The Life and Death of a Ballad
Imagine — many hundred years ago, in northern England, a poor farmer worked her days in the fields following ox and plough. In the evenings, by dim candlelight, she darned raggedy socks, quilted bed linens, and fed her family the foods that she harvested herself. As she toiled, she hummed and sang songs to help pass the long and difficult hours. These were traditional folk tunes, or ballads. They were sung without musical accompaniment as they were most commonly sung during work. They expressed the concerns of her culture and told the stories of everyday life. Eventually, she created a ballad of her own—one that told the story of her life and her perspective—it was a window into her world.
As her children grew she taught them how to work as she did. She also taught them how to sing. She taught them the ballads of her culture, which of course included her ballad.
The English farmer’s ballad passed on from generation to generation. Sometimes words or phrases were changed or adapted and new verses adopted—but the soul of the ballad was still hers. Eventually, many years later, the ballad left England, following her descendents to new lands. The ballad went to Ulster, where Scots and English established a new culture in the North of Ireland. There, her ballad helped inspire a particularly Irish culture of poetic rhyme and meter.
Her ballad did not stay there for long, however. It was soon off to the New World. It traveled across the Atlantic, reaching the shores of Carolina, crossing the Piedmont lowlands, and settling for a while in the high hills of the Appalachians. There, her ballad became inspiration for new kinds of music that was specifically American—country, bluegrass, and old-timey.
The ballad did not stay long in the Appalachians, either. It continued westward with the migration of people. By the 1800’s, some folks in the Appalachians thought things were becoming too cosmopolitan there, too populated. They sought more space with fewer outside influence from fireners. They moved to the Ozark hills of Missouri and Arkansas where they made the best of rocky, hard scrapple land. There, the ballad lived on, being sung during the chores of life that were not too different from the person who originally composed it.
The 20th century did eventually bring modernization to the Ozarks, and lives changed—no matter how deliberately unprogressive. The traditional chores for living passed away—like coopering, canning, and root-grubbing. And so did the traditional ways to pass the time—like singing ballads. However, one woman continued to learn, and did so passionately. Almeda Riddle learned as many ballads as she could—500 in all. In the 1960’s, she became a national treasure. She travelled around the country teaching and singing her songs. The Library of Congress archived her work.
Unfortunately, Almeda was among the very last of the traditional Ozark Balladeers. Though she tried to teach and preserve each of those 500 ballads, time was not on her side. In 1986 she passed, and with her vanished countless ballads that reached back many hundreds of years. One of those might have been the ballad of that woman who farmed in northern England so long ago.
There is good news, though. There are people all over the United States who, like Almeda, are doing their best to preserve the folk traditions that collectively have created our American culture. These people have established Folk Schools—places in which a person can learn and preserve these traditional arts of living.
Learn a folk tune at The Folk School of St. Louis …
Learn blacksmithing at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina…
Learn boatbuilding at the North House Folk School in Minnesota…
Learn how to make soap at the Adirondack Folk School…
…Or find a folk school nearest you and do your part to preserve your culture.