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  • The Memory of Ballads
  • Katie Adkison (bio)
David Atkinson The Ballad and Its Pasts: Literary Histories and the Play of Memory cambridge, u.k.: d.s. brewer, 2018 xv + 226 pages; isbn: 9781843844921
Jenni Hyde Singing the News: Ballads in Mid-Tudor England new york: routledge, 2018 xx + 261 pages; isbn: 9781138553477

the work of memory is strange labor. Sometimes a difficult, active attempt at reconstruction; sometimes a nostalgic, delightful return; occasionally a collaborative process; and often an interruption of the present by the previously unknown or unrequested past, memory appears to work on us at least as much as we work on it. That memory is necessarily repetition with a difference is a commonplace of psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and much philosophy; it has also become the subject of neuroscientific inquiry. This has reinvigorated humanities scholarship to consider the work of literature, history, and art in relation to psychological and neurocognitive findings.1 The two volumes reviewed here, too, turn to the question of memory, and to theories about memory, to reconsider the genre of the ballad. Both [End Page 321] books construct a theory for interpreting ballads—the first, a theory of literary history; the second, a theory of transmission—by showing how the ballad's necessarily multimedia nature actively leverages the strange workings of memory for its own generic development, response to history, and communication of news.

The problem with studying ballads is that the genre is fragmentary by nature and fragmented by the happenstances of history.2 Thus, ballad scholars grapple with how to theorize the ballad's many parts and how to reconcile the ballad's relationship to history with the cataloguing choices and beliefs of such collectors as Samuel Pepys and Francis James Child. The way in which we understand the ballad has perhaps been unduly influenced by these collectors, and some aspects of the ballad genre have been undervalued and undertheorized. In The Ballad and Its Pasts: Literary Histories and the Play of Memory, David Atkinson takes up the question of continuity in the literary history of the ballad, arguing that, "while it has suited collectors, scholars, and revivalists alike" to see the ballad as a genre that develops with continuity out of an oral tradition that must have existed in the unknown past, ballads "are in fact characterized every bit as much by discontinuity, and what the record shows is a series of discrete encounters with ballads across time (and, indeed, place)" (19). His point is not that scholarship should reorient around an entirely new theory of the ballad genre that makes no room for oral transmission but instead that any theory of the ballad's literary history must account for such discontinuity. This is especially true, he asserts, because the ballad engages with its own fragmentary nature by being "inherently backward-looking" (1); Atkinson thus proposes that a transhistorical literary history consider what he terms "ballad weight and memory" or the "cumulative effect of ballads as printed, as collected, as performed" (20) when negotiating both the continuities and discontinuities of the ballad tradition. For Jenni Hyde's Singing the News: Ballads in Mid-Tudor England, it is not the entire ballad tradition but instead the period from 1530 to 1570 that is of focus, though she similarly examines the fragmented nature of ballad studies. Because ballads are multimedia objects that merge narrative text, image, and song, their scholarly treatment often bifurcates ballad media and, indeed, focuses primarily on analysis of the (printed, written, or sung) text, neglecting the relationship to music. Hyde works to recenter music in the discussion of ballads. In opposition to scholarship that underestimates the ballad's ability to transmit truth, she contends that mid-Tudor ballads were a form of news, one that used music to simultaneously hide and communicate the information that made the news dangerous or seditious. She offers a theory of what she calls "implicitness," or "understanding hidden meanings and using them to engage in debate or [End Page 322] even to take sides" (18), to explain how song—tune, rhyme, rhythm, even dance—would have eased the memorization, transmission, and interpretation of such news.

That both studies take up memory not only as a topic...


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pp. 321-326
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