One of the distinguishing characteristics of folk ballads is the impersonal attitude shown by their makers towards the story's events: The story is told for the story's own sake, while the prepossessions and judgments of the author or authors are kept for the most part in the background (Gerould 8). Despite this impersonality, the true sentiments of a ballad's folk are often revealed through their use of certain phrases, images, and adaptations through time. The most genuine of these sentiments are incorporated unconsciously, without the intent to moralize, but doing so nonetheless. It is these hidden sentiments, pried from the unconscious depths of the ballads' lyrics and melody, which give us the most insight into the experiences, beliefs, and imaginations of the folk to which the ballads belong.
[...] In versions C and the robber throws the dead sister among the broom.” Broom, in folklore, is a very magical flower, and is also another symbol of sexuality and illicit love (Wimberly 351). In version however, we get a very different image after each sister is slain: wiped his knife along the dew; but the more he wiped, the redder it grew.” The third sister, however, deflects the robber's question by talking about her brother(s). In version there is only one brother; in all the rest, there are three. [...]
[...] The folk of Britain seemed to think so, since the plucking of flowers by a young girl in English and Scottish ballads is often followed immediately by either seduction, with its dire social consequences, or murder (Shuldiner 271). We also see an indication of this attitude in Child where the London lord chastises the young maidens pu'in the rose and the fair lilie, for pu'in them sae fair and free” (Child 176). The negative message is reinforced in this case with a powerful image: the lily is a symbol of death—in ballads, it is sometimes the flower found growing from the grave of a knight or maiden (Wimberly 41)—and the rose is a symbol of female sexuality. [...]
[...] Since we stated earlier that the girls in the ballad have at least some of the blame for their fate (which we also see in the Scandinavian ballads, where they oversleep and are late for church), the more complete punishment would seem to indicate a more severe condemnation of the girls for their own fate, and thus a stronger belief that women should not go out alone or be left to their own devices, as well as a stronger moral message—what Deborah Symonds calls admonitory stiffness of Scandinavian tales” (Symonds 41). [...]
[...] These changes, studied across geographic regions and through time, give us a richer, deeper picture of the moral structure of fifteenth and sixteenth century life in the countries where these ballads appear, and they should continue to be collected and valued as an important aid to our understanding of the psychological and historical development of the world's folk. Works Cited Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol New York: Dover Publications Coffin, Tristram P. The British Traditional Ballad in North America. [...]
[...] The strength we see in both these songs is consistent with the American spirit and our knowledge of American women throughout history. From the Revolutionary War to the Oregon Trail, being an American woman requires strength and fortitude. There is very little upper-class entitlement in early American history; their women are no idle princesses. There is even another American variation mentioned by Tristam Coffin in The British Ballad Tradition in North America in which the third sister kills the robber (Coffin, Ballad Tradition a shockingly strong image of independence—even in Rocky Banks, the wild man dies by his own hand rather than that of the third sister. [...]
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