Academic journal article Western Folklore

".The Wit of a Woman It Comes in Handy, / at Times in an Hour of Need": Some Comic Ballads of Married Life

Academic journal article Western Folklore

".The Wit of a Woman It Comes in Handy, / at Times in an Hour of Need": Some Comic Ballads of Married Life

Article excerpt

Of the small number of comic ballads included in the last volume of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Child 1882-98: nos. 273-283, 290), several (including those to be discussed in detail here) have enjoyed considerable popularity with traditional singers. It is also the case that this small body of material is somewhat reinforced by the presence of comic or humorous elements elsewhere in the ballad repertoire (Nicolaisen 1992; Roberts 1951; Smith 1923). It is even conceivable that the seeming neglect that Child accorded the comic ballads could have had as much to do with failing health and the desire to see the edition completed as with a conscious disdain for this kind of song. Howbeit, whilst there are only a relative handful of comic items in the canons of Child (1882-98) and even of Laws (1957; 1964), there are actually substantial numbers of humorous narrative songs extant elsewhere, especially on broadsides. By studying closely a fairly small number of comic ballads from tradition, it is possible to establish connections both with other parts of the Child corpus, and with this larger body of anglophone comic balladry, and so to contribute to the (scholarly) rehabilitation of the comic ballads (following Buchan 1992). The Child and "Child-type" ballads considered here, which are all concerned in one way or another with facets of married life, are therefore offered as paradigms and not as paragons.

Fortunately, the daunting mass of humorous narrative songs has been intensively studied by German scholars who have not only analysed and classified them, but have also drawn attention to generic and geographical affinities of these anglophone comic ballads, or Schwank songs or ballads as they are termed in the absence of an equally precise English phrase (Roth 1977; 1980; Wehse 1975; 1979; 1980; 1982; 1985). Schwank ballads can be defined in relation to their structure; and Wehse offers a couple of useful summary definitions in English:

schwank is a humorous narrative of one or more episodes. The dramatic conflict reaches its height towards the end of the tale or song culminating in a punchline-a surprising or expected solution, usually the inversion of the initial situation, evoking laughter. In the present tradition the genre is often reduced to ajoke. This genre, however, gives a mere skeleton of a story, whereas in a schwank the action is leisurely built up until it reaches its climax. The emphasis of a schwank is in the telling of the story and the action preceding the final solution, on the development of the events and not so much on the final comic surprise. (Wehse 1982:133; also 1975:326)

the narration of a humorous event working toward a comical conflict of climax such as a punch line and/or a surprising reversal of situation. This structure can be compared to a game, in which two rivals try to get the better of each other. The superior position of one or the other opponent may be reversed once or several times, and the person expected to win the "game" is thus rendered inferior. The reversal is caused by such devices as ruses and witty retorts. (Wehse 1980:223)

Classification of the ballads then focuses upon the different thematic areas of conflict with which they deal (Wehse 1979; 1982). The broad subject areas include courtship; matrimony and family; ruses (which include outwitting the Devil); stupid or naive actions; humorous narratives concerning the clergy and religion; animal stories and fables; and encounters between royalty or nobility and ordinary citizens. There are, of course, subdivisions within these categories; but in fact a substantial majority of the songs are concerned with amatory, erotic, and marital situations. The ballads deal with seemingly everyday matters, and to an important extent with characters from the middle ranks of society rather than the more aristocratic milieux often associated with the Anglo-Scottish classical ballads. At the same time, the Schwank structure, centring upon oppositional conflicts or confrontations, means that great importance attaches to different kinds of ability and cleverness among their characters. …

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