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The Ballad Repertoire of Anna Gordon, Mrs Brown of Falkland.

Ed. by Sigrid Rieuwerts. Scottish Text Society, 5th ser., no. 8. Woodbridge, Suffolk, and Rochester, NY: Boydell Press for the Scottish Text Society, 2011. xiii + 339 pp. Music. Illus. Bibliog. Indexes. ISBN 978-1-89797-632-6. [pounds sterling]35.00.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century a revival was under way in Scotland which led to the appearance in print of ballad collections of lasting importance, including Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-03), Robert Jamieson's Popular Ballads and Songs (1806), William Motherwell's Minstrelsy: Ancient and Modern (1827), Peter Buchan's Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (1828), and others too numerous to mention. Yet, as anyone familiar with the subject will know, the publications just named, and others alluded to, remain the focus of debate - at least among those who care about such things-because their genesis is so complicated and so often opaque. Accordingly, massive importance is accorded to the survival of manuscripts that underlie at least a few of the ballads published in these collections - and none more so than the ballads of Anna Gordon, Mrs Brown of Falkland. Here we have the source material for a significant body of ballads used by Scott and Jamieson, and subsequently by Francis James Child, connected to a named individual for whom some background and context can be recovered.


Mrs Brown's lasting importance for ballad studies was assured from the moment Child wrote in the 'Advertisement' to the first part of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: 'No Scottish ballads are superior in kind to those recited in the last century by Mrs Brown, of Falkland.' (1) Child, of course, did not say precisely what he meant by 'superior in kind'. Neither did he have access to the full range of Mrs Brown materials. For the first time, these are brought together in Sigrid Rieuwerts's new edition, and the first thing to say is that she has done a superb job of clarifying the five different sets of ballads, distinguished as:
  Brown A: a MS copy made by Robert Jamieson in 1799 from a (lost) MS
  of pre-1783, containing twenty ballads originally written out by Mrs
  Brown's nephew Robert Eden Scott (also known as the Jamieson Brown
  Brown B: a MS of fifteen ballads, with tunes, written out by Mrs
  Brown's nephew Robert Eden Scott in 1783 and sent by her father,
  Thomas Gordon, to William Tytler of Woodhouselee; later moved to
  Aldourie Castle, seat of the Fraser Tytler family (also known as
  the Tytler Brown MS).
  Brown C: a MS of nine ballads written out by Mrs Brown in 1800 and
  sent to Alexander Fraser Tytler (also known as the Fraser Tytler
  Brown MS).
  Brown D: four letters sent to Jamieson by Mrs Brown and Robert
  Eden Scott, 1800--05, containing three ballads written out by Mrs
  Brown's husband, Andrew Brown.
  Brown E: five ballads printed in Robert Jamieson's Popular Ballads and
  Songs which Jamieson had from Mrs Brown in 1800 and later, but for
  which no manuscript survives.

Needless to say, I have simplified matters here, but the edition contains a full description of each source. The edited texts are set out with some skill so that items present in more than one of the sources are printed together. Part I comprises the A ballads, with their parallels from either B or C on the facing pages (luckily there is no overlap between B and C), and Part II the ballads from B, C, D, and E that do not have parallels in A.

The edition is a diplomatic one. The layout of the sources is largely followed, with stanza numbers added for ease of reference, but there are no breaks between stanzas, which is not so easy on the eye. Some sets of quotation marks are completed, but inconsistent use of quotation marks found in the sources is not rectified. B is the only source to include music notation (music was written out with C but is no longer extant) and in Part I this is given in facsimile at the head of the B texts, with a computer-set copy of it placed at the head of the corresponding A text. Although potentially confusing, this is a requirement of the layout and it is difficult to imagine a workable alternative. All these points are adequately explained in the note about 'Editorial Conventions'--a reminder that users of critical editions should read such things (even though they usually don't).

Robert Eden Scott was 'a meer novice in musick' at the time he wrote down the ballad tunes and the notation presents problems. The difficulty was recognized by Bertrand Bronson who provided conjectural reconstructions of the melodies, and these are given in the Notes, with words fitted to melody by Katherine Campbell, along with copies of some of the tunes from the music book of Sophia Scott (Walter Scott's daughter). Also to be found in the Notes are textual and musical commentaries, details about manuscript sources (revisions, insertions, annotations, and so forth), Jamieson's notes and elaborations, and also - rather surprisingly - prose summaries of the ballad stories. There is an extensive glossary and a bibliography.

Anna Gordon (1747-1810) was the daughter of Thomas Gordon, Professor of Humanity at King's College, Aberdeen, and Lillias, daughter of William Forbes of Disblair (d.1764). In 1788 she married the Rev. Andrew Brown, who at the time was minister of the parish of Falkland in Fife. Later, they moved to Tranent, near Edinburgh, where her husband died in 1805, after which Mrs Brown returned to Aberdeen. The other important figure in the story, her nephew Robert Eden Scott, lived from an early age with Thomas Gordon's family, his own parents having moved to America.

Probably around 1780, William Tytler of Woodhouselee, a director the Edinburgh Musical Society and a champion of Scottish melodies and songs, learned of Mrs Brown's ballads from a conversation with her father, who was a member of the Aberdeen Musical Society. As a result of this, Robert Eden Scott was asked to write them down. So Anna Gordon's ballads were collected in the first instance for the benefit of the musical elite of Enlightenment Scotland. We are told that in eighteenth-century Scotland 'music-making was strictly divided along gender lines' (p. 23), and also that 'women had always been singing these ballads [...] but despite their antiquarian interest in music, men were only then discovering these female activities' (p. 26). In respect of the Musical Societies of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, this may very well be true and is probably not entirely surprising. The wider implications, however, are much more problematic and I can only touch on a few of them here.

A variety of sources are named for Anna Gordon's ballads (some of them perhaps overlapping), including her mother, her aunt Anne Farquharson, and an old maidservant, as well as more generic 'old women and maidservants' (pp. 27, 41, 60, 61). According to a letter of Thomas Gordon's, Anne Farquharson, married to the proprietor of a small estate in Upper Deeside, had retained in her memory 'all the songs she had heard the nurses & old women sing in that neighbourhood' (p. 27). Nevertheless, Anne Farquharson and her sisters, collectively known as 'the Ladies of Disblair', came from a highly musical family (p. 21), and it was only in her later life, having left Upper Deeside in the 1760s, chat she entertained Thomas Gordon's children in Aberdeen with her 'songs & tales of chivalry & love', which is when the young Anna Gordon is supposed to have memorized them (p. 27). Anna Gordon herself seems to have been blessed with uncanny powers of recall, with the ability to remember ballads to order. As she wrote to Alexander Fraser Tytler: 'I set my memmory to work & soon found that I had still a good number of old Ballads' (p. 34); and 'I have lately upon rummaging a bycorner of my memmory, found out some Aberdeenshire Ballads, which totally escaped me before' (p. 50).

Another letter, from Robert Anderson, an Edinburgh surgeon and literary editor who had seen the Brown B and C manuscripts, to Thomas Percy, states: 'It is remarkable that Mrs Brown [...] never saw any of the ballads she has transmitted here, either in print or M.S. but learned them all when a child by hearing them sung by her mother and an old maidservant who had been long in the family, and does not recollect to have heard any of them either sung or said by any one but herself since she was about ten years' (p. 41). Indeed it is. In the letter to Alexander Fraser Tytler in which she lists those five Aberdeenshire ballads she had discovered in a 'bycorner' of her memory, Mrs Brown also writes: 'all these I can recollect pretty exactly. I never saw any of them either in print or manuscript but have them intirely from hearing them sung when a child1 (p. 50). So she was well aware, c, 1800 if not before, ok the value accorded to 'oral tradition' - or, to put it another way, to the devaluation of ballads in writing or print at the time of the romantic revival. I am reminded of the phrase 'never saw in print' which permeates the J. M. Carpenter collection from the late 1920s/1930s - so much so that one cannot but suspect it owes more to the collector than to the contributors.

Rieuwerts writes about Child's assessment of Mrs Brown's ballads: 'Her repertoire had the traditional touch and was not "bookish"' (p. 64). They fitted neatly into Child's (never quite explicit) hierarchy of oral-manuscript-print; (2) and they surely met his (again unspoken) aesthetic criteria, with their long and markedly complete texts replete with witches, shape-shifters, and magical episodes, their romantic bias (which, conversely, did not impress Walter Scott), and the presence of folkloric and international (especially Scandinavian) parallels for a number of them. All of the Mrs Brown items known to Child found a place in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (the one item in the Brown corpus that is not a Child ballad is 'Allan o Maut', the Scottish 'John Barelycorn' song). For five of his ballads (Child 6, 32, 35, 82, 247), Mrs Brown can be claimed, with only slight qualification, as the only source. Child did not in fact always make a Mrs Brown copy his A text, but he did so more often than not.

In addition, Mrs Brown knew the ballad tunes, though not all have survived. So, for Albert Friedman, in full hyperbolic flight, Mrs Brown was 'the greatest informant encountered by any collector of traditional ballads'. (3) For David Fowler, adopting a marginally more considered tone, she was '[t]he most important single contributor to the canon of English and Scottish ballads'. (4) Rieuwerts's formulation is that 'To Child [...] Mrs Brown was one of the greatest singers of all time' (p. 64) - a statement that, while no doubt true as far as Child is concerned, is in another sense quire absurd since we have no idea what her singing was like. Indeed, despite the idea of a ballad 'repertoire', we do not even know if she ever sang them on more than the odd occasion. It is tautologous to observe that her 'repertoire' consists almost entirely of Child ballads, but it is remarkable nonetheless. Did she know - and maybe sing - any other kinds of folk songs?

Child's endorsement has confirmed the scholarly importance of the Brown corpus, explored variously by the likes of Flemming Andersen and Thomas Pettitt, Bertrand Bronson, David Buchan (and his nemesis Albert Friedman), David Fowler, and Holger Nygard. (5) Rieuwerts summarizes the various lines of argument, the principal dividing lines being organic versus artificial variation and oral versus written tradition, with the spectre of 'authenticity' always in the background (pp. 55--61). Her own solution, so far as it goes, is to present the Brown ballads as what she calls 'a thick corpus with organic variation' (p. 57). Yet I fear this is going to be a self-fulfilling formulation, for it borrows an approach of Lauri Honko's which presupposes both the essentially oral nature of the material under discussion and the organic connection between variation and orality.6 'With this edition in hand', she writes, 'it should now be possible to unravel the art of oral/written composition in Mrs Browns repertoire' (p. 59). But that would only be possible if the respective characteristics of'oral/written composition' were already agreed in advance. In reality, (a) it is not difficult to demonstrate variation in the presence of writing, and even among printed copies of ballads; and (b) it is at least plausible to argue for a strongly conservative impulse among folk singers at large, especially in relation to the words of songs, regardless of how they have been learned. For the Anglo-Scottish ballads the oral/written dichotomy is almost certainly a red herring: English-speaking Britain has been a text-based environment at least since the end of the Middle Ages, with texts transmitted variously and interchangeably by oral and written means.

Child thought that ballads were on the point of dying out, and he also surmised that they were especially the preserve of women - which can only have added to the importance in his eyes of Mrs Brown. (7) But judging by the evidence of more recent collecting, from the late nineteenth century onwards, he was wrong on both counts. If we take what was said about Mrs Browns sources at face value, then it is true that they seem to have come through a female line, albeit a musically sophisticated one. Her ballads, we are told, in the words of William Donaldson in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, are 'framed from an explicitly female, indeed even feminist, perspective' (quoted p. 62) - whatever that means. And yet, even if the gendered account of music-making in her family's social circle is correct, it is by no means reasonable to assume that this can be extrapolated across the social scale. (8) There is a certain logic to the picture of young children, of either sex, hearing songs and stories from womenfolk, and I would certainly not wish to deny women their place as ballad singers; but to feminize the genre as a whole seems to exceed the available evidence by far. One can hazard a guess as to why Child thought as he did, but his account of the historical conditions for English-language balladry is in fact quite ahistorical. (9)

If I were to suggest that Mrs Brown's perceived importance has had a baleful influence on ballad studies, it might seem to denigrate the volume under discussion, and I have no wish to do that. In fact, I admire it greatly for its careful presentation and for making the materials under discussion readily available. It is a model for the kind of thing that ballad scholars would desperately like to see more of. But the Scottish ballads of the romantic period remain, and are likely to remain, as perplexing as ever, not only in their own right but also in relation to what came before and after.


(1.) The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. by Francis James Child, 5 vols (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882-98), I, vii.

(2.) Mary Ellen Brown, Child's Unfinished Masterpiece: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2011), p. 88 and passim.

(3.) Albert B. Friedman, The Ballad Revival: Studies in the Influence of Popular on Sophisticated Poetry (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 57.

(4.) David C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popidar Ballad (Durham., NC: Duke University Press, 1968), p. 294 (moderated to 'one of the most important contributors' on p. 298).

(5.) Hemming G. Andersen and Thomas Pettitt, 'Mrs. Brown of Falkland: A Singer of Tales?', Journal of American Folklore y 92 (1979), 1--24; Bcrtrand Harris Bronson, 'Mrs. Brown and the Ballad1, in The Ballad as Song (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), pp. 64--78; David Buchan, The Ballad and the Folk (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972); Fowler, pp. 294-331; Albert B. Friedman, "The Oral-Formulaic Theory of Balladry - A Re-rebuttal', in The Ballad Image: Essays Presented to Bcrtrand Harris Bronson, ed. by James Porter (Los Angeles: Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore & Mythology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1983), pp. 215--40; Holger Olof Nygard, 'Mrs. Browns Recollected Ballads', in Ballads and Ballad Research, ed. by Patricia Conroy (Seattle: University of Washington, 1978), pp. 68--87; Thomas Pettitt, 'Mrs. Browns "Lass of Roch Royal" and the Golden Age of Scottish Balladry1, Jahrbuch fur Volksliedforschung, 29 (1984), 13-31.

(6.) Lauri Honko, 'Thick Corpus and Organic Variation: An Introduction', in Thick Corpus, Organic Variation and Textuality in Oral Tradition, ed. by Lauri Honko, Srudia Fennica Folkloristica 71 NNF Publications 7 (Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2000), pp. 3--28.

(7.) F. J. Child, 'Old Ballads. Prof. Childs Appeal', Notes and Queries, 4th sen, 11 (1873), 12.

(8.) A useful corrective is Dolly MacKinnon, iUl have now a book of songs of her writing": Scottish Families, Orality, Literacy and the Transmission of Musical Culture c. 1500-c. 1800', in Finding the Family in Medieval and Early Modern Scotland, ed. by Elizabeth Ewan and Janay Nugent (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008), pp. 35-48.

(9.) Francis J. Child, "'Ballad Poetry": Johnsons Universal Cylcopadia, 1900', Journal of Folklore Research, 31 (1994), 214-22.
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Author:Atkinson, David
Publication:Folk Music Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 23, 2011
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