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  • Text and Memory in the “Oral” Transmission of a Crime and Execution Ballad:“The Suffolk Tragedy” in England and Australia
  • Tom Pettitt (bio)

The murder of Maria Marten by her lover, William Corder, in May 1827 became the object of intense public interest and frenzied media attention immediately upon the discovery of the body eleven months later in the subsequently notorious “red barn” where he had buried her. While popular interest persisted much longer—and indeed continues—the case itself culminated with Corder’s trial and execution by public hanging in August 1828 and prompted the publication of no fewer than nine different broadside ballads—sensational journalistic accounts in the form of songs printed on a single sheet and sold cheaply at stalls or by itinerant balladmongers.1 Two of these songs offer significant insights into the nature of oral tradition; having been printed, sold, sung, remembered, and passed on by word of mouth for many decades, they have subsequently been recorded from country singers, starting with the first great wave of folksong collection in the decades immediately prior to the First World War and continuing on into the 1990s. This situation does not represent the “pure” oral tradition sometimes encountered in the field, as the songs were composed in writing and initially diffused in print, and some of the singers were undoubtedly literate, but this interlacing of literate and oral transmission has been the norm in English folk tradition throughout its recorded history. Juxtaposing the words of the songs as recorded from singing with the texts of the originals as published permits us to determine exactly what the processes of memorization, performance from memory, and voice-to-ear transmission can do over time to verbal narrative material originally in the form of texts.

Of those two songs, “The Murder of Maria Marten” (Roud 215), with issues from at least six London printers, several more from the provinces, and yet others without imprint, was by far the more successful. Its preeminent market penetration is confirmed by the score or more recordings of the song, about half with texts, from folk tradition. In 1979 the versions of this song that were known at that time were analyzed by Flemming Andersen and myself (1979); however, the song now merits revisiting in the light of new versions recovered and new insights established in the interim. In the meantime, the present study explores the evolution of the other “red barn” ballad to make it into oral tradition, “The Suffolk Tragedy” (Roud 18814). In quantitative terms its impact has been far less impressive—three broadside printings and four singers—but by another criterion, geographical diffusion, it did much better, with two of those four singers being natives of New South Wales.2 In focusing mainly on these Australian variants, this study continues and completes (with occasional retrospective corrections) an earlier study of the transmission of “The Suffolk Tragedy” presented in this journal (Pettitt 2009) but for reasons of space restricted originally to the longer of the two English versions. It is also an opportunity more generally to draw attention to the significance of its Australian diaspora for the study of English folksong, a significance which is founded on the strength of Australian tradition, ensured by the energy and professionalism of the folklorists who recorded it, and enabled both by their generosity in sharing their material and by the efficiency and courtesy of the National Library of Australia in respectively curating and facilitating access to its holdings.

“The Suffolk Tragedy”: Broadsides

It will not be a major factor in what follows, but is a necessary, final setting of the scene to insist that the composition of the original version of “The Suffolk Tragedy” (as with all the other ballads on the case) will have involved more than merely versifying the available information. The news broadsides, not least in the crime-and-execution category, were in the business—later taken over by what we now call the tabloid press—of sensationalizing and emotionalizing the simple facts of criminal cases to which the regular newspapers of the time generally restricted themselves. When possible, the main protagonist of the narrative was not the victim of the crime, but its...

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