Biographical Sketch

Before we get to the ballads, there is a short biography of Francis James Child written by his former student and successor George Lyman Kittredge.  What follows is my reaction to Kittredge’s writing.  If you desire a more straightforward biographical sketch, I recommend this one from Harvard Magazine.

As much as I wanted to learn about Child’s life, I had a hard time getting through this biography because of the way it was written.

Upon the first reading, I found myself wondering whether it contained any actual information of if it was just a deluge of praise.  Kittredge obviously liked Mr. Child and wanted to speak well of him, but the reverent tone was too much for my cynical 21st century brain.  There were, however, a few things that stood out for me the first time I read it.

He was a great reader, and his tastes in reading were mature.  He read for learning as well as for amusement, but he did not waste his time or dissipate his mental energies on worthless or pernicious books.

-Kittredge quoting Child’s classmate C.E. Norton

This quote catches my attention because I am curious what books were considered “worthless” in 1882.  Was he referring just to “penny dreadfuls” and romance novels, or did this definition extend to books that would be considered classics today?

I also wonder why Kittredge felt the need to include this in the introduction to the crowning achievement of Child’s life.  Why did he feel such a strong need to convince the readers that Child had not read any trashy novels as a student?  Was he trying to hold up Child up as an example to the youth of the day not to read bad books?  Was this just the standard way of introducing people in the 1800s?

The quote from Norton goes on to say:

 His class oration was remarkable for its maturity of thought and style.  Its manliness of spirit, its simple directness of presentation of the true objectives of life, and the motives by which the educated man, whatever might be his chosen career, should be inspired, together with the seriousness and eloquent earnestness with which it was delivered, gave his discourse peculiar impressiveness and effect.

That’s a lot of words used to praise the “simple directness” of a graduation speech.  I’m starting to think that Child’s colleagues admired his “simple directness” because they were completely incapable of exercising the trait themselves.

All snark aside, I did learn some interesting things about Child that I had not known previously:

– He almost didn’t go to college at all

Francis James Child was the third of eight siblings.  His father was a sail-maker who had not planned to send him to college.  He enrolled in the local “English High School” until he was noticed by Epes Sargent Dixwell, the headmaster of the Boston Latin School, who was impressed with his intelligence and suggested that he be transferred to the Latin School.  Dixwell also lent Child the money to pay for his education at Harvard.

– He was mostly working with material that had already been collected

Again, with  “Songcatcher” being my main source of information on the subject of collecting traditional ballads, I expected to be reading about Child going around to remote villages and collecting songs from people who had learned them through the oral tradition.

He did apparently do some of this, or he got other people to do it for him.  Kittredge writes:

Mr. Child made an effort to stimulate the collection of such remains of the popular traditional ballad as still live on the lips of the people in this country and in the British Islands.  The harvest was, in his opinion, rather scanty; yet, if all versions thus recovered from tradition were enumerated, the number would not be found inconsiderable.  Enough was done, at all events, to make it clear that little or nothing of value remains to be recovered in this way.

However, most of the Child ballads were gathered from already existing books and manuscripts which Child simply put together into one big collection.  His major task in this collection was to make the contents of private manuscripts available to the public.  Many of the owners of these manuscripts did not want to allow anyone else to examine them, and convincing them took a lot of persistence on the part of Child and his colleagues.

The Percy folio is the main example that is used in the introduction.  Kittredge writes:

The publication of the Percy MS… exposed the full enormity of Bishop Percy’s sins against popular tradition.

This made Child suspect the reliability of other ballad collections, and after this he made a point of examining all of the original manuscripts for his sources.

– Collecting and commenting on the ballads the way he did required a comprehensive understanding of the history of the English language as well as fluency in several other languages.

Child’s main academic interest early on was the history of the English language, and this helped him to distinguish the real “ancient ballads” from the fakes and to tell when a modern person had added their own verses to a song.

He also used his knowledge of other languages in comparing the ballads he collected to similar traditional stories and ballads from around the world.

In writing the history of a single ballad, Mr. Child was sometimes forced to examine hundreds of books in a dozen different languages.

From Percy’s day to our own it has been thought an innocent device to publish a bit of one’s own versifying, now and then, as an ‘old ballad’ or an ‘ancient song.’  Often too, a late stall copy of a ballad, getting into oral circulation, has been innocently furnished to collectors as traditional matter.


A forged or retouched piece could not deceive him for a minute; he detected the slightest jar in the genuine ballad tone

I still can’t help but wonder if one or two got past him.

– The ballad collection was the major focus of Child’s career and he died having barely finished it.

He had finished his great work except for the introduction and the bibliography.  The bibliography was in preparation by another hand and has since been completed.  The introduction, however, no other scholar had the hardihood to undertake.

I wish that Child had lived to write the introduction himself.  I suspect that he would have been both more informative and more humble.  Kittredge certainly lays on the praise with a trowel.  I don’t know if his portrayal as an adulterous douchbag in “Songcatcher” was accurate either, but seeing such a complimentary account of a person makes me wonder what is being left out.

My cynicism notwithstanding, the man described here sounds like a very admirable person who worked hard and had a good sense of humor, apparently unlike some of his contemporaries.  I wish that Kitteredge would show rather than tell more, and that he would get to the point instead of using such fluffy language, but I supposed he is just writing in the style of the time.

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12 Responses to Biographical Sketch

  1. Pingback: Francis James Child | Mictlantecuhtli

  2. Fiona says:

    It’s funny how back then they were bemoaning that traditional song was dead and there was hardly anything left to collect, when actually folksong collecting went on well into the 20th century in Ireland, Scotland, the Appalacians, Nova Scotia…. Here’s a bunch collected by a travelling salesman in the 1960’s. Love it!

  3. Sadie Damascus says:

    Sarah? Rachel? Fiona? I talked with you last week and I wanted to call or email you. I assume the Erlinton singer is yourself? High voice, shortened version? Wow. Listen to my ballad show Thursday 6 to 8 pm pst, and hear yourself.

    • djiril says:

      I’ll be sure to listen tomorrow. Is the e-mail address I gave you not working? I don’t want to put it in a public comment, but sometimes people hear “v” instead of “b” when I try to give it verbally.
      (It’s Sarah, and yes, the Erlington singer is me.)

  4. Sadie Damascus says:

    Also, the Max Hunter page is down.

  5. Fiona says:

    @Sadie It appears the curator of the Max Hunter collection has removed the section where the songs were organized by Child number – boo. However the collection can still be searched at

    • Ooh, Thankee. I am bereft of many ballads, though I have 31 recordings of The Twa Sisters.

      • fionag11 says:

        I’m very impressed that you went through all 305 on your show, and are now starting again! My mother has recorded 2 CDs of various Child ballads. Would any of these help you fill in the gaps?

      • God, yes! I listened to a couple of her songs. She (and the pipes) are awesome. She sounds like a traditional singer, standing straight and singing out with no bullshit. I would be honored to have her music.

        Would you send them to me in the mail, or through some other method? Why don’t you and your daughter (if I have that right) or your daughter and mother and you, come up to visit me on the river and we’ll do some sangin?

        But: Sadie Damascus, POB 52, Monte Rio, CA 95462

        warmly, Sadie

        (Have we met?)

      • Dear Fiona,

        Attached, peradventure, is a list of the ballads I don’t have, and those of which I only have one copy. Perhaps you know or will come across some of them.

        Cheerio! Thanks for being there.


        Dear Friends in Ballads,

        I have spent sixteen months collecting ballad recordings to play on my radio program, Traditional Ballads with Sadie (Thursdays from 6 to 8 pm pst, streaming at KGGV.FM). I found versions of most, but this list shows what ballads I am still seeking. Of forty-four of them I found no recordings at all, and of fifty-five I found only one version, so I am hoping to collect at least one more recording of each of them. Those I couldn’t find, I was forced to try to sing by myself, to another ballad’s tune. Please help if you can! Send me ready-for-Itunes versions, links to online ballads that I can record, or CD’s in the mail (Sadie Damascus, POB 52, Monte Rio, CA 95462). Your own sung versions of these ballads would be especially welcome, and I prefer simple to electric versions. My present show cycle ends on February 25 with a final overview, and the cycle begins again April 7 with Child #1-5. Thank you for your support. -Sadie

        8-Erlinton have 1 by Martha Teeter 23-Judas have 1 by Martha Teeter 30-King Arthur and King Cornwall 36-Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea have 1 by Spriguns 64-Fair Janet have 1 by Peggy Seeger 80-Old Robin of Portingale have 1 by Raymond Crooke 97-Brown Robin 101-Willie o Couglas Dale 107-Will Steward and John 108-Christopher White 109-Tom Potts have 1 by Steeleye Span 111-Crow and Pie 115-Robin Hood and Gamblyn Gold have 1 by Bob Coltman 116-Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough… 118-Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne have 1 by Hester NicEilidh 119-Robin Hood and the Monk have 1 by Hester NicEilidh 121-Robin Hood and the Potter 124-Jolly Pindar have 1 by Wallace House 127-Robin Hood and the Tinker have 1 by Stephen Cole 128-Robin Hood and the Newly Revived 129-Robin Hood and the Prince have 1 by Ed McCurdy 130-Robin Hood and the Scotchman have 1 by Hester NicEilidh 131-Robin Hood and the Ranger have 1 by Wallace House 133-Robin Hood and the Beggar I have 1 by Stephen Cole 134-Robin Hood and the Beggar II 135-Robin Hood and the Shepherd have 1 by Stephen Cole 142-Little John a-Begging 143-Robin Hood and the Bishop 145-Robin Hood and Queen Katherine have 1 by Stephen Cole 146-Robin Hood’s Chase 148-Noble Fisherman/Robin Hood’s Preferment 151-King’s Disguise & Friendship with RH 153-Robin Hood and the Valiant Knight have 1 by Stephen Cole 154-True Tale of Robin Hood have 1 by Wallace House 158-Hugh Spenser’s Feats in France 159-Durham Field 160-Knight of Liddesdale 165-Sir John Butler 166-Rose of England 171-Thomas Cromwell 172-Musselburgh Field 174-Earl Bothwell 176-Northumberland Betrayed by Douglas 177-Earl of Westmoreland 179-Bookhope Ryde have 1 by Sinead Livingston 180-King James and Brown 185-Dick o the Cow 193-Death of Parcy Reed have 1 by Graham Pirt 196-Fire of Frendraught 197-James Grant 198-Bonny John Seton 202-Battle of Philiphaugh have 1 by Scocha 205-Loudon Hill, or Dromclog 207-Lord Delamere 211-Bewick and Graham 213-Sir James the Rose have 1 by Steeleye Span 222-Bonny Baby Livingston 224-Lady of Arngosk have 1 by Andrew Robson 227-Bonny Lizie Baillie 229-Earl Crawford 230-Slaughter of the Laird of Mellerstain 234-Charlie MacPherson 237-Duke of Gordon’s Daughter have 1 by Dave Burland 241-Baron of Leys have 1 by MacColl and Seeger 242-Coble o Cargill 244-James Hatley have 1 by Martin Carthy 245-Young Allan have 1 by June Tabor 246-Redesdale and Sweet William have 1 by Chris Coe 247-Lady Elspat 249-Auld Matrons have 1 by Ewan MacColl 252-Lord Gordon’s Kitchie Boy have 1 by Rod Paterson 253-Thomas o Yonderdale 254-Lord William, or Lord Lundy 256-Alison and Willie have 1 by Katherine Campbell 257-Burd Isabel and Earl Patrick 258-Burd Helen have 1 by Katherine Campbell 259-Lord Thomas Stuart 260-Lord Thomas and Lady Margaret have 1 by Cooper and Nelson 261-Lady Isabel 262-Lord Livingston 263-New-Slain Knight have 1 by Raymond Crooke 264-White Fisher 265-Knight’s Ghost 266-John Thomson and the Turk 268-Twa Knights 271-Lord of Lorn and the False Steward 280-Beggar Laddie have 1 by Ewan MacColl 282-Jock the Leg and the Merry Merchant have 1 by Ewan MacColl 288-Young Earl of Essex’s Victory over… 290-Wylie Wife of the Hie Toun Hie 292-West Country Damosel’s Complaint have 1 by Raymond Crooke 294-Dugal Quin 296-Walter Lesly 297-Earl Rothes 300-Blancheflour and Jellyflorice have 1 by Raymond Crooke 301-Queen of Scotland have 1 by Raymond Crooke 302-Young Bearwell have 1 by Raymond Crooke 303-Holy Nunnery have 1 by Raymond Crooke 304-Young Ronald have 1 by Raymond Crooke 305-Outlaw Murphy have 1 by Raymond Crooke (Thanks, Raymond!)

      • Ohm, I love to listen to Rosaleen. Thank you! Perhaps she will come sing on the radio one of these days.


      • Fiona says:

        Hi Sadie! Thank you for the invitation. Mum (Rosaleen) and I would love to visit you in Monte Rio sometime! I don’t believe we’ve met in person, but Mum had heard of your radio show. (Mum is the ballad singer, I’m just a listener and appreciator, and I have no daughter – I’m not related to Sarah who does this wonderful blog if that’s what you were thinking).

        Mum has sent the two CDs to your PO Box address. It will probably take at least two or three weeks to get to you from Canada. In addition, she has 61 mp3s of additional ballads she recorded for another project – these were recorded in a sound studio but not professionally mastered, and are unaccompanied singing or with guitar. These could be sent by email, etc – what do you need for upcoming programmes? You can email her at info at rosaleengregory dot ca.

        Cheers, Fiona

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