The Ballads of Britain

Raconteur Ian Duhig delves into the medieval underbelly of warlocks and horse-kings, hanging out at gargoyled fountains or harvest homes, where the dying ‘fur over like a stone mossing’, while never shunning the eyesores of goths on a pilgrimage to Whitby or the young nun of his Catholic schooldays whose unintentionally risible projected screenings of communist propaganda earned her the ire of the pupils’ parents and the inevitable heave-ho. He wheels out the old ballads like the ill-fated once carted out their dead, but this balladeer has revived his cargo with slang, modern culture and reliably impeccable insight. It isn’t the decades he has lived through in flesh and bone that he guides to the forefront of the reader’s panorama, but the centuries he has lived through via books, hearsay and wishful thinking, from Saint Aidan in the first century to the twelfth-century French courts. Are the old saints much different to the volunteers and charity workers of today? Not to Duhig. The general corruption of contemporary French society’s governing institutions conjures up Bush’s hypocrisy. And just ask the Lammas hireling who was dropped from a bridge without a splash whether the wicked of yesteryear were less ruthless than this century’s Anders Behring Breivik or Saddam Hussein (himself, posthumously, the subject of a ballad by Felix Dennis, whose wobbly writing and blatant imitation of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (a ballad which Duhig explores the Freemasonry of in his own work) does not complement the genre, although the immortalisation of those who mark their lifetime with a prevalent dent, detrimentally or philanthropically, is an appealing market which comes stocked with a rich, meaty range).

The earliest known ballads in England date back to the thirteenth century, including ‘Judas’ (part of the 305 ballads collected by Francis Child in the late nineteenth century, most of which were obtained from printed broadsides), which puts in place the elements of a traditional ballad, namely the introduction of an historical, legendary or infamous figure, with the added bonus of a twist to the commonly-known version of the story. In ‘Judas’, the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus is taken away from Judas and laid on Judas’ sister. Therefore, the two biggest evils in history were caused by the mischief of women (the other femme fatale being Eve.)

Twisting the story has always sharpened the poignant cog of the ballad, the narrative, which makes recreating ballads a smoother undertaking than it would be if the balladeer had to stick strictly to the facts.

Another modern lover of ballads is Clare Pollard. In her 2011 collection Changeling, she adapted the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin. In Clare Pollard’s version, ‘Tam Lin’s Wife’, Tam Lin has been fated to be cursed. Throughout the night, while he sleeps, he will transform into every beast his dream-world can conjure up, and if his wife stops holding him, while his skull becomes a ‘bleach December sun’ and his eyes ‘hot coals,’ before he wakes in the daylight, she will lose him forever; Pollard’s metaphor for marriage. Folklorist and literary critic Joseph Jacobs, writing in the same era as Child, interpreted the threat to take out Tam Lin’s eyes as the Queen of Faerie’s way of keeping him from seeing the human woman who rescued him. For Clare Pollard’s ventriloquism, the husband’s beauty and kindness are stripped away but even then ‘my boy stares out’ because ‘love has no conditions. None.’

‘Tam Lin’s Wife’ does not come in the traditional ballad form. It doesn’t have any stanzas, let alone quatrains (or couplets if you want to go back that far.) Does this prevent it from being a ballad? It has the story, the twist, a lesson we can all relate to, but the ballad takes its name from French medieval dance songs and were originally composed to accompany dances (the refrains, sung by the dancers, in the alternate lines of the couplets, suggests a link to the rhyming scheme of the traditional quatrain), and not even a teenager on ecstasy could mosh to ‘Tam Lin’s Wife.’ But Pollard, like Ian Duhig, explores the ballad in traditional form as well as experimenting with the genre.

‘The Lure’, which capitalises on Changeling’s faerie theme, replaces the lure of alcohol and drugs, and the nightlife that comes with it, with Elfame, a place ‘with violins and green cupcakes’ where the narrator would ‘dance the night with comely men,/and leave there drained and pale.’ The rhythm may be palpable, the rhyming anorexic, but the moral of the story is clear and the story itself is a lot of fun.

Duhig’s own traditional ballads travel from Wales to Ireland and explore Einstein and the affect of charivari on historical figures.

Don Paterson’s ballad ‘The Long Story’ makes for a more complex read; to the extent that, if you don’t get the references, you’ll be left feeling that the poem is a big waste of time. ‘The Long Story’ might not focus on a famous historical figure, although it does feature a sand-fairy, but it ends with the appearance of Scheherazade. The story is narrated by Old Frank, who ‘lay dying in his room off the ward.’ The story making up this ballad doesn’t quite end; instead, Old Frank becomes Scheherazade who ‘saw the approach of the dawn/and discreetly fell silent.’ Scheherazade was the fictional narrator of One Thousand and One Nights. Set in the Sassanid Empire, Scheherazade marries the Persian king for the sake of her father, fully aware the king has killed all of his former wives. On the night of their wedding, Scheherazade tells the king a story but leaves it on a cliffhanger. The king lets her live another day so he can hear the rest of the story. Each new night, one story is ended and a new one begun, and always Scheherazade is allowed to live another day  so that the king will get to hear how the story ends. Old Frank becomes Scheherazade in the hope that he too can last another day.

The ballad itself is basically the plot of Five Children and It, a novel by Edith Nesbit in which five children dig up a sand-fairy who is able to grant a wish, although the wish can only last a day, lending each wish the brevity and importance of Scheherazade’s stories. In Paterson’s ballad, there are four children who stumble upon two other children who have already stumbled upon a sand fairy. There is another bizarre twist before the twist of the finale.

Don Paterson’s love of old stories is evident in his collections, as the Divine Comedy resurfaces in a sonnet about the birth of a middle-aged Paterson’s son and the story of Orpheus takes up a whole book. But stories and ballads aren’t the same thing.

Given that the ballad is generally classified into three defining groups (traditional, broadside and literary), can anything which goes beyond these boundaries be classed as a ballad? The poems of David Constantine arguably comes closer to a ballad than the sentimental tear-jerkers common in the Top 40 music culture. Published twenty years apart, ‘ Islands ’ and ‘New Year Behind the Asylum’ take the ballad to a new level. The latter has the feel of a ballad but doesn’t rhyme, while the former rhymes in parts and is broken into sections, one of which isn’t even in stanzas. The lines are blurred here, for sure, but in a book of Constantine’s, that’s kind of the point.

Despite the hollowness of the Top 40 tear-jerkers, music and singing is more than just a strong link to the ballad form. Before books, it was relatively easy to remember stories through the use of rhyme and song. As books became popular, the tradition of ballads and music combined did not decline. Paterson himself is a musician. The Roman de Fauvel, a fourteenth-century cycle of satirical poems and songs, became the focal point for Duhig’s commission for new poems to be performed with original songs for a vocal consort specializing in pre-Baroque music. In modern music, ballads have moved from Folk to slow love songs.

In poetry, evolution has been chaotic, and will continue to be. The words make their own music, the stories bring pictures and further movement. The best poetry ballads can make even the grumpiest party-goer tap their feet. But isn’t that true of all forms of poetry, not just ballads. The lines can often be so blurred that the best ballads in the future probably wont be written by a poet deliberately attempting to magic up a masterpiece, but by poets who barely know what a ballad is. That said, if the ballad ever has gone away (and in the twentieth century it may as well have, for all the quality it produced), the generation of writers at the top of their game at the moment are brining the ballad back, and bringing Britain with it.