I’ve spent a lot of time since the beginning of the year recording ballads for this website, to accompany my new book.  This is the second of a short series of posts about what I’ve been up to.

Moving the ballads from scores to sound recordings has been an enlightening experience.  In some cases, there are things that I would  do differently if I had my time over.   One of them is A Merry New Ballad of a Country Wench and a Clown.  I made several abortive attempts to record this song.  The first verse was okay, but the second was tricky.  The words just didn’t fit as well.  It wasn’t that they didn’t fit – they just didn’t really scan quite right.  So I recorded the single verse given in the book, then went back to the drawing board.

When I sat down to look at them again, I realised that my mistake had been not to sing it right through when I was originally setting the words.  The second verse fitted much better with different repeats to the ones which appear in the book, and indeed, when I tried it that way, so did the first verse.  So now on the website there are two different versions of A Country Wench and a Clown – the first is the academic version (the musical example from the book), and the second is a more practical, hands-on version which, with hindsight, I think works much better.  To my mind, it just goes to show that these are songs to be sung, not words and music on a page.  It highlights the importance of practical experience.

On the other hand, I’ve had some of my beliefs reinforced.  One of them was that the Cromwell ballads, which form the case study for my 6th chapter, were not written by professional balladeers.  Of all the ballads we recorded, these were the hardest to fit to the tunes.  First off, I should point out that there is no evidence that they were actually sung to the tune I chose to set them to (‘Half Hannikin’).  It’s a conjectural setting, in that we know it was a tune that was around at the time and, generally speaking, the words fit.  Secondly, I remain absolutely confident that they could be and were sung.  The difference between these songs and those by many of the other balladeers, though, is that the scansion of the lines can be radically different between verses.  It makes it harder to fit the words in.  Not impossible, but more difficult.  And it suggests to me that the people who wrote these verses were more concerned with the message that they were trying to get across than they were with the niceties of writing lyrics.