Song collectors have typically identified two distinct ballad traditions: printed “street” ballads and oral “folk” ballads. In the compilation of his monumental ballad collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (ESPB), the nineteenth century scholar F. J. Child privileged the latter as aesthetically superior to the former, establishing a ballad hierarchy that continues to define scholarship in the field today. Furthermore, Child and his contemporaries identified printed and oral songs as belonging to distinct gender spheres, particularly in the case of oral tradition, which became closely associated with women’s voices.
Child’s anthology contains the printed broadside ballads of seventeenth century collections as well as songs gathered from oral sources in the first half of the nineteenth century. It thus represents an opportunity to examine the interaction between printed and oral ballads over a period of roughly 200 years.
In the following talk, I outline a computer-based approach to the analysis of a large-scale ballad corpus. Using a text analysis program, Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC), I examine the content of the ESPB for differences across ballad medium. In an attempt to engage with the question of what happens to a ballad as it moves from print to oral medium, I ask: What, if any, are the differences between printed and oral ballads, and what might these differences have to do with gender?
Lucie Duggan is a Ph.D. student at the Department for the Study of Culture (IKV), University of Southern Denmark, and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of English.