The Ballad Tree: A Study of British and American Ballads, Their Folklore, Verse and Music, Together with Sixty Traditional Ballads and Their Tunes

By Evelyn Kendrick Wells | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
THEORIES OF ORIGIN

EARLY reference to ballads gives us no information as to the method of their composition: it proves only the existence, before 1300, the date of the "Judas" text, of the ballad form as we now know it. The vexed question of origin was launched in the eighteenth century by Percy's sweeping claim for minstrel authorship, and since then the matching of theories by scholars and collectors has drawn the literary world into increasingly fervid, if not heated debate. Stated oversimply, the varied sources of the ballad are held to be these:

(1) The dance, because of the rhythmic refrain, and because primitive races today make up songs as they dance. Das Volk dichtet--the "singing, dancing throng" is the poet. (2) Individual poets, also of the folk. (3) The courtly poets, often minstrels, since it is sometimes possible to trace the humble setting of today's ballad back to an aristocratic Medieval background. (4) The monks, because the ballad stanza shows a metrical similarity to the Latin hymn, thus bespeaking some learning and skill, and because the earliest text, "Judas" (23), is religious in subject.

All these theories have their fallacies. It is difficult to see how "the singing, dancing throng" can give itself simultaneously to two different stimuli, that of rhythmic bodily movement in the dance, and that of intense interest in the story. A try at dancing a ballad soon shows the difficulties, though the Norwegians say it is possible. It is dangerous to argue for communal authorship from the analogy of primitive custom: although the South Sea Islanders of today compose songs as they dance, the resulting songs are lyrical and nonnarrative, not ballads. And although a ballad of humble background may be traced back to a Medieval courtly singer, this does not preclude all lowly authorship. Poetic skill has come from a Jonson, a Marlowe, a Burns, even a Shakespeare. The fact that our earliest copy of a ballad is on a religious subject is not enough to prove monastic authorship of all ballads. If the monks wrote the ballads, why are religious ones so scarce, and

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