Song Collection Francis James Child and The English and Scottish Popular Ballads

Francis James Child
Francis James Child. Photographer unknown, created between 1890 and 1910. Prints and Photographs Division reproduction number LC-USZ61-2266.

By Stephen D. Winick

Francis James Child (1825-1896) was the son of a Boston sailmaker, and because his family was not wealthy, he was not expected to pursue higher education. However, he excelled so much at school that a combination of scholarships and private benefactors allowed him to attend Harvard University, where according to his classmates he was the best in every subject and still managed to remain popular. When Child graduated from Harvard in 1846, he was immediately hired by Harvard as a tutor in mathematics, while pursuing his own research in medieval literature. In 1849, he took a leave of absence to study in Berlin and Göttingen, Germany. On his return to the United States in 1851, he took up a chair in rhetoric and became Harvard's expert on English literature, publishing an edition of Spenser's poetry in 1855, writing articles on Chaucer and Gower, and teaching an acclaimed course on Shakespeare.

As a lover of language, old tales, and poetry, Child began gravitating toward ballads, defined in folklore as narrative folksongs. In 1857 and 1858, he published a nine-volume selection of ballads, narrowed down to eight volumes for a second edition in 1860. However, at that time, the single most important ballad manuscript, known as Bishop Thomas Percy's Folio Manuscript, had not yet been published, so Child lacked access to many important texts. In 1867, through the negotiating skills of Child and English scholar Frederick Furnivall, the bishop's estate released the manuscript, and Child felt he had enough of the extant ballad material to make a definitive collection. The rest of his life was devoted to collecting, editing and printing the ten volumes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Publishing commenced in 1882 and continued until 1898, two years after Child's death; the final volume was prepared by his student and successor, George Lyman Kittredge.

In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Child did his best to make good on his promise and print every version of every popular ballad he could find. In addition to the Percy manuscript, he examined many printed sources and quite a few still in unpublished form. His bibliography lists over fifty manuscripts in addition to several hundred printed collections. For each ballad, he included every version he knew of. He preceded each ballad with a note explaining its origin and its parallels in world literature, referencing texts in over forty languages. The result of Child's great learning, sound judgment, and prodigious hard work is a book that has never been surpassed.

However, The English And Scottish Popular Ballads is not a perfect work. It is hard to understand why Child selected some ballads and rejected others; his criteria have never been clear. Indeed, from his own writings, it is clear that Child often didn't understand his criteria himself. In the end, he selected a corpus of 305 ballads that he felt were truly "popular," by which he meant true products of the folk tradition, unaffected by modernity or class distinctions. He generally erred on the side of inclusion, but some ballads that otherwise met his criteria were left out, mainly because of sexual, scatological, and blasphemous themes. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, then, is a somewhat personal and idiosyncratic collection, and perhaps a flawed one. Nevertheless, this does not prevent it from being both a classic work of scholarship and a vital song collection, and the 305 "Child Ballads" have become a canon in scholarship on folklore and literature.

During his years of editing the ballads, Child gained several more distinctions. By taking up a new professorship of English established at Harvard in 1876, Child became America's first English professor. In 1888, at the founding of the American Folklore Society, Child became its first president. The greatest distinction of all, however, was the impact he had on his friends, colleagues and students. He was, by all accounts, universally admired and universally loved. After Child's death, Kittredge created a fitting epitaph for his mentor, published as part of Child's biography in all subsequent editions of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: "No university teacher," he wrote, "was ever more beloved."


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