The Glenbuchat Ballads.
The publication of the Glenbuchat Ballads is an exciting moment in ballad studies and, as the product of forty intermittent years of scholarship, long awaited. When David Buchan died in 1994 his Glenbuchat project, begun in 1965, passed to his then graduate student, James Moreira. Together, they have created a standard reference text, featuring versions of well-known ballads that largely escaped the attention of Francis James Child. This is a thoughtful, well-contextualized collection.
The introduction bears traces of a great deal of assiduous research. The collector, Robert Scott (1778-1855) emerges as a complex character: 'resolved, assertive ... testy, imperious and struggling' (p. xxxv). Minister - at first reluctantly - of Glenbuchat from 1808, Scott played an active role within this isolated community, described by one disgruntled parishioner as 'hell upon earth ... nothing but backbiting thieving & and potching' (p. li). Moreira considers his work 'show[s] a correspondence between the concerns of the collector and those of his informants, as opposed to the cultural distance that separates them, which is stressed by Harker, Whisnant, McKay, and similar critics' (p. lxvii).
The pieces were collected from about 1817 or 1818 onwards, in the wake of contemporary ballad enthusiasms (Moreira's practice of referring to the reverend as Scott causes initial confusion if you are used to his better-known namesake), probably in a 'localized' (p. xxv) way. As expected, texts make frequent reference to north-east Scotland. There are standards, such as 'Andrew Lammie' (Child 233) and "The Laird o Drum' (Child 236), along with ballads adapted to local places, such as 'The Water of Gamery' (Child 215) or 'Rare Willie Drowned in Yarrow' to those of us with southern Scottish affiliations (as the great Newfoundland singer Anita Best remarked, if you start thinking of versions, you've made the sad shift from song enthusiast to scholar).
Erudite notes draw attention to broadside parallels and local resonances in songs known more widely, implying ways in which communities take possession of songs. The note, for instance, to 'Hey a Rose Malindey' (Child 20 "The Cruel Mother') cites a kirk session minute of 1790: 'the inhabitants in Glenbuchat were excited by the discovery of an infant's body on a dunghill. This led to an examination of all the young women of the district in order that the midwives might attempt to trace whether any of them had recently borne a child' (p. 228). With 'Lochinvar', the hero's name becomes Lochnavar (Child 221): 'a conflation of the standard "Lochinvar" and the regional placename, Lochnagar' (p. 228).
Many texts are historically flavoured. Several have supernatural elements - the omen-heavy 'Hyn Horn' (Child 17), the talking bird of 'The Goss Hawk' (Child 96) - but most feature violent or traumatic incidents, along with adultery Well-known ballad characters and events - not necessarily historical, sometimes conflations of more than one individual or incident - feature here, from 'Baron of Brackly' (Child 203) to 'Rob Roy' (Child 225), 'Lord Essex' (Child 288), and 'Patrick Spence' (Child 58).
My favourite is the gory 'Adam Gordon, or The Burning of Cargarff (Child 178), which deals with the raid of 1571 on the lands of John Forbes of Towie, during his absence, by Captain Thomas Car, leading to the death of Forbes's wife and twenty-six others. Gordon, prominent in the ballad although not actually present, is the villain. Lady Cargarff repeatedly refuses to surrender her burning home, despite the pleas of her eldest son and her 'bonny bairn'. Finally, she responds to Gordon's invitation to 'loup', wrapped in a pair of sheets: 'But on the point of Gordon's spear / She met a deadly fa'. The nurse meets an equally horrific end: 'My bowels are boiling me within / An my tongue lakin you wi'. These are powerful texts; it is only to be regretted, although unsurprising given the period, that there is no information on the music.
I hesitate to say anything negative about a book that will delight so many, but, on occasion, Buchan's absence is evident. For instance, in commenting on regional poetry, Moreira seems unaware of precedents for John Burnesss 'Muse' in the 'Visions' of Ramsay and Burns and particularly in Hogg's The Spy. Similarly, the glossary is not always reliable: the translation of 'haul', for instance, as 'a great quantity' does not make sense when Adam Gordon calls his men to 'draw to a haul', whereas its alternative meaning, 'shelter', is pertinent.
These, however, are minor quibbles. This is ground-breaking, scholarly
work. There is a real sense of synergy between the editors, with Moreira taking on Buchan's intellectual legacy as a meticulous scholar of texts and social contexts. Moreira, of course, also draws on the recent examples of editors such as Emily Lyle and her colleagues, in the Greig--Duncan Folk Song Collection and The Song Repertoire of Amelia and Jane Harris. The Glenbuchat Ballads is a welcome addition to such distinguished company, enhancing the new, wider canon, which goes beyond Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads.
University of Glasgow, Dumfries
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|Publication:||Folk Music Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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