Child 209 Comment

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On the early history of this ballad we can add very little of great significance to what was known in Child’s time. That there were at least three separate but related ballads seemingly prior to 1700 is widely accepted, and all three of them appear to be based on real events. If these claims are correct the earliest would appear to be the Scots ballad which is said to relate to events that happened in 1554 to George Gordon, Fourth Earl of Huntly.

The other two ballads, both English and found on seventeenth century broadsides, Child understandably relegated to an appendix, but he was unaware of the many English and American, broadside and oral, hybrid versions extant in his own time, which have elements from all three of the earlier ballads.

The earlier of the two English ballads, ‘A Lamentable New Ditty made upon the Death of a Worthy Gentleman named George Stoole….at Newcastle….to a delicate Scottish tune’, has been dated at 1610. It was certainly printed in London at about that time.

The second, ‘The Life and Death of George of Oxford, to a Pleasant tune called Poor Georgy’, was printed in London towards the end of that century.

Both ballads share the common confessional stanza:-

‘I never stole no ox nor cow, Nor never murdered any, But I stole sixteen of the king’s white steeds, And I sold them in Bohemia.’

This stanza has crept into some of the later versions of the Scots ballad. In all three ballads Geordie is condemned to die and reprieve is attempted successfully or unsuccessfully by his lover; but they have little text in common other than what would be considered commonplace or coincidence. The ‘many/any’ rhyme occurs in all three, and there is similarity in the lover offering money/gold/lands to deliver her lover from execution. The writing of a letter common to the Scots ballad and ‘George Stoole’ is a mere commonplace as is the ‘Go saddle me a milk-white steed’ stanza, common to ‘George of Oxford’ and the Scots ballad.

That all three ballads continued in oral tradition into the eighteenth century is a strong possibility. Whereas it is likely that the later of the three ballads ‘George of Oxford’ was influenced to some degree by the other two at the composition stage, it is also very likely that the Scots version has picked up elements from ‘George of Oxford’ in later oral tradition.

The study of the ballad is further confused by the obvious interference of literary hands in the Scots versions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Having looked very closely at all extant Scots versions of this period and compared stanza by stanza, those versions which seem to have had the least interference in this way are Child’s A, C, D, F and G versions. Of the fragments it is impossible to say, but B, H , I and J should be treated with great suspicion; not only because of their unique extra elements, but because their collectors are well-known for having interfered heavily with most of their material.

There are some points of note that arise from close comparison of the earliest Scots versions, i.e., those published by Child, with the addition of a contemporary version in the Crawfurd Collection (Volume 2, p152). First of all the two versions that seem to be fullest, and carry almost the complete stock of reliable stanzas between them, are Child’s A and D versions, Burns’ version sent to the Scots Musical Museum, and the version taken down from Janet Scott which is in the material for Scott’s Border Minstrelsy. Whilst these two versions only have seven stanzas in common they have between them twenty-three of the most common and reliable stanzas found in all of the Scots versions.

It would appear that nearly all of the Scots versions of this period have a range of later additional stanzas tagged on the end which vary considerably from one version to another. The best example of this is Child F, Agnes Lyle’s version, which has half a dozen of these, all other versions having no more than two of them. I am here excluding Child’s B version, sent to Scott from the recitation of Mr. Bartram, which concludes with a jumble of material not found elsewhere.

Having stated that Child A, the Burns/Johnson version is very likely reliable, I feel the need here to repeat the conclusions of contemporary scholars like Aytoun that the last stanza is one of Burns’ own compositions; however, this stanza does have an equivalent in the penultimate stanza of Agnes Lyle’s version which comes from an area not too far away from Burns country. We need to be careful with anything sent by Burns to the Musical Museum as there is always the strong likelihood that Burns placed his own stamp upon it. By the same token all of the Scots material printed by Child at some point passed through the hands of antiquarian poets and it is now impossible to declare with any complete conviction that any given version of a ballad had not been retouched by one or more of these antiquarian poets. Moreover it is also impossible to say to what extent these interferences affected any particular version; but this should not deter us from dealing in possibilities and probabilities, based on close study of all known manuscript versions. A simple example occurs where a single version differs markedly from all other versions, then the greatest probability is that this version has been remade by one individual and has not passed through the minds of very many people. For instance Child’s B version of thirty stanzas from Mr Bartram via Scott has eighteen stanzas that are found in other versions, but has twelve that are fresh and occur in no other version extant then or now. It could be argued that there may have been at some time many other similar versions that have just not come down to us, but I tend to deal with the evidence I can see in front of me and the likelihood is that this is a single rewrite with fresh additions possibly by Mr Bartram himself. Sir Walter was the tip of a rather large iceberg.

The next stage in the development of the ballad is arguably the most interesting, i.e., the emergence of three closely related but distinct English broadside versions, c1800 and later, that contain elements from all three earlier ballads. Taken together they contain thirteen separate stanzas including two new stanzas shown below:

‘Who for him hath wept both night and day, And nothing can drive her sorrows away, For she hoped to have seen the happy day, To have been blessed once more with her Georgy.’

This occurs as the eighth of nine stanzas in the earliest version printed by Birt, Catnach and Pitts of London and their successors, and the eighth of ten stanzas in the version printed by Jennings of London and followers.

‘Take me home and let me mourn, And I will mourn so rarely, I’ll mourn a twelvemonth and a day, All for the life of my Georgy.’

This is the final stanza in the Jennings version which doesn’t occur in the other two versions. Line three is very likely taken from the equivalent stanza in Child 78 ‘The Unquiet Grave’.

Of the thirteen stanzas used here one stanza comes solely from the ‘George Stoole’ ballad but the rest are evenly divided between deriving from the Scots ballad and ‘George of Oxford’. For it to have evolved in this form in oral tradition is asking a lot, therefore it presents us with the probability of some clever broadside hack with access to all 3 earlier ballads. We know that many well-known poets cut their teeth on broadside offerings as struggling young versifiers and this may be how this hybrid version came about some time in the late eighteenth century.

However they originated the three versions were extremely influential in England in that all but one of the many English oral versions can be traced back to one or other of these broadside versions. Out of all the English oral versions only Harry Cox’s Norfolk version has material not directly from these broadsides. His version has at stanza 4:

‘So when she got to the castle door The prisoners stood many They all stood round with their caps in their hands Excepting her bonny bonny Georgie.’

This stanza is present in most of the Scots versions but occurs in no other English version. The only explanation that immediately springs to mind is that in Harry’s long association with folksong collectors and having a foot in both oral tradition and both revivals, he must have come into contact with many Scots singers. All of the source singers of his generation who came into contact with the outside world quite naturally augmented their repertoires with material picked up along the way and why not?

A similar process to the English situation also occurred in North America where broadside versions similar to the English ones were printed in songsters in the early nineteenth century. Some of the oral versions will have been taken over to America by English emigrants but no doubt just as many oral versions found there derive from the American songster copies. As with other British ballads in North America, Geordie has acquired some new stock alongside the old, and a few extra fragments of the Scots ballad have also quite naturally crept in. However, I have seen no American versions that can be said to be solely based on the Scots ballad, and that includes from regions heavily settled by the Scots, such as Nova Scotia. Plenty of versions have been found in Nova Scotia but they all relate back to the later English broadside versions.

This leads us finally to the survival of the ballad in Scotland, where it had almost disappeared until the folk revival of the 1950s. The Greig-Duncan Collection presents eleven versions and Ord’s ‘Bothy Ballads’ has two from the same region, the North East. Greig-Duncan’s version E and Ord’s second version (p456) are simply direct copies of Kinloch’s collated published version. All of the others are very close to each other and can only have come from a single recent source, which must have been either an Aberdeen stall copy written, printed and sold by Peter Buchan or one of his contemporaries, or one of the many published collated copies of the mid nineteenth century. The minor variations between these versions are typical of a ballad that has only been in oral circulation for a relatively short period, say twenty to thirty years. This is certainly a ballad or family of ballads that would reward further in-depth study. Tracing all of the oral versions back to their closest broadside with an eye on geographical distribution might turn up some interesting facts. Also with further research into and greater availability of eighteenth century stall copies this might turn up some interim versions.