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Border Ballads

Sir Walter Scott first published them, but to whom do traditional ballads belong? By Nate Pedersen Nate Pedersen is an American freelance writer, bookseller, and graduate student currently living in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The British National Party (BNP), a controversial, right-wing nationalist party, recently began to sell recordings of folk music under its own record label in an effort to raise funds. Traditional English and Scottish ballads, popularized by the heavily left-wing folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, are now finding themselves in the midst of a raging political debate over ownership. The BNP uses folk music to stoke the nostalgic fires of nationalism, while the left promotes ballads as music for everyone, regardless of heritage.

Henry Raeburn’s 1822 portrait of Sir Walter Scott.
“John the Little Scott,” a ballad recorded in Scott’s own hand. Courtesy of the Faculty of Advocates Library. Credit: Lindsay Levy.
First page of Scott’s manuscript, Scottish Songs, from 1795. Courtesy of the Faculty of Advocates Library. Credit: Lindsay Levy.

The great power of the ancient ballad, however, is its utter refusal to be contained by one philosophy or one belief. Ballads are inherently apolitical—they evoke emotions common to all and tell deceptively simple stories. Topical, political ballads were surely popular in their day, and we have plenty examples in modern collections of broadside ballads. However, the ballad that stands the test of time must be near universal in its emotional appeal.

Sir Walter Scott, attuned to this emotional appeal, and well-versed in Scottish lore, set out in 1792 to search for traditional ballads in his beloved Scottish Borders. The ballads of the Scottish Borders, often called Border Ballads, were already locally famous for their emotive power. Sung without musical accompaniment, the Border Ballads were short in length and dramatic in content. For subject matter, they were ripe with the soaring themes of kinship, old battles, cross-border raids, and the supernatural. (Famous examples include Tamlane, Thomas the Rhymer, and The Cruel Sister).

Scott made yearly ballad-collecting trips from 1792 onward, traveling primarily through the Ettrick Forest and Liddesdale in addition to Selkirkshire, where he was acting sheriff. Scott, however, was less a field recorder than a chapbook and manuscript collector, and he gathered ballads mostly by tracking down old manuscripts. He also had a tendency to meet the right people. On one occasion he was introduced to James Hogg, a shepherd and musician in the Ettrick Forest, who contributed to Scott’s growing ballad collection. The two became good friends, and Scott’s friendship paved the way for the publication of the poetry of “The Ettrick Shepherd.”

According to Dr. Sigrid Rieuwerts, Reader at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz in Germany who is working on the first new edition of the Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders since the early twentieth century, the most important manuscript Scott included in his collection was by Mrs. Brown of Falkland. Anna Brown (nee Gordon) was a ballad singer who had written down the ballads she learned from her mother’s side of the family. (Traditionally, Scottish ballads appear to have been passed down along matrilineal lines.) Brown mostly learned the ballads previous to 1759, making them the oldest extant repertoire of a ballad singer ever discovered. Scott heavily relied upon Brown’s manuscripts in his preparation of the Minstrelsy, to the point of competing for the use of Brown’s manuscripts with another would-be ballad collector, Robert Jamieson. Scott handily, and rather punitively, won that competition.

Scott discussed the possibility of a publishing his growing collection of ballads with his old friend, the printer James Ballantyne, who responded with enthusiasm. Together they brought out the first edition of The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border Country, a two-volume work, in 1802. They met with such immediate success that Scott went directly to work on a third volume. The publication made Ballantyne’s career as a printer, as the work went through multiple printings and improved editions, concluding, in 1812, with the fifth and final edition, which by that point stretched into four volumes. This final edition contained 96 ballads, including a number of ballad imitations by Scott and other poets.

While impressive in scope and historic detail, Scott’s scholarship in the Minstrelsy has had its share of critics. Scott “improved” a variety of ballads, adding in stanzas, or improving rhythm. He argued that every interpreter sets his own mark upon balladic poetry. While he was undoubtedly right about the room for interpretation when ballads are sung, it gets a bit messier when new interpretations are committed to print. According to Rieuwerts, Scott was more concerned with aesthetics than authenticity, and later ballad collectors, such as Francis Child, criticized him for this inattention to historical detail. Rieuwerts also pointed out that one of the famous ballads in the Minstrelsy, Sir Patrick Spens, is quite clearly five different versions rendered into one.

Scott’s Home Library

The Abbotsford Library Research Project aims to preserve and make accessible the riches of Scott’s “home library” of 15,000 volumes—“arguably representing the finest private writer’s library in Britain,” according to the website. In 2002, a stock-check turned up the Bokenham mass, a medieval folio manuscript that was thought to be lost.

Squabbles over the merits of printed balladry, however, are rendered irrelevant when considering the importance of the historic scope and detail of the publication. Of the 96 ballads in the final edition of the Minstrelsy, 43 appeared in print for the first time, including The Twa Corbies, which Rieuwerts considers the most interesting ballad in the collection. She wrote in a recent email, “no manuscript of that ballad has survived (as far as we know) and thus we do not know how much of that wonderful ballad that is so much part of Scotland’s cultural memory is from oral tradition and how much from Scott’s pen.”

Scott’s important collection also helped fuel the growing fire of British Romanticism and set the cogs in motion for similar ballad collections on the European continent, particularly in Germany. The Border Ballads become popular all over the world, reminding poets of their ancient roots and of the deep, essential feelings of humanity. While the BNP cannot claim ownership over traditional British ballads any more than the left can protect folk music from free use, ballads belong to all of us and serve as a welcome reminder, amidst the moral compromises of the modern age, of the strong convictions and hot-blooded desires of our collective past.

Nate Pedersen is an American freelance writer, bookseller, and graduate student currently living in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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