Popular ballads

29 Apr

Robin Hood statue in Nottingham

Image via Wikipedia

It has been ages since I’ve posted, but that’s partly because it’s so difficult for me to come up with anything intelligent to say about a few scattered poems. But I’ll try anyway … and then, on to the 16th century!

This section in the Norton Anthology was made up of ballads that are undated and anonymous, generally coming from oral tradition in England and Scotland. The book points out that ballads are often written during different periods of time by protestors, and it cites Bob Dylan and Dudley Randall from the 1960s. I thought that was an interesting observation!

The first of these poems is called Judas, from a 13th century manuscript. It is about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, and what’s notable about it to me is that it’s arranged in couplets and it’s full of repetition. Entire lines would be repeated right after each other, and other fragments would show up in the very next couplet.

Next was an excerpt from A Gest of Robyn Hode, from the late 15th or early 16th century. Silly me, I thought Robin Hood was a rather modern creation. I had no idea his roots went so far back! In fact, he was first mentioned in Piers Plowman, which I read a couple of months ago. Robin Hood rose from the resentment by the commoners of the aristocracy. The excerpt merely introduces Robin and Little John, tossing in a reference to the Virgin Mary and the sheriff of Nottingham.

Ah, Lord Randall — this one I actually knew! I know the sound of the music and the beat it should be sung to, and I can’t recall why I know this. Regardless, this poor young Lord Randall has been hunting, then had dinner (eels in broth, yuck!) with his true love, then his bloodhounds swelled and died, and then Lord Randall himself had been poisoned and, I assume, died at the end of his poem.

Bonny Barbara Allan is another one I’m pretty sure I know. A jingle rings in my head as I read it, but maybe I’m making that up. It’s a pretty simple little tragic ballad about Sir John Graeme dying and then his love, Barbara Allan, saying she would die the next day.

The Wife of Usher’s Well is about a woman whose three sons were killed in war, I assume. (It only says “o’er the sea.”) But then the sons’ ghosts came to visit her and she fixed up a feast, but the men were gone by the time the rooster crowed the next morning.

The Three Ravens is about three ravens watching the following scene: A slain knight lies under his shield with his hound dogs sitting at his feet and hawks flying around his body to protect him. A doe comes up and kisses his wounds, throws him up on her back, takes him to be buried, then dies herself.

Sir Patrick Spens is about a man who was commanded to sail a ship even though he felt the mission would be deadly because of an upcoming storm. Turns out, he was right, and he now lies 50 fathoms deep with all the other passengers of the ship.

Finally, The Bonny Earl of Murray is my final piece, written around 1750. It is about the political murder of a popular Scots noble in 1592. King James VI of Scotland had ordered Huntly to arrest the Earl of Murray, but Huntly killed him instead.

All right, that’s it! I’m done with the Middle Ages and am moving into the 16th century, the literature of which this book classifies from 1485 to 1603.


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4 responses to “Popular ballads

  1. David

    April 30, 2011 at 1:47 am

    “Three Ravens” remains immensely popular today, having been turned into a number of songs, usually by folk singers. One of my favorites is by the group Peter, Paul, and Mary; listen to it here. There’s another one here, although I don’t like it as much. I’ve often found the poem very interesting, especially to compare with its opposite/twin “Twa Corbies” (which should also be in the Norton Anthology, I think). That one has also been put to music.

    I keep meaning to read the entire Gest of Robyn Hode, but it just hasn’t happened yet.

  2. The Sidebar Review

    April 30, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Thanks for sharing those! I definitely liked the Peter, Paul and Mary song best.

  3. H.M. Goodchild

    June 28, 2011 at 3:24 am

    All great poems – thanks for this. All the songs you cite are fully alive in the modern folk repetoire. You can’t keep a good story down! I’d agree ‘Three Ravens’ and its dark twin ‘Twa corbies’ are a fascinating pair offering contrasting thoughts on fate and death.


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