk-popular continuum perhaps longer than any other in Anglo-American tradition: the broadside ballad. On both sides of the Atlantic, folksong collections of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries revealed the extent to which rural singing traditions were influenced by the broadside press. Even collectors who gave priority to putatively older classical ballads, adhering to a "Child-and-other" approach (Wilgus 1959: 145), tended nonetheless to record and publish a larger number of broadside texts. Yet in order to conform to then-current understandings of folklore, broadsides had to be represented in ways that played down, if not erased, their origins in the urban-based popular press. From a theoretical standpoint, this reorientation was not difficult to sustain. Texts existed in multiple variants, showing the effects of oral transmission; their subject matter was often historical, albeit from relatively recent history; the songs were collected in rural or coastal (i.e. stereotypically "folk") communities; and from a performance standpoint, they had merged with longstanding singing traditions within those communities. Ballads that were, by origin, modern, literate, and urban could be made traditional, oral, and rural. (1) This expanded understanding of traditional narrative song, however, was accompanied by a tendency to discount the stylistic distinction between classical (or Child) ballads and their broadside counterparts. Arguing that traditional singers rarely distinguished between the two genres (though some did), later ballad critics, especially in North America, favoured a more unified view of tradition. …

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