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 11
THE SCOTTISH REVIVAL AND SIR WALTER SCOTT

IN England the stream of traditional poetry had suffered greatly from the influx of the printed ballad, which spread from the city presses and put its debasing stamp upon existing traditional song, even stopping it for a while. In Scotland traditional song suffered no such break. The Scots, Border-conscious for centuries after the union of the crowns, have never allowed the songs about their heroes to die, from Thomas of Erceldoune and William Wallace to Bonnie Prince Charlie; and Sir Walter Scott Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border is the natural product of the Border's unbroken tradition of song, legend, and poetry.

David Herd, a contemporary of Percy and Ritson, had edited a volume of ballads and songs in 1769, collected from traditional singers and presented with the greatest respect for every fragment as he had found it. Like everyone who collected from singers themselves, he had been struck with the musical nature of the ballad. Percy had offered to "improve" Herd's fragments, but Herd had independently followed his own plan.

Literary attention in the eighteenth century turned also to popular poetry in Allan Ramsay Ever Green and Tea Table Miscellany, which contained many ballads, some bowdlerized from tradition, some imitations, some fairly untainted by the pen, like "Johnie Armstrong," which was "copied from a gentleman's mouth of the same name, who is the sixth generation from this John."1The Tea Table Miscellany went through twelve editions between the years 1724 and 1763. This was the handbook for Scottish literary circles of the generation preceding Scott, and must be considered as one of his own literary influences.

The circumstances of Scott's youth drew him in many ways toward popular poetry. His pride in Border ancestry was a quickening force in

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1
The Ever Green, II, 190.

-236-

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