The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts

The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts David Atkinson
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-78374-027-7 £17.95
Hardback ISBN: 978-1-78374-028-4 £32.95
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Honoured with the Folklore Society’s Katharine Briggs Award for 2014, David Atkinson’s latest book is an intellectually alert, extensively documented [...]. The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts is out of the ordinary in relation to ballad studies.
—Tom Pettitt, Folklore, 129:1 (February 2018), 101-3

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.
—Lucy Wright, Ethnomusicology Review (September 2016)

Anyone mildly interested in the ballad, in its past, in the assumptions we have inherited and their sources, or in the process of editing ballads should take a look—free. Read with pleasure and contemplate not only something of the ballad past, but materials which resonate with an earlier stage of Folklore scholarship; perhaps readers will be stimulated to revisit this rich material and all of its conundrums, and also to uncover the complexities of the editing/transcribing process.
—Mary Ellen Brown, Western Folklore, 74.3/4 (2015)

This is an immensely thought-provoking book, consisting of a series of meditations on the textual status of the ‘ballad’ (the ‘imaginary contexts’ of the title), and how editorial theory and continental philosophy contribute to and complicate this textual condition. David Atkinson meticulously dismantles received assumptions concerning such canards as oral tradition, song collecting, and transcription processes, scrupulously illustrating his argument with a handful of case studies in order to argue that conventions of editorial practice are, particularly when dealing with ballads, blunt and obtrusive.
Nick Groom, The Folk Music Journal, 10.5 (2015)

The depth of Atkinson's research is impressive and his conclusions will provide ballad scholars with much food for thought. The author quite elegantly makes the case for an interaction between written and oral transmission of ballads for over half a millennium, effectively challenging many of the received tropes of ballad studies.
—James Revell Carr, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
This is the first book to combine contemporary debates in ballad studies with the insights of modern textual scholarship. Just like canonical literature and music, the ballad should not be seen as a uniquely authentic item inextricably tied to a documented source, but rather as an unstable structure subject to the vagaries of production, reception, and editing. Among the matters addressed are topics central to the subject, including ballad origins, oral and printed transmission, sound and writing, agency and editing, and textual and melodic indeterminacy and instability. While drawing on the time-honoured materials of ballad studies, the book offers a theoretical framework for the discipline to complement the largely ethnographic approach that has dominated in recent decades.

Primarily directed at the community of ballad and folk song scholars, the book will be of interest to researchers in several adjacent fields, including folklore, oral literature, ethnomusicology, and textual scholarship.

The Anglo-Scottish Ballad and its Imaginary Contexts 
David Atkinson | March 2014 
xviii + 209 | 6.14" x 9.21" (234 x 156 mm)
ISBN Paperback: 9781783740277 
ISBN Hardback: 9781783740284
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783740291
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783740307
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783740314
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0041
BIC subject codes: DS (Literature, history and criticism), DSB (Literary studies, general) AVA (Theory of music and musicology), AVC (Music reviews and criticism), 1DBKS (Scotland), 2AFS (Scottish Gaelic), HBTB (Social and cultural history); BISAC: MUS020000 (MUSIC / History & Criticism), MUS000000 (MUSIC / General), MUS020000 (MUSIC / History & Criticism), POE005020 (POETRY / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh). OCLC Number: 908748011.

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References and Abbreviations
List of Illustrations
1. Where Is the Ballad?
2. On the Nature of Evidence
3. Textual Authority and the Sources of Variance
4. The Material Ballad
5. Sound and Writing
6. Agency, Intention, and the Problem of Version (with a brief history of ballad editing)
7. Palimpsest or texte génétique
8. Afterword: ‘All her friends cried out for shame’
Select Bibliography

David Atkinson is the editor of Folk Music Journal, author of The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method, and Practice (2002), and co-editor of Folk Song: Tradition, Revival, and Re-Creation (2004) and Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America (2014). He has published widely on Anglo-Scottish ballads and is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen. He is Executive Secretary of the Kommission für Volksdichtung (International Ballad Commission).

1. Where Is the Ballad?

Takes the type/version paradigm as a starting point to consider the ballad as a ‘work’, equivalent to the ‘work’ concept in canonical literature and music. The ballad in any particular example is considered as an exemplification of a larger abstract idea, rooted in language and musical language. 

2. On the Nature of Evidence

Addresses some of the evidential problems that arise from the determination to see the ballad as an ancient poetic form rooted in oral tradition. In particular, gaps in the record cannot simply be filled by the assumption of putative oral versions. With some specific examples.

3. Textual Authority and the Sources of Variance

Addresses the oral/print dichotomy through the insights of social history which describes England and Scotland of the ballad period as a text-based environment. Historical concepts such as ‘textual communities’ allow the ballad to transcend the narrow matter of literacy. So the source of textual variance cannot be located in oral tradition, but instead has to lie in an absence of textual authority.

4. The Material Ballad

Considers the ballad as a material artefact and the consequent implications for transmission and survival. The material facet is then tied into the type/version paradigm and the idea of the individual ballad as exemplification of an abstract idea. Suggests that the current conception of the ballad may be a consequence of particular historical circumstances. 

5. Sound and Writing

Explores the complementary nature of sound and writing in the presentation of the ballad, and moves the ballad away from the ‘metaphysics of presence’ that lies behind the primacy conventionally accorded to sound. Addresses some questions about the degree of detail required in ballad representations.

6. Agency, Intention, and the Problem of Version (with a brief history of ballad editing)

Considers underlying assumptions about ballad editing and questions both the authority and the integrity of the idea of the autonomous ‘version’ ascribed to a singular source. Takes a particular example to illustrate the difficulty of ballad editing and to demonstrate why the ballad text is inevitably indeterminate. 

7. Palimpsest or texte génétique

Considers the possibility of applying some of the principles of genetic editing to ballads. Describes the ballad text as a ‘palimpsest’ of materials that betrays its own genesis, and links back to the discussion of the problems of the idea of ‘version’ and the status of the ballad as a site of textual possibilities, connected to the larger idea of the ballad as ‘work’. 

Afterword: What did the people all say?

Acknowledges that the editor has to print something, and via consideration of a particular textual crux suggests a pragmatic way forward for ballad presentations.