And so to the Child Ballads. Despite my initial idea that I might systematically work through them from #1 (there are 305 in total), I have decided, in typically perverse fashion, to start at #100 (Willie of Winsbury, chosen totally arbitrarily) and see where things go from there. Before any analysis (be it textual or musical), I began by simply listening to a recording, in this case by Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, from their recent album 'Child Ballads'. The first thing I noticed was the musical arrangement, and thereby I may have hit my first snag. The accompaniments - in this case a slow-building affair in which the guitars are slowly (and often barely perceptibly) joined by other instruments - have a story of their own to tell, which may well be at odds with the tale actually being told in the lyrics, not to mention providing a fresh contender for the listener's attention. This is further compounded by the fact that the verbal arcania contained within many folk lyrics can often be obscured both by vocal gymnastics and the addition of harmonies. (If this seems picayune in the extreme, please forgive me - all I am really trying to do is to put myself in the position of someone hearing the ballad without recourse to lyric sheets or notes, and to judge it purely temporally, as these ballads' first audience would have had to.)
The ballad itself seemed fairly symptomatic of not only Child's collection, but perhaps also of folk song itself - it tells a simple tale in which a king returns from captivity in Spain to discover that his daughter Jane seems to be sickening for something, or someone. After questioning her and forcing her to strip naked in order that he should verify her chastity, she confesses that she has been impregnated by one Willie of Winsbury, whereupon her father dispatches his men to find him and bring him back, where he will be summarily hanged. When paraded at court, the king is astonished to see a man before him clad in red silken clothes, with tumbling blonde locks and milk-white skin; so astonished, in fact, that he immediately offers him not only his daughter's hand in marriage, but the heirdom to his entire kingdom. Willie accepts his daughter's hand but rejects the kingdom, the final scene being of the lovers disappearing on horseback to enjoy the presumed riches of nature. So already we have morality coming into play (Willie, who is apparently neither wealthy nor powerful, refused riches and a title), judgements based on appearances (a favourite Shakespearian device when all else fails) and the heartwarming old saw of 'love conquers all'.
By way of contrast, the other version I listened to (Anne Briggs, from her eponymous album) seemed to be less musically interesting (the accompaniment of two chiming bouzoukis provided a solid, if somewhat workmanlike underpinning), but focused the listener far more on the story being told.
The construction of the melody (at least by Western 'classical' standards) is somewhat backwards - normally a melody would spend several phrases working its way up to its highest-pitched note, better to give an overall shape and sense of progression. However, this melody starts off in its highest register, hitting its highest note halfway through the first phrase before gradually descending. Perhaps this is another (subconscious) technique to focus the listener more on the tale rather than the telling, by removing any superfluous overarching dramatic arcs. Brecht did much the same thing, after all.
The acid test for me was when I actually came to sing the song in question (and no, you're not getting to hear any of them, thanks). Despite my earlier protestations that the melody be as uninflected as possible, I immediately found myself lapsing into certain folk-singing tropes ('leaning into' the last note of a phrase from the note below, arcane pronunciations such as 'oyy' instead of 'I', adding passing notes where none were needed). It was therefore with a heavy heart that I realised how much I crave ornamentation and overarching dramatic thrust. To be alone with a single melody, without any other voices, instruments or gimmicks, had the strange effect of making me feel somewhat vulnerable, especially when I attempted to sing in my natural (un-folkie) voice. One wonders whether this is an inevitable by-product of entertainment changing (not to mention attention-span), or whether we can in fact lose ourselves anew in something so simple, unpretentious and above all, stark. I for one sincerely hope so.