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Top Ten Old Ballads

03 Jan 04 - 01:29 PM (#1085288)
Subject: Top Ten Old Ballads

I'm putting together a performance and study sheet of pre-revolutionary war ballads. I'm especially interested in any that are somewhat humorous (as humor seems to be somewhat lacking in the songs from that period). Most of mine are drawn from the Child Ballads, though the tunes and lyrics vary greatly from the Child versions. I'd love to find some good sources as well. Thanks
My top ten:
1. Barbara Allen (I think I heard a great version in that movie Songcatcher?)
2. Edward--(the good brother/bad brother theme straight from Cain and Abel
3. Lord Randall...(The great grandfather of A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall)
4. The Devil and the Farmers Wife--(A great take on marital bliss)
5. The Elfin Knight--(a somewhat witty precursor to Scarborough Fair)
6. The Golden Vanity (I love Rory Blocks version)
7. Greensleeves (Because it's so darn pretty)
8. The Great Silkie (a timeless tale, better even than the song)
9. Tam Lin (What self respecting worker hasn't had it in for their boss)
10. The House Carpenter--(the grass is not always greener on the other side)


John Fitz

03 Jan 04 - 01:33 PM (#1085290)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: GUEST,Wayne

Billy Broke Locks?

03 Jan 04 - 01:38 PM (#1085294)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: pdq

Matty Groves (as done by Doc Watson)
Jackaroo (as done by Jerry Garcia) (he spells it differently)

03 Jan 04 - 01:58 PM (#1085314)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: kendall

Henry Martin

03 Jan 04 - 02:50 PM (#1085350)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: GUEST,Big Jim from Jackson

Judy Domeny Bowen's version of "Palace Grand".

03 Jan 04 - 03:36 PM (#1085378)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Uncle_DaveO

If you want ballads, Greensleeves isn't one, pretty or no.

And GUEST BigJim, if you're speaking of the song I think you are, with the line, "And I was nothing to him, though he was the world to me,", I don't think it fits in the time span being looked for.

Dave Oesterreich

03 Jan 04 - 03:41 PM (#1085382)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Padre

Some favorites:

Bob Coltman's variant of 'The Hunting of the Cheviot' -He calls it "Chevy Chase"

'Sheath and Knife,' especially as sung by Helen Schneyer

Woody Guthrie's 'Tom Joad' - I know it's not THAT old, but it really distills the story.

03 Jan 04 - 04:49 PM (#1085433)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Susanne (skw)

Killiecrankie (as sung by Alex Campbell)
Sheriffmuir (as sung by The McCalmans)

Battle of Harlaw (as sung by Jeannie Robertson)

03 Jan 04 - 08:45 PM (#1085565)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Amos

Well, the Gathering of the Clans isn't dated, so it COULD qualify, but you probably wouldn't want to sing it anyway.

The Wicked Youth is good for grins. (Six little maidens I have drownded here -- and you the seventh shall be).

The Nightingale Sing is always good for a chuckle on the ribald side.
Arguably not a ballad though.


03 Jan 04 - 08:52 PM (#1085571)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads

What is the origin of Greensleeves? I realize it departs considerably from the true ballad form, but then again, I've never been all that sure on what constitutes a true ballad, aside from a story well told.

03 Jan 04 - 09:30 PM (#1085587)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Uncle_DaveO

Well, whatever other qualifications there may be, a ballad (in folk-type terms) has to tell a story. Greensvleeves doesn't qualify.

The Scottish and English traditional ballads have a number of typical characteristics, not all of which always apply to a particular ballad. For instance, a ballad, so considered, doesn't take sides, doesn't tell you what to think about the situation described--doesn't say, implicitly or explicitly, "Oh, isn't this terrible?" or "Oh, wasn't he a bastard? It not infrequently jumps, without warning, from one speaker to another, and expects you to figure out who is speaking by the context. It doesn't showcase the singer; it's the story that matters. Those are some characteristics that come immediately to mind. I'm sure others can name some I've forgotten at the moment.

Dave Oesterreich

03 Jan 04 - 10:05 PM (#1085600)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: kendall

Some people like my version of Palace Grand.

03 Jan 04 - 11:23 PM (#1085624)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: jaze

I like it,Kendall.

03 Jan 04 - 11:27 PM (#1085629)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: LadyJean

Kids love "Lambkin". I sing one of the J.J. Niles versions.

By the bye, "Shadows of Camelot", by Sarah Zettel, who used Mudcat to research ballads for her book, will be out this May. I'm reading a proof, and it's very good.

04 Jan 04 - 12:41 AM (#1085644)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Arkie

If you are looking for humor, there is "Our Goodman" or "Four Nights Drunk", "No John, No", and "The Wee Cooper of Fife". They are not really ballads, however, Child published "Goodman".

04 Jan 04 - 12:55 AM (#1085647)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: GUEST,Russ

I LOVE Palace Grand. Now, I ain't no expert and I ain't no expert's son, but Palace Grand doesn't "feel" like a traditional ballad to me. Feels more like a victorian parlor song.

How about Lord Thomas and Fair Ellen/The Brown Girl. A veritable epidemic of foot-in-mouth disease.

I also love Doc's version of Matty Groves but Christy Moore's "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" is wonderful too. Ray Fisher does a great version but I can never remember the name.

For the "Devil and the Farmer's Wife" you can't beat Jenes Cottrell (obscure) and Sheila Kay Adams (hopefully less obscure).

How can any traditional ballad list be complete without a dead baby song or two?
Lots of great versions of "The Cruel Mother" floating around.
"The Wife at Usher's Well" is another winner in this category.

What? No sibling rivalry songs?
You can't lose with "The Two Sisters"/"The Cruel Sister"/"Barkshire Tragedy".

04 Jan 04 - 01:23 AM (#1085656)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Malcolm Douglas

You'd be thinking of Ray Fisher's The Bonnie Birdie, I expect; it isn't really a "version" of Musgrave, though the basic plots are quite similar. Although the Christy Moore recording of Musgrave has its admirers, he learned it from a Nic Jones record (although Christy seems later to have claimed to have written a few verses himself, I'd put his contribution at more like two or three words) and for myself I'd rate the Jones set rather higher.

Disregarding individual arrangements, there are far too many fine songs in the ballad category for me to play favourites. I'll just be difficult, and confine myself instead to disqualifying a few suggestions already made.

There isn't any evidence that Palace Grand is even as old as the Civil War, though it may be, a little. It's always struck me as a typical parlour ballad of the later 19th century.

The Great Silkie is certainly old enough, but was a purely local ballad and has never been found in tradition outside Orkney and Shetland.

Greensleeves, so far as can be told, is an art song; though forms of the melody have been found in tradition -attached to other songs, or as a tune for the Morris dance- and the tune may be older than the words.

The Gathering of the Clans (The Ball of Kirrimuir) is certainly older than the American Civil War, but wouldn't generally be considered a ballad.

04 Jan 04 - 06:07 AM (#1085704)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Dave Hanson

Little Musgrave as done by Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior's version of Childe Owlett is quite chilling, and not forgetting Ewan MacColl singing Tamlin.

04 Jan 04 - 07:35 AM (#1085729)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: cobber

Australia has a great ballad tradition that continues to this day with writers like Judy Small and Eric Bogle. One of the oldest is Morton Bay, sung to the tune Boulavogue which tells how convicts were treated in one of the harshest penal colonies but eventually saw their main tormentor slain by aborigines. It's a great song.

04 Jan 04 - 07:58 AM (#1085739)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: GUEST,Auldtimer

The ballads that are most commonly sung at clubs and festivals arround Scotland are, "The Twa Brithers", "Bonorie", "The Gaberlunzie Man", "Annan Water" and "The Forrester".

04 Jan 04 - 09:15 AM (#1085767)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Malcolm Douglas

Annan Water? With the tune Nic Jones set to it?

04 Jan 04 - 11:00 AM (#1085771)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: GUEST,Auldtimer

Yes indeedy, but mostly learned via The Voice Squad.

04 Jan 04 - 12:57 PM (#1085826)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Bearheart

So you want ballads prior to the American Revolution and you'd prefer humorous ones? But you are open to other songs as well?

I'm a little confused.

I have divided the love songs in my personal song book into "Blissful", "Comical and Ironical" and "Sorrowful." Most of the comical and ironical are probably not old enough (Lish Young Buy-a-broom, Roger the Miller/the Grey Mare,The Maid Who Sold Her Barley,Saucy Sailor, Jock Since Ever I Saw Yer Face being some) but The Royal Forester, Fair Flower of Northumberland and Laird o Drum should fit your specs. I like Dick Gaughan's Fair Flower, and Rod Paterson's Laird o Drum. I think the best version of Royal Forester was recorded in the 50's by one of them old Scots guys and I can't remember who anymore. (Davey somebody?) Someone here will remember,and even know where to find it. That's where Steeleye Span got it from I'm sure.

And the two about the couple arguing: in the first one, about who does the most work (did Cilla Fisher and Artie Trezise record this?), the second one about who's going to get up and bar the door (I think Silly Sisters did this?). (Sorry, I don't sing them and I'm not dredging up the titles
at the moment.) I think at least the first one is a Child ballad.

04 Jan 04 - 03:59 PM (#1085935)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: GUEST,Lighter

Hi, Malcolm.

Am intrigued by the suggestion that "The Ball of Kirriemuir" pre-dates our Civil War. Other than one or two parallel stanzas in
"The Merry Muses" etc. (parallels limited to "so-and-so was at the party too") is there any real evidence ?

05 Jan 04 - 12:07 AM (#1086174)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Kent Davis

For humor, how about "get Up and Bar the Door" or "The Wise Farmer"? Both are found in the Digital Traditions section of this site and both are Child ballads.

05 Jan 04 - 07:47 AM (#1086303)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: GUEST,James

Geordie..any version. Lass of Loch Royale.. Silly Sisters..Prince Heathn..Martin Carthy..Oh, one could go on forever,

05 Jan 04 - 09:25 AM (#1086368)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads

No list would be complete without a serious drowning so I propose our version of "Hartlake Bridge"

05 Jan 04 - 12:39 PM (#1086497)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Bearheart

Found the album I was referring to in previous post.

Royal Forester,recorded John Stachan, Fyvie, Aberdeenshire, Vol 5 The Folksongs of Britain (Vol 2 of the Child Ballads) collected by Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson.

Also includes a version of the Farmer's Curst Wife (Thomas Moran)

And 3 versions of Our Goodman (Harry Cox-Norfolk, Mary Conners- Irish tinker, and Colm Keane- a Gaelic version)

It's my understanding from other Mudcat threads that these have been re-issued?

Davy Stewart was the other singer I was thinking of.

You know, these old albums are worth owning-- the folks who are recorded on them are the greats who influenced the new wave of singers in the 60's and 70's. Why not go straight to the source. Pretty much all the songs you mention in your original post plus a whole lot more are on them.


05 Jan 04 - 12:46 PM (#1086502)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Melani

Bob Coltman's version of "Sir Patrick Spens"--or the original, for that matter. He rewrote it. And I've always liked "Mary Hamilton."

05 Jan 04 - 03:29 PM (#1086529)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Malcolm Douglas

I don't know why I got it into my head that the question was about pre (American) civil war songs, when John clearly wrote "pre revolutionary war". Oh well.

The Kirriemuir issue depends on whether or not you consider The Kirriemuir Wedding (first appeared in print in 1817, but Thomas Crawford, Society and the Lyric, Edinburgh, 1979, 21-2) thinks it "probably ... late eighteenth century) to be an early form of The Ball of Kirriemuir. I don't know enough to tell, but it's about an orgy right enough, and Kirriemuir wasn't that big a place. Still wouldn't pre-date the Revolution, but, as I said, I was labouring under a mis-apprehension as to which war we were talking about.

05 Jan 04 - 03:56 PM (#1086546)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Q (Frank Staplin)

Easy to index the Bodleian Ballads by date. In Index, select date. Then enter 1700-1800 or whatever range you want.
Some seem comic now but were serious when written, e. g. the one published 1701, "The Swearer Reformed,---," "King Edwqard's Ghost" (1700), etc.

06 Jan 04 - 06:32 PM (#1087420)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Joybell

Speaking of "Palace Grand" see kendall and Malcolm Douglas. Is this the song called by its collector, Carl Sandburg - "The Sad Song"? If it is there is only one source for it according to the info I have. It was collected from the singing of May Kennedy McCord in the Ozarks. Vance Randolph also collected it from Mrs McCord and says that it had no local title. He said that in his opinion it came from sheet-music from around the 1890s. Joan Baez recorded it as "Lady Mary" (although the lady's name isn't mentioned in the song). "Palace Grand" is one of the titles given to it.

Just as a small complaint here. Why is this song not referred to as May McCord's song? At least until the author has been found. I see no reason to give songs, that are sung by all of us, away to the latest popular singer of them.

06 Jan 04 - 06:49 PM (#1087442)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Susan of DT

Joybell - Lady Mary is named in the 2nd verse:
    There in her garden she stands
    All dressed in fine satin and lace
    Lady Mary so cold and so strange
    Who finds in her heart no place

Top 10 old ballads, hmm, a few:
   Incest: Sheath and Knife, and King's Daughter Lady Jean
   Supernatural: Grey Silkie, King Henry, Holland Hankerchief (Suffolk Miracle), etc.
   Drama: Mary Hamilton, Famous Flower of Servingmen, Mill o Tifty's Annie, Cruel Brother, etc.

all in the DT

06 Jan 04 - 07:28 PM (#1087475)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Joybell

Yes Susan I know that's the way Joan Baez sang the song. Her version came from Randolph's text so she must have changed it. Randolph said that Mrs McCord did call the song by the title of "Lady Mary" and Max Hunter, who also recorded Mrs McCord, called it by his mother's title, "Palace Grand". Carl Sandburg called it "The Sad Song". The second verse as in Randolph's collection is:

Verse 2.
And there in his garden strolled,
All robed in satins and lace,
A lady so strange and cold
Who had in his heart no place.

Ref. Vance Randolph "Ozark Folksongs".

I haven't seen Sandburge's text or Hunter's so my comment was based on Randolph's notes.

06 Jan 04 - 08:12 PM (#1087512)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Uncle_DaveO

Even if Lady Mary is mentioned, it would seem wrong to call the song by her name, because she is merely mentioned as part of the circumstances. that is, she is neither the "singer/teller" nor the subject of the song.

Dave Oesterreich

06 Jan 04 - 08:13 PM (#1087513)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Joybell

OK. Max Hunter's version, in the DT here, does have Lady Mary named. Randolph's notes do say that Joan Baez learned it from the Randolph source though, so I stand by my comment, "Joan Baez recorded it as Lady Mary (although the lady's name isn't mentioned in the song)." I should have added - in this version. Cheers, Joy

06 Jan 04 - 08:19 PM (#1087518)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Joybell

I quite agree Uncle DaveO. I have always sung it as "The Sad Song". AND I have always credited it to Mrs MCord. If an author turns up I'll credit it to him/her.

06 Jan 04 - 08:54 PM (#1087537)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: 8_Pints

Lady Diamond, Lady Maisery, Lord Yester, Matt Hylander, Bushes & Briars, Maid on the Shore, Bonny at Morn and the humerous 'The Ranter'.

Bob vG

07 Jan 04 - 07:20 AM (#1087811)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: 8_Pints


"Matt Hylander" should of course be "Matt Highland"

Bob vG

07 Jan 04 - 08:04 AM (#1087846)
Subject: RE: Top Ten Old Ballads
From: Folkie

For a ballad with a happy ending how about Hind Horn as sung by Chris Coe