Ballads | The Canadian Encyclopedia




Old Popular Ballads
The most prized in the first category are those published in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98), the compilation of 305 ballads (words only) commonly called Child ballads after the scholar Francis James Child of Boston, who assembled and classified them, working mainly at the library of Harvard U. Bertrand Harris Bronson edited the complementary four-volume work The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (Princeton 1959-72). Early British immigrants brought many of the popular ballads to eastern Canada, where they took root and survived, handed down through the generations. Half of the 305 Child ballads have ceased to be sung; of the rest, at least 70 have been noted in Canada in the 20th century.

Nova Scotia has proved the best repository of the old ballads. Helen Creighton has found no fewer than 49, and earlier W. Roy Mackenzie found 16, including 4 not in Creighton's collection. In Newfoundland Maud Karpeles found 12, Elisabeth Greenleaf and Kenneth Peacock each found 19, and MacEdward Leach noted 8 in Labrador. In New Brunswick Louise Manny noted 6, Creighton 7, and Phillips Barry 10; and in Ontario Edith Fowke found 22. Few have been reported from the other provinces.

These older ballads told dramatic stories in a vivid and objective style, concentrating on the crucial situation. Of the 70 reported in Canada, at least 14 have been established in tradition. The most popular by far, here as throughout the English-speaking world, is 'Barbara Allen,' with over 30 different versions. Three others have turned up at least 20 times: 'The Gypsy Laddie,' 'The Cruel Mother,' and 'Young Beichan'. Next in order, with between 10 and 20 known versions, are 'Sweet William's Ghost,' 'The Sweet Trinity,' 'Hind Horn,' 'Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight,' 'Sir James the Rose,' 'Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard,' 'Captain Wedderburn's Courtship,' 'Katharine Jaffray,' 'The Farmer's Curst Wife,' and 'Willie o'Winsbury'.


With the advent of printing, writers composed many ballads which were printed on the single sheets known as broadsides and sold to the public. By the 19th century, when most British immigrants arrived in Canada, these broadside verses had largely displaced the older popular ballads in public favour, with the result that all Anglo-Canadian folksong collections contain many more broadsides than Child ballads.

The broadsides are more prosaic than the popular ballads, dealing with less dramatic events and with ordinary people rather than lords and ladies. They include tales of war, the sea, and crime, but by far the most numerous are love stories: of family opposition to lovers, faithful and unfaithful lovers, and lovers' disguises and tricks. In the most popular single plot a lover returns after seven years absence and tests his sweetheart's fidelity before revealing himself - a story retold in dozens of slightly different forms including 'The Pretty Fair Maid,' 'The Dark-Eyed Sailor,' 'The Mantle So Green,' and 'The Plains of Waterloo'.

North American Ballads

The native ballads are less romantic: they deal largely with real events in a style not far removed from newspaper journalism. Where the old-world ballads stressed tales of love, the native ones feature adventures of soldiers, sailors, cowboys, lumberjacks, and criminals. The largest groups of native Canadian ballads spring from the men who earned their living on the sea or in the woods (see Occupational songs). Others tell of crimes like 'The Murder of F.C. Benwell' or 'The Prince Edward Island Murder,' or of tragedies and disasters like 'The Miramichi Fire' and 'The Halifax Explosion' (see Disaster songs). A few that originated in the USA drifted up to Canada, the most popular being 'The Jealous Lover,' 'The Little Mohea,' 'The Lake of Pontchartrain,' and 'The Lonesome Scenes of Winter'. A few others, like 'Brave Wolfe', 'The Chesapeake and the Shannon,' and 'The Battle of the Windmill' memorialize historical events.

Although in French Canada some composers and chansonniers occasionally have referred to some of their songs as 'ballades,' the ballad as such has not been developed in French-Canadian song, and related forms go by other names such as 'romances,' 'mélodies,' 'chansons narratives,' or simply 'chansons'.

See also Folk music; Folk music, Anglo-Canadian.

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