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The ballad as song by Bertrand Harris…

The ballad as song (1969)

by Bertrand Harris Bronson

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A student of balladry, if called upon to name the greatest systematizers of the works in the English canon, will surely name Francis James Child and Malcolm Laws. After all, their catalogs -- especially Child's -- are universally acknowledged, and the status of Child Ballad, in particular, is so highly craved that many songs have been given Child numbers that have absolutely no claim to that distinction.

But there is another name which surely deserves equal attention, and that is Bertrand H. Bronson, who catalogued tunes as Child catalogued texts. So why isn't Bronson as widely acclaimed?

In the end, it is because his great work -- like that of Geoffrey Chaucer, whom Bronson also studied -- was never brought to a final end. Bronson managed to complete The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, including his classification of tunes, which in many ways is a greater achievement that Child's own catalog. But Bronson never managed to create an accepted and universal system for determining when two melodies are "the same tune." And, lacking that, he could not create the tune catalog to correspond to Child's and Laws's catalogs of texts.

If that work is ever finished, however, it will surely because it builds upon the foundation Bronson built. And this is the book in which Bronson explains his thinking -- he shows the ways he examined the tunes, and what he learned, and what he still hoped to find. It is a description of a methodical, determined -- indeed, I would say "autistic," in the very best sense of that word -- systemizer. He gnawed at the problem endlessly, seeking an answer, even looking to computers and "big data" at a time when computers and big data hardly even existed. I was deeply impressed. The work Bronson attempted is still unfinished; Canterbury lies far ahead, and many of the pilgrims have not spoken. But I can only hope that this book will someday inspire someone to complete the pilgrimage. ( )
1 vote waltzmn | Jan 5, 2016 |
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To M. S. B.
"O what is longer than the way?"
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Forty-odd years ago, when the writer of these occasional pieces began to interest himself in traditional ballads, there was little acknowledgment -- at least in academic circles -- that the study of balladry demanded more than the slightest recognition of the musical side of the subject.
"Edward" has justly held a place of honor among ballads ever since it was first given to the world, in 1765, in the Reliques of Thomas Percy.
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