NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XXIV, No. 4, December 1968
THE BRITISH TRADITIONAL BALLAD
William H. Tallmadge
WHEN Cecil Sharp visited the Southern Appalachian
Mountains for nine weeks in 1916, he was surprised
to find an environment where the folk-song tradition
was a living thing, where “...I could get what I wanted from
pretty nearly everyone I met, young and old. In fact, I found
myself for the first time in my life in a community in which
singing was as common and almost as universal a practice as
From a study of the music which he heard, particularly the
gapped scales, Sharp (quite correctly) deduced the ethnological
origin of the Appalachian highlanders to be the north of England,
or the Lowlands, rather than the Highlands, of Scotland.
Sharp believed that the original settlers had emigrated from
England or Scotland in the latter part of the eighteenth century
or the early part of the nineteenth. This, too, is very close to
the truth. However, the settlers of the area in question did not
emigrate from Scotland or England, but from Ulster, Ireland.
Their actual emigration to Ireland from the Lowlands of Scotland
began in 1610, over one hundred years before their main
emigration to America beginning in 1717.
The extensive collections of Frank C. Brown in North Carolina,
Cox in West Virginia, Reed in South Carolina, Davis in
Virginia, drew upon areas where the Scotch-Irish were the first
to settle in great numbers, and where their original culture had
remained relatively hermetic and isolated.
Elsewhere in the country, particularly in New England, we
can no longer be certain that the Scotch-Irish constituted the core of traditional British balladry; nor was the society in other
areas of the country in the early twentieth century such as to
promote traditional British balladry as a living folk-art. While
perhaps as many or even more traditional British ballads have
been found in New England as have been found in any one
particular southeastern area, the ethnic background of the singers
is almost impossible to trace, and as Wilgus remarks regarding
the Barry, Eckstorm and Smyth British Ballads from Maine
(1929): “...one is certainly not impressed by a flourishing tradition.”
Even in those areas of the United States where we cannot
prove the Scotch-Irish to have constituted the mainstream
of the transmission of the British balladry, there are good reasons
for suspecting that they nonetheless constituted an important
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