It may be well here to attempt a definition of the word “ballad.” I understand it to mean a bit of popular history, or a popular tale, or romance, turned into verse, which will fit some popular air. It is not something definite, like a printed song by a known author, but something which is continually undergoing change.
Chevy Chase is a familiar example of popular history versified. There are sixty-eight stanzas (generally of four lines) in the version in Percy’s Reliques, the story is simply told, and the whole is exceedingly dramatic; there is not a bit of sentiment or natural history in it, but there is something which has made it popular for centuries. Many versions of the ballad exist, and the original composer is unknown. The battle of Otterbourne is another example, it has seventy stanzas of four lines, it is like the other, and it has a foundation in fact, so that it cannot be older than a certain date.
An instance of a popular tale versified is “The Frolicksome Duke, or the Tinker’s Good Fortune,” (Percy’s Reliques, vol. i., 255). The story is the same as that of “The Sleeper awakened,” told in the Arabian Nights, but the whole machinery of the English ballad is English, not Arabic.
A similar instance is “The Heir of Linne,” the groundwork of which is in an Eastern tale, though the ballad is Scotch.
“Another is “The King and the Miller of Mansfield.” The story of that ballad is very widely spread. Sir Walter Scott tells it as Scotch history in the “Tales of a Grandfather.” I have something very like it in Gaelic. The adventure savours of Harsoun of Raschid wandering in disguise, and Percy gives a whole list of similar songs and stories, in which some king converses with a poor man, is entertained by him, and afterwards discovers his rank, and rewards his entertainer. The style of this English ballad is humorous, rough, and popular; its length, forty stanzas, is not such as to make it difficult to remember, and the rhythm is that of a jolly tune. The story and the ballad might suit the subjects of a whole dynasty by altering a few words, and a few changes would make them suit anyplace where there are kings and countrymen.
Thus even popular history has a vague date, but the popular tale has none.
An instance of a popular romance in the form of a ballad is “Sir Lancelot,” and another gives the story of “Morte Arthur.” Another old ballad contains the whole story of King Lear and his daughters, and there are many such. A good example of the changes which ballads undergo is to be found in the versions of one which is still current in Scotch drawing-rooms.
In the minstrelsy of the Scottish Border is a ballad whose chorus is –
“Binnorie, O Binnorie,
By the bonny mill dams o’ Binnorie.”
The story told in dialogue is that of two sisters, the eldest of whom, in a fit of jealousy, pushes the youngest into a river, where she is drowned. All versions agree so far, and their metre has a general resemblance, but the details, the language, the tune, and the metre, vary according to the district where the ballad is found. A version is given in “The scouring of the White Horse,” and is essentially English; there are many border versions, and a Tweedside antiquary might fairly claim the ballad, but another old version has the chorus of –
Stirling for aye,
Bonny St. Johnstone stands upon Tay.”
Another version which I have has this chorus –
“Oh ochone, ochone a rie,
On the banks of the Banna, ochone a rie.”
Of which one line is Gaelic. Another has –
“Bo down, bo down,
And I’ll be true unto my love,
If he’ll be true unto me.”
Miss Brookes transcribed a version which S. C. Walker, historian of the Irish bards, sent to Sir Walter Scott; the chorus is –
“Hey ho my Nanny O,
While the swan swims bonny O.”
And the lady got it from an old woman who sang it from memory. Drawing-room versions now current are generally traced to some old nurse, who sang them to the young ladies, and these vary more than some Gaelic ballads which are separated from each other by centuries, and about which Scotch and Irish Gael quarrel heartily.
Some verses are highly poetical, and savour of antiquity, others of modern times; some are almost absurd.
“He courted the eldest wi’ brooch and wi’ knife,
But he loved the youngest as his life,”
is pretty, but another is quaint –
“I did not put you in with the design,
Just for to pull you out again.”
One verse is picturesque, and another is almost ridiculous.
“They could na see her yellow hair,
For the pearls and jewels that were there.”
“Then up and spake her ghaist sae green,
Do ye no ken the king’s daughter Jean?”
In another version it was no ghost, but the lady herself who spoke.
“Oh, miller, I’ll give you guineas ten,
If you’ll send me back to my father again.”
“The miller he took her guineas ten,
And then he popped her in again.”
In one version, a harper made a harp of the drowned lady’s “breast bane,” and yellow hair; and it played magic tunes; another tells us that
“The sister she sailed over the sea,
And died an old maid of a hundred and three.
“The lover became a beggar man,
And he drank out of a rusty tin can.”
A ballad then bears the stamp of originality, and the traces of many minds; it may be of generations of singers of all classes of society, and of many districts; it may even be found in several different dialects, or even languages, and yet be the same ballad nevertheless. To strike out any bit of a genuine ballad is to mutilate it; to add anything to it is to disfigure it; but it is quite legitimate to fuse as many versions as can be got, so as to complete the story, and to select the best of several lines, if the fact be stated. The hanging of the miller, for instance, is a new incident, and should be added; and so should the verse –
“The Miller’s daughter was at the door,
As sweet as any gilly flower.”
To sift out all the pretty bits of these ballads, strike out all that is quaint, compose a lot of similar poetry, and then attribute the whole to Thomas the Rhymour, would not be fair treatment of popular ballads; and yet something of the kind was done even by Percy in his Reliques, for he added verses of his own.
An event or incident must first be remembered as a tradition; therefore a popular tale is the oldest form. A popular ballad which can easily be sung, and remembered, is the next growth; and a romance or play, such as “Morte Arthur,” “King Lear,” “Fingal,” or the “Idyls of the King,” is the next and last.
Besides these old world ballads there are several other classes; sentimental songs which have no story; political ballads which are forgotten almost as soon as made; and ballads which never take hold of the popular mind, because their interest is local or temporary. Of these there is a crop every year, which springs up, and dies, like the undergrowth of flowers and grass, which springs up and decays under the branches of an old forest or a young plantation, and is mingled with its withered leaves.