Folk Songs in Print: Text and Tradition

By Atkinson, David | Folk Music Journal, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Folk Songs in Print: Text and Tradition

Atkinson, David, Folk Music Journal

'Oral tradition' has long been considered a defining characteristic of folk songs. Yet England has been a text-based society over the whole of the period from which ballads and folk songs are known (often through printed sources). In place of the emphasis on orality, therefore, a characteristic kind of textuality, described here as 'vernacular', unstable, or 'centrifugal', is identified in folk songs, irrespective of whether they are manifested in singing or in print. Unlike the 'literary' texts presented, for example, in Percy's Reliques, individual texts of this kind carry no special textual authority in themselves but rather an inherent reference outwards towards all their other actual and potential manifestations, regardless of format, embracing the possibility of variation as well as of continuity. This kind of vernacular textuality, it is argued, provides an important locus for the instantiation of 'tradition'.


Cecil Sharp, in English Folk-Song: Some Conclusions, summed up an attitude towards folk songs in cheap print which apparently grew out of his collecting experiences and which was shared by many of his contemporaries: 'A broadside version of a ballad is usually ... a very indifferent one, and vastly inferior to the genuine peasant song.' (1) Sharp's entire theory of folk-song transmission and communal re-creation, with its quasi-Darwinian triad of continuity, variation, and selection, is predicated upon oral transmission. (2) Yet it remains the case that vast numbers of songs, including classic ballads and items from the standard folksong repertoire, were printed and reprinted from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries and distributed throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as broadsides and/or in garlands or songsters (small chapbooks containing several songs). (3) Between 1557 and 1709 more than three thousand broadside-ballad titles were registered with the Stationers' Company in London. (4) Tessa Watt estimates that somewhere between six hundred thousand and three to four million broadside ballads were printed in the second half of the sixteenth century. (5) In the nineteenth century, Henry Mayhew reported that over one-and-a-half million broadside copies were sold of 'The Murder of Maria Marten', a ballad subsequently collected from a number of different singers across England. (6) (Figure 1) It is difficult to imagine that these masses of printed items did not make a very substantial contribution to the dissemination and persistence of folk songs among singers--the 'continuity' of Sharp's triad.

Of course, broadsides and songsters at large embraced a very disparate range of songs or verses, some of them topical and possibly only of restricted interest, some of them popular songs of their day. Most probably not all of the songs printed on broadsides ever actually became current with singers, or more than briefly so. Nevertheless, it is still the case that significant numbers of broadsides are readily identifiable with the folk songs and ballads that were later collected directly from singers. Estimates are that up to ninety-five per cent of what have come to be considered as the standard repertoire of English 'folk' songs, as noted from singers, have at some time also circulated in cheap printed form. (7) Dianne Dugaw has noted that virtually all of the female-warrior, cross-dressing ballads that have been collected from singing have also appeared in print, and nearly all that have appeared in print have been collected from singers. (8) There is no reason to think that in this regard such songs are in any way exceptional. And not only are the texts of folk songs printed on broadsides often not readily distinguishable from those taken down from singers, but different broadside printings of the same song (even by the same printer) can display just the same kinds of textual variants as arise between versions recorded from different singers. (9)


English folk songs, therefore, largely exist not just as the transient products of oral performance but simultaneously as the products of a process of 'textualization', whereby a work of verbal art becomes a written or printed 'text', and acquires characteristics associated with the condition of being a 'text'. …

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