About the Child Ballads

The Child Ballads are ballads that are in the collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads edited by Francis James Child (1825 – 1896). Child was a brilliant student at Harvard, and became a exceedingly well respected critic and scholar of English literature. His best known work was in many ways his life’s work; a collection of late medieval and early renaissance English and Scottish popular ballads.

The collection began as a part of his British Poets collection of editions of poets’ works. Child personally selected and edited eight octavo sized books published in Boston from 1857–1858. He became so fascinated by the ballads (anonymous narrative songs whose subjects range from the fantastic, to the tragic, and include the comic and the historical) that he devoted the rest of his life to collecting, researching, editing and publishing the definitive editions of these songs.

Child’s collection, monumental in size and scholarship, emphasized ballads collected in England and Scotland, (especially in the area of the Scottish border). Child organized the ballads in terms of alternate versions of specific ballads, and assigned each of 305 ballads a number, with variants arranged in what he thought was the most likely “oldest to youngest” order, and given a letter.

Much of Child’s work involved looking for variants, and even comparing these English popular and unsigned lyrics to those from other languages and eras. Child was largely interested in the texts, though he did include tunes in many cases. Later scholars, especially Cecil Sharp, have collected the melodies and variations for the songs in the Child ballad collections.

Child’s final collection was published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in two editions; one in ten parts (1882–1898) and then in five volumes with a variety of bindings. The final volume was ultimately seen through the final stages of publication by his student, the Shakespearean and Medieval literature scholar, George Lyman Kittredge.

There are various online public domain sources of this edition, but the authoritative edition the corrected second edition of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Eds. Mark F Heiman and Laura Saxton Heiman (Northfield, Minnesota: Loomis House Press, 2001). This is a new scholarly edition, not a digital facsimile or text dump. This edition includes all of Child’s post-publication corrections and additions, the tunes for ballads from Child’s sources, 77 additional ballad texts from Child’s notes, as well as an earlier essay about the ballads by Child added as an introduction.

You can find a list of the Child ballads by number here.