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The Background--Literary Interests

Background and Commentary by Daniel W. Patterson

John Quincy Wolf taught English romantic literature at a college in Memphis. In the 1950s this was not an usual background for someone with an active interest in folksong. Literary figures as different as Sir Philip Sidney in the 16th century, Samuel Pepys in the 17th, Joseph Addison in the 18th, and 19th-century writers ranging from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Hardy and Housman for differing reasons praised, imitated, and, in the cases of Sir Walter Scott and John Clare, collected folksongs. By the middle of the 19th century leading scholars—headed by Francis James Child of Harvard and then his son-in-law and successor George Lyman Kittredge—were drawn by philological, literary, and historical interests to ballads in particular.

A good many scholars wrote appreciatively of the ballad itself. They described its distinctive narrative form—which typically opens near the end of the story and unfolds in action, dialogue, and image, lingering for a stanza on one intense moment, then often leaps across space and time to another, lingering on it, then leaps to another. It presents the story without overt comment or moralizing. The text itself is as reticent as the performance style that Almeda Riddle described when she said you don’t “perform” ballads, you put yourself “behind” them. A ballad text gains its power from distillation across time. Individual singers may contribute—consciously or unconsciously—imaginative touches to a song. But only those story elements that seem believable, catch the imagination, and move the heart get long remembered and passed on. Almeda learned of scholars’ explorations of the backgrounds of some of the historical ballads and thought the facts do “something for our curiosity, but not our satisfaction.” She told Abrahams, “I think as a child I enjoyed them more when I just sang them as ballads. Took them at their worth. Didn’t know they had a story behind them.”

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