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The Foundation of Modern Folk

by Jason Gubbels

The Foundation of Modern Folk

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In the late 19th century, Harvard Professor of English Francis James Child published one of the first attempts at an authoritative collection of English-language traditional ballads. Consisting of 305 songs and their variants, Child's collection had been assembled from English and Scottish sources and ordered numerically, from "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Ballad No. 1, dating from 1450) to "The Outlaw Murray" (Ballad No. 305, c. 1800). And although Child's work focused on song lyrics rather than the old tunes once attached to them, his collection (soon to be referred to as Child Ballads) served as a foundation for new folklorists and performers.

Many of these ancient songs were still freely circulating in the mountains of Appalachia, and when Harry Smith set about assembling his own authoritative six-album collection of old tunes (1952's Anthology of American Folk Music), he made sure to arrange the Ballads of Volumes 1 and 2 in accordance with Child's numerical system. British folksingers spent much of the 1950s meticulously reconstructing the melodies of these songs, while the American folk boom of the early 1960s filled coffee shops with new renditions of "The Cruel Mother" (Child Ballad No. 20, recorded by both Joan Baez and Judy Collins) and "The Farmer's Curst Wife" (Child Ballad No. 278, recorded by Pete Seeger). In the 1970s, British folk rock performers plundered the Child catalog for archaic melodies and verses over which to lay decidedly more modern beats. And the contemporary folk scene continues to return to the original source, as seen in Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer's recent collection titled simply Child Ballads, which appropriately kicks off with Ballad No. 1.

Although our playlist doesn't cover all 305 Child Ballads, we've still assembled several dozen examples of the ways in which this work of scholarship has influenced the modern folk revival, from Leadbelly and Bob Dylan to dueling versions of "Barbara Allen" (Ballad No. 84, c. 1660) from the Everly Brothers and Johnny Cash. In a perfect example of the way folk performers treat old texts as living documents, the tradition-minded Everlys stay true to the original song's tale of heartbreak, death and rose growing 'round the briar. Cash turns the murder ballad into his rockabilly-flavored "Ballad of Barbara," as a Southern boy winds his way north through Yankee towns only to have his heart broken by a city girl. Professor Child would no doubt approve.

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