THE old ballads are called "popular" in a double sense. Their appeal was immediate and permanent; their origin was among the people instead of among princes or prelates. The ancient story- poems were sung for the delight of the populace in market places and fairs, in taverns and on street corners, rather than for the delectation of lords and ladies in great mansions and the courts of kings. It might even be said that the people made their own songs. The ballads may have been conceived by a "professional" poet, but, since they were transmitted orally instead of written down, variations grew rapidly. Improvisations were added, lines interpolated -- and what began as a product of an individual author became the expression of a community.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century Francis James Child, who performed one of the finest pieces of extended scholarship ever achieved by an American, collected more than three hundred extant English and Scottish ballads, many of which had been brought to America and were leading lives of their own in the New World. They adopted not only the transformed scene but the local accents wherever they found themselves, from the mountain songs of Maine to the "lonesome tunes" of Kentucky. Thus the ballads spanned the centuries; they reached from the events of antiquity to tomorrow's radio program. Bishop Percy first printed his pioneering RELIQUES OF ANCIENT ENGLISH POETRY in 1765, but he had little idea of the antiquity of the sources. Many of Percy's "finds" had their origins in the Middle Ages. In THE CANTERBURY TALES Chaucer imitated rhymed romances which were old in 1380; PIERS PLOWMAN, written