Review | The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts

The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts. By David Atkinson. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014. [228 pp. ISBN 978-1-78374-027-7. Paperback £17.95].

Reviewed by Lucy Wright / University of Sheffield


“The ballad is both physical document and imaginary conjecture,” writes David Atkinson in The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and Its Imaginary Contexts (2014), “[it] should be seen not as a closed, original and seminal utterance, but as constant and multiple production” (22-23). This much acclaimed monograph—winner of the 2014 Katharine Briggs Folklore Award—makes a strong case for re-evaluating the ballad outside of established narratives of the “authentic” text and good/bad editor dichotomies, employing a critical approach informed by textual scholarship. Tightly delineated in terms of subject matter—dealing primarily with ballad texts rather than their melodies or performative attributes—Atkinson argues against dominant assumptions of the ballad’s inextricable dependence upon specific documented sources. Instead, he proposes an emergent and, crucially, unstable model of balladic creativity, which includes and holds in tension production, reception, and editing. In this conception, the ballad straightforwardly represents neither performance nor text, but is rather characterized by proliferation, as well as by creative processes of improvisation rather than passive repetition with multiple entry points. As such, Atkinson’s provocation contributes to a small but growing body of literature dedicated to the problematization of contemporary folk performance in light of what Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold have described as a “backwards reading” of tradition (2007).

Dave Harker infamously asserted that “concepts like ‘folksong’ and ‘ballad’ are intellectual rubble which needs to be shifted so that building can begin again” (1985:xii); however, in its preface, Atkinson distances his own contribution from the revisionist aims of the Harker-Boyes thesis (Gregory 2009). Stating that the “imagined contexts” of the title refer less to the imagined communities (Anderson 1982), traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983) or “villages” (Boyes 1993) of late twentieth-century thought, he locates his own interests with “the abstract ideas that are the necessary counterpart of any attempt to describe the ballad” (xiii). Foregrounding the uneasy alliance of language and music effectuated in the marriage of ballad words and melodies, he questions the supposed “equivalence” of two domains belonging simultaneously to a singular Saussurean langue. In the presence of a multitude of meanings, expressions, and processes, how is an editor or theorist to conceptualize the ballad?

Consciously avoiding a nomothetic approach to the excavated landscape of contemporary Anglo-Scottish balladry, Chapter 1 supplants common scholarly preoccupations with the whats and whens of ballad history, with the ontological inquiry: “where is the ballad?.” Deploying the oft-quoted F.W. Bateson’s koan—“if the Mona Lisa is in the Louvre, where are Hamlet and Lycidas?”—the author highlights the conflicting principles of organization attached to discussions of the ballad, in particular, introducing doubt to long-held assumptions about the substantive role of variation. It is conservatism, he argues, rather than idiosyncrasy that is the predominant current in ballad transmission, such that despite a privileged status, individual differences between ballads from different sources are hardly greater than the revisions and versions present in supposedly “fixed” works of contemporary literature and composition. At the same time, recent scholarly critiques of the early “mediators” of folk songs and ballads are challenged by the suggestion that ballad scholars and collectors might be “essential collaborators” in the creation of aesthetic artefacts which combine multiple agencies. “The appropriate organizing principle,” Atkinson argues, “is precisely one of proliferation … [the ballad] can never be wholly represented by a single exemplification” (2014:23).

Chapter 2 explores the positionality of the Anglo-Scottish ballad in the context of the English folk revival, pointing to a strong prevailing tendency towards myth-making and romanticization when considering “traditional” ballad transmission. Noting that ballad collection was predicated upon the notion of continuity since at least the eighteenth century, Atkinson emphasizes the diachronic contiguousness expected of folksongs and ballads, in contrast to the more informal, generative processes detailed in other forms of music and literature. Of course, all musical genres rely to some extent upon diachrony, however the (imagined) possibilities of expanded continuation into a very distant past proved almost fetishistic for some early ballad scholars and practitioners, setting the tone for later expositions on the theme. Whether conceptualized as the recovery of native or antiquarian music forms, or as a pedagogical project of revitalization for an increasingly industrialized Britain, the strength and vitality of a decidedly oral tradition is powerfully seductive. Consequentially, the concomitant denigration of printed text is explored in Chapter 3 in which conditions of mutual interdependence for written and oral forms are proposed: “[b]allads may have been written down and/or printed, or they may have been recalled from memory, or more probably there is a largely unknown history of interaction of these processes through time,” writes Atkinson (2014:68). The belief that today’s ballads were transmitted by oral tradition alone is thus proposed to be flawed and idealized.

Building on this, Chapter 4 considers the physical presence of the “material ballad,” recalling a historical precedent in which paper as a commodity might “easily outweigh the aesthetic value of whatever was printed on it” (2014:69), and ballad sheets were regularly pasted onto the walls of alehouses and domestic dwellings. The materiality of ballads in the lives of eighteenth-century protagonists reflects a notable contrast with the proposed phonocentrism of Western metaphysics, and the phenomenology and ocularcentrism of contemporary ethnographic practice. Contemporary approaches to ballads, as aspects of the folk repertoire, frequently privilege sound over written transcription, focusing on the style, expression, and vocal quality of ballad performances, features which lie outside of the ballad text itself. However, “[o]ne reason for the resilience of ballad words and music,” Atkinson suggests, “can be posited to lie in their ability to inhabit different material formats—different documents—and to move with apparent ease between them” (2014:86). The relationship between sound and writing is further explored in Chapter 5, in which hierarchies of ballad documentation are critiqued, in favor of a meshwork of complementary instructions that “facilitate access to the intangible ballad” (2014:89).

Agency, intention, and the “problem of version” are explored in Chapter 6, with reference to the so-called “post-child era of scientific folklore” (Davis 1960:xvii). Drawing attention to a contradictory expectation that ballad editors “reproduce words and music verbatim” (119) while the variations of ballad performers is highly prized, Atkinson hints at the stratification of roles in relation to the ballad. The task of the singer is commonly understood as one of dynamic (re)creation; although different individuals might habitually perform a certain song in a particular way, each discrete rendition of the song by the same individual can also be said to comprise a distinct version. The task of listener, by contrast, is typically presumed to be one of reception, and “the translation of vocalized sound into language,” a process later reified by the collector whose role may include widening audienceship and contextualization of the ballad. However, such simplified and dichotomous positions tend to overlook the multiple agencies that combine to create a ballad form, including continuous processes of textual reception and textualization in material form.

Chapter 7 explores the ballad as a palimpsest or texte genetique. While the name of the contributor is usually considered to be a relatively unproblematic organizing principle, the conflation of contribution with authorship is usually complicated by the fact that an individual contributor is rarely a ballad’s originator. “However creative the contributor,” Atkinson writes, “the ballad remains a palimpsest of precedent and current words and melody” (2014:150). Textual genetics represents one way to elucidate this complex and emergent creativity. In contrast to the New Critical school’s privileging of the “completed” work, genetic criticism is attuned to the inherent fluidity and thus diachronicity of literary works, acknowledging the ongoing processes of accretion, deletion, and superimposition, which contribute to the simultaneously transient and enduring status of aesthetic artefacts. In adopting this genetic stance, the ballad is re-interpreted as a process in a constant state of flux, also shaped by the social interactivities of creativity. In a similar way, Hallam and Ingold challenge what they perceive as a flawed dichotomy between improvisation and innovation, suggesting that tradition is frequently misunderstood as a purely repetitive process, an opposing force to a creativity predicated upon “novelty” and “originality.” “Real people, as the living organisms they are,” they write, “continuously create themselves and one another, forging their histories and traditions as they go along” (2007:6). In a similar way, Atkinson suggests that the ballad continues to emerge and re-emerge, “implying at any one moment its preceding and succeeding variations” (2014:168).

“Like any other literary or musical work, the ballad is unstable and the artefact the listener/reader might think of as the ballad is of necessity a convenient construct,” Atkinson writes in his conclusion (2014:174). However, “there is at least a logic to an approach to its representation that seeks to maintain and even to emphasize that instability” (2014:182). This highly rigorous thesis is both thought-provoking and in many ways transformational for scholars of folk performance, challenging extant doctrine about the nature of tradition while (importantly) offering new ways to attempt to articulate its multiplicities. While some revivalist scholars argued for the obsolescence of the loaded terminologies of the folk revival, here the notion of the “ballad” is simultaneously problematized and rehabilitated. Neither an ossuary, nor an impossibly demarcated zone, the ballad tradition is necessarily messy, fractured and interpenetrative. It is also a vibrant space for exploring and celebrating the creativities of ongoing cultural production.



Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Boyes, Georgina. 1993. The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology, and the English Folk Revival. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Davis, Arthur Kyle Jr., ed. 1960. More Traditional Ballads of Virginia; Collected with the Cooperation of Members of the Virginia Folklore Society. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gregory, David. 2009. “Fakesong in an Imagined Village: A Critique of the Harker-Boyes Thesis.” Canadian Folk Music/Musique folklorique canadienne 43(3):18–26.

Hobsbawm, Eric, and Terence Ranger, eds. 2012. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hallam, Elizabeth, and Tim Ingold, eds. 2007. Creativity and Cultural Improvisation. Oxford: Berg.

Harker, Dave. 1985. Fakelore: The Manufacture of British “folksong” 1700 to the Present Day. London: Open University Press.

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