The Flowering Thorn: International Ballad Studies

By Thomas A. McKean | Go to book overview

The Life and Times of Rosie Anderson

Sheila Douglas

In his note on the ballad of “Rosie Anderson,” twelve versions of which appear in his collection, Gavin Greig makes the following observations:

Few traditional songs are so well and so widely known as “Rosie
Anderson.” We may take it to be about a century old, judging from
the date of the events to which it refers…. Rose Anderson it seems
was the daughter of a merchant in Perth and was married at the age
of sixteen to another Perth merchant. As a result of certain discover-
ies an action for divorce was raised by the aggrieved husband,
which, after much litigation, was at length granted. Lord Elgin’s own
first marriage was dissolved in 1808, possibly as a result of the
Rosie Anderson affair…. The opinion may be ventured that only the
folksinger, armed with his unconscious art, his unpretentious style
and his ingenuous ethic, could well afford to handle the delicate
theme. The fact is that folksong has been able to deal with many
situations that literary song would hardly dare to touch, with the
result that the humbler minstrelsy covers a vastly wider area of
human experience. (1963: article 127)

Greig’s view of folk singing in this extract, based on ideas formed before he had his eyes opened to its true nature by his collecting experience, connects it with the humbler ranks of society, the uneducated peasantry, as was common in other European cultures. He speaks of “unconscious art,” “unpretentious style,” and “ingenuous ethic” before admitting that “folksong has been able to deal with many situations that literary song would hardly dare to touch.” But this was not because of the reasons he gives. In Scotland, folk song has never been confined to any one social class since we have ballads and songs composed by all kinds of people, from kings to ploughmen. Greig’s last sentence shows that he has learned to view folk song in a different light because experience has shown him that it “covers a vastly wider area of human experience.” Many ballads and songs that have been popular for generations have dealt with scandal, human frailty, and tragic relationships and have been widely sung by all kinds of people.

-175-

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