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 14
SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF FOLK TUNES

THE important role of the ballad tune, so far only implicit in this discussion, should now be made explicit, and some attention paid to qualities one notices as one comes to know ballads. There is a pervasive minor sadness about many of them. Some are of a free and chant-like simplicity, others more melodic and formally constructed. Although they take unexpected turns, certain note sequences, strange at first, become familiar as one's repertoire increases. Usually satisfying and sometimes inadequate, they vary in the degree of pleasure they give.

Like the ballad stories, the tunes have gathered up everything that came in their path--chanted recitative, dance rhythms and melodies, popular tunes circulated by the broadside writers, composed tunes from the theaters, and some which have drifted in from other countries. From all these sources and probably many others come the tunes in this book. But whatever their provenience, their treatment by oral tradition over a sufficient period of time has established certain traits which give them their peculiar flavor and that soundness which has led to their long life.

Most folk tunes are based on the ancient modal scales, which the amateur may learn by playing on the white keys of the piano from C to C, or from D to D, and so on. The characteristic quality of the scale is given by the position of the half-step. The C-to-C scale is Ionian, D-to-D is Dorian, G-to-G is Mixolydian, and A-to-A Aeolian--to mention the modes most frequently found in Anglo-American folk song.1 Of these, the Ionian and Aeolian are the more common. The Ionian scale is practically the major; the Mixolydian differs from it in that it has a lowered 7th degree. The Aeolian is like the descending melodic minor, and the Dorian differs from it in having a raised 6th degree. In the following table of modal scales, the modes are shown first as they

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1
The names of these modes, together with those less familiar--Phrygian, Lydian, and Locrian (theoretical only)--were taken over into musical terminology from the church modes.

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