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Notes 60.1 (2003) 151-153

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The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method, and Practice. By David Atkinson. (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series.) Aldershot, Hants, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002. [xiv, 310 p. ISBN 0-7546-0634-1. $79.95.] Bibliography, discography, index of ballads and songs, index.

Over the past thirty years one of the concerns expressed by scholars of ballad studies was that researchers might be concentrating wholly on textual study to the exclusion of the music. If so, they wondered whether theories of text transmission might be tainted. As scholars began to question their focus, the issues related to the singers' presentation of the ballads took on more importance. And although D. K. Wilgus wrote and spoke about the importance of beginning the study of ballads by concentrating on the text, he was careful to redefine "text" to include the music (D. K. Wilgus, "The Text Is the Thing," Journal of American Folklore 86 [1973]: 241-52). During this time ballad scholars [End Page 151] were generally aligned into two categories: comparativists or contextualists. Comparativists looked at the ballads and their variants for their traits and then would arrange and analyze the ballads. This was criticized for its statistical approach. Contextualists considered, among other things, the origins of the texts and their cultural contexts, including the place, time, occasion, and nature of the performances. From this duality ultimately came the realization that these two approaches were not mutually exclusive, but taken together can provide a richer understanding of the meanings of the ballads.

David Atkinson, in his preface to The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method and Practice, defines the purpose of this study as an "attempt to make some sense out of the unity in diversity of the folk ballads of the English-speaking world" (p. ix). Atkinson also attempts to "redress the balance" (p. x) by concentrating most of his attention on ballads collected from singers in England rather than those in Scotland or America.

In the first chapter, "Introduction: Accessing Ballad Tradition," he discusses traditional methods of ballad scholarship. The topics include classification, reception theory, traditional referentiality, and the inherent problems of oral and written text transmission. He provides a concise summary of the various practices in ballad scholarship over the years. Chapter 2, "The Lover's Tasks in 'The Unquiet Grave,'" analyzes variants of "The Unquiet Grave" as a model for other mortal-revenant ballads. He then moves on to a discussion of riddle or wit-combat ballads, most appropriate since there are a number of ghosts in wit-combat ballads subjecting mortals to riddles. Chapter 3, "Comic Ballads and Married Life," again analyzes a group of ballads on another, but not necessarily very different, theme. He states, "These ballads are comic types more on the grounds that their narratives reach some kind of more or less satisfactory resolution of the initial situation than on that of any great humorous content" (p. 77). Strong connections can be seen between the comic ballads about married life and the wit-combat ballads discussed in the previous chapter because many of these ballads place women in conflict with men. Other ballads discussed include stereotypical characters like cuckolded husbands and disobedient wives subjected to violence and other forms of degradation. These are not the most pleasant of subjects, but Atkinson makes the following point about meaning in ballads:

Rather, the structure they share with wit-combat and revenant ballads points to the setting up of some sort of "problem" that needs to be resolved, while the nature of the characters and their narrative roles then demarcate the particular area of discourse to which the "problem" and its possible resolution belong—in this case, problems of gender and power relations within marriage. (p. 100)

Although incest is one of the standard categories of ballad themes that Atkinson discusses in chapter 4, "Incest and 'Edward,'" he makes the point that "it is dealt with explicitly in only a handful of types" (p. 108). Ballad texts representing deviant family behavior such as abuse, domination, and oppression, particularly as they relate to the...


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