Child 20 Comment

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The Cruel Mother Child 20

Here we have a rare Child Ballad in that, in my honest opinion, he got this one quite wrong in terms of its origin and continental analogs which he described in some detail in the headnotes. Considering this is one of the ballads he addressed at the beginning of his marathon project this is quite understandable and he was not aware of the broadside until the 4th volume (original) was published where it appears in the ‘Additions and Corrections’ with no additional comment. He may even have been influenced in this by his great mentor Svend Grundtvig who provided him with most of the continental analog information. He was also reluctant to ascribe the origins of ballads to broadsides which he described as ‘veritable dunghills’.

Like other broadside ballads which originated on seventeenth century broadsides, some have survived and even prospered in oral tradition, particularly among the travelling community, in Scotland when they have failed to survive elsewhere. This broadside ballad ‘The Duke’s Daughter’s Cruelty’, (See ESPB Dover Vol 2, p500) has in Scotland particularly attracted stanzas from another ballad, not a rare occurrence in ballad evolution, sometimes due to oral tradition, sometimes rewrites by broadside hacks, and often due to literary intervention. The other ballad, in this case Child 21 The Maid and the Palmer, Child was well aware of, having quite naturally placed the two ballads next to each other in the collection, which makes the mistake harder to understand. The stanzas in question are those which are easily identified as the ‘penance stanzas’, i.e., those penances that the ghosts of the two murdered infants inflict upon their cruel mother. These stanzas properly belong to Child 21, as Child states in the headnotes, and it is these very stanzas that are referred to in Child’s extensive notes on alleged continental analogs. All of these notes properly belong to Child 21 which is quite likely a more ancient ballad with a long pedigree of analogs on the continent. The rare English versions of 21, however, very likely, as with some other ballads, evolved from a literary translation at an early stage.

Child also refers to two Danish versions of Child 20 found in 1870. These are so close to the British versions that it is obvious they derive from Svend Grundtvig’s own translations of Scots versions into Danish of 1842-46 in ‘Engelske og Skotske Folkeviser’.

So where does this leave us with this favourite popular ballad and its origin? In my considered opinion the broadside ballad ‘The Duke’s Daughter’s Cruelty’ of c1684-95 is a fairly straightforward typical warning to high-ranking young girls to avoid liaisons with servants. The supernatural elements are quite in keeping with contemporary beliefs and other ballads of this period. Most of the ballads in Child must have originated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and there is no reason to believe that this particular ballad is any older than the seventeenth century.

Looking at versions with the penances found in later oral tradition as printed in Bronson, the Mrs Harris version is repeated from Child and the only other version from Scotland is a one verse fragment from the Greig Collection. There are 3 from Nova Scotia and one from Newfoundland, areas of Scottish ethnicity, and another 7 versions from the eastern seaboard states of the US which one must assume have evolved from Scottish emigrants somewhere along the line. There are no English or English influenced versions I know of that contain any of the penance stanzas.

Versions that deviate strongly from the well established metre and refrains should be viewed with suspicion as having been influenced by literary intervention.

If I might be allowed a little indulgence here, it is one of my favourite ballads and curiously I have an affection for the broadside version and some of the very minimal versions that have obviously been well honed over the last three centuries or so. I find some of the longer versions unnecessarily drawn out.

A more detailed version of this summary exists in the ‘Veritable Dungheap’ section on the Musical Traditions website. http://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/dungheap.htm article 22.

Steve Gardham

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