The first two songs today come from Child Ballads, a lovely new album from American folk singers Anais Mitchell (yes, she was named after Anais Nin) and Jefferson Hamer. The album is exactly what you'd expect from the title: songs drawn from Francis J. Child's great collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads, first published (in ten volumes) in the 1880s and '90s. Although deeply rooted in the landscape and folk tradition of the British Isles, these songs made their way over to the New World with Anglo-Scots immigrants and thus became a vibrant part of America's folk heritage too -- particularly in the eastern Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Smoky mountain regions. Francis Child was American himself, a scholar of literature, language and folklore at Harvard University in Boston.
Above: Mitchell & Hammer perform "Willie's Lady," Child Ballad 6, at a recent Folk Alley Session.
Below: "Tam Lin," Child Ballad 39, a faerie ballad from the Scottish Borders.
There have, of course, been many fine poems, short stories, children's books and fantasy novels based on the Tam Lin ballad. The latter includes Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip, An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughton, Deersnake by Lucy Sussex, and The Queen of Spells by Dahlov Ipcar.
Carrying on with the Child Ballads theme:
"The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" (Child Ballad 214), from the album Fairest Floo'er by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart; and "The Elfin Knight," Child Ballad 2, from the album The Girl Who Couldn't Fly by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire.
Reaching into the past, below:
The House Carpenter," performed by Pentangle (with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and Jacqui McShee) during the 1970s folk music revival. "The House Carpenter," a.k.a., "The Daemon Lover," is Child Ballad 243. Many of the mythic writers/artists of my generation grew up during the folk revival and were strongly influenced by it.
And one more:
"Jock O'Hazeldean," Child Ballad 293, peformed by Maddy Prior at London's Cecil Sharpe House (The English Folk Dance and Song Society) in 2008. Prior, of course, was the lead singer in the '70s electric folk band Steeleye Span.
If you're in the mood for few more ballads, try: "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad 113), performed and explained by Scottish singers Caorolyn Allan and Jenny Keldie; "Twa Sisters" (Child Ballad 10) from Scottish singer Emily Smith (and Julie Fowlis does a lovely version too); Anachie Gordon (Child Ballad 239) from Irish singer Mary Black; "The Famous Flower of Serving Men" (Child Ballad 106) from the British folk stalwart Martin Carthy; and "Hughie Graeme" (Child Ballad 191) from the great June Tabor.
If you love ballads and folk music, I hope you know about John Boden's wonderful site, A Folk Song a Day. I'm addicted to it.
For a history of the folk revival in Britian, I recommend Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, a fascinating book by Rob Young.And no discussion of ballads is complete without mentioning Charles Vess's The Book of Ballads, an absolutely magical volume of ballads rendered in narrative graphic form. The book won the Eisner Award, and the original artwork (all 132 pages of it) is now housed in the Library of Congress collections.