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Lily-white hands and scarlet gowns: formulas in British traditional ballads

Traditional song can be a tricky beast. Stubbornly slippery in form, content, and definition, its remit encompasses an amorphous mass of vernacular songs that have been cherished by everyday people over time. These songs are of varying vintages, of both known and unknown authorship, some passed through generations by word of mouth, others emerging from commercial print literature, the music hall, and the parlour ballad. One of the things (perhaps the only thing) which remains remarkably consistent in traditional song is certain aspects of its language, particularly the existence of formulaic diction. These formulas include stock words, phrases, or whole stanzas, and techniques such as incremental repetition as well as more complex narrative motifs. They are most often found in what are known as ‘the Child ballads’: narrative songs of love, betrayal, murder, and intrigue collected and published in the nineteenth century by Francis James Child in his The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

Here are a few examples of formulas commonly found in ballad language (for ease of reference I will provide the title assigned to each ballad by Child).

Lily-white hand:

This is probably the most common stock ballad description of all, and, like many formulas, functions as a ‘warning’ that a dramatic action is about to occur. More often, the man takes the lady by the hand, denoting imminent rape or seduction with varying outcomes (not all of them tragic in the case of seduction, it must be said). For instance, in Prince Heathen the lady is taken by the hand before being brutally raped and tortured, whilst in Katherine Jafray she is taken by the hand and rescued by her true love. Things can go either way, it seems. The adjective lily-white can of course denote cleanness not just of colour but, implicitly, of moral and sexual virtue, which has added efficacy when employed as a prelude to seduction or sexual violence.

Playing at the ball:

This formula is always an interesting one, not least due to the rather eerie image it evokes. A crowd of ladies or boys (usually ‘four and twenty’) are seen playing at a ball, and one is singled out as the ‘fairest’ or the ‘flower’ of them all. The ball game often forewarns a love affair, adultery, or violent death (or of course, all three). In some ballads, the game is immediately followed by the death of the game’s spectator. In The Cruel Mother the boys playing at ball are the spirits of the murdered infants returning to tell their mother of the torments that await her in the afterlife. Just as play has a panoply of connotations, so its use in the ballads is multiplex: simultaneously a literal game, a symbol of fate, and a signifier of manipulation and pursuit.

Where will I get a bonny boy:

This plea for a boy to carry a message or run an errand can be spoken by a male or female protagonist, and is generally met with a willing response from the boy to carry out the deed. However, the messenger is often too late: in Lord Lovel the heroine of the ballad sends a messenger to retrieve her lover, but by the time he returns she has died of longing. In Sir Patrick Spens, the hero calls for a boy to ‘take [the ship’s] helm in hand’ while he spies for land, but by this point the water is already pouring into the doomed vessel. However, there are happier times for the messenger in many versions of Geordie where the condemned husband is saved, or in King Henry Fifth’s Conquest of France when English knights vanquish their cheeky French neighbours, all thanks to the fleet-footed bonny boy. Bonny as an epithet has more telling implications when one considers its subsidiary uses as either a term designed to coax, or to denote health, strength, and vigour as well as physical beauty. The boy must be up to the task as well as willing, and if he’s pretty too, so much the better.

She dressed herself in silks so fine/rich attire/ scarlet red:

When a ballad character dresses in rich clothes, they are usually about to embark on a journey of some sort. Most commonly, this journey is made to a wedding to confront a lover who has married someone else, with an outcome that is either victorious, as in Young Beichan or gorily tragic, as in Lord Thomas and Annet. In either case, the attire, whilst having its usual meaning of ‘personal adornment’ or ‘apparel’, also suggests another of its uses, as ‘outfit for war.’ However, in the case of Mary Hamilton, the fateful journey for which she dresses is to her own execution, for infanticide. In many versions of the ballad, the feisty Mary deliberately dresses not ‘in the robes of black’ but in robes of gold ‘to shine thro’ Edinburgh town’. Interestingly though, there are some versions of the ballad where Mary is sent to Edinburgh on the pretence that she is going to a wedding, unaware of the real fate which awaits her. In this case, the rich attire formula seems to operate with deadly cross-referential irony.

O mother, mother make my bed:

Unlike other formulas we have seen above, this one never augurs well: in every case it signals the imminent demise of its speaker. You may recognize the phrase from the most popular ballad of them all, Bonny Barbara Allen, where it is usually followed by lines like: ‘make it soft and narrow / Since my love died for me today / I’ll die for him tomorrow.’ In this case, the bed stands for more than just a place of repose – it carries connotations of its figurative use as: ‘the grave: usually with some qualification, as narrow bed.’

So where did these formulas come from, and how did they work? Many see them as mnemonic devices. Some traditional singers had a large repertoire of ballads which they could sing or recite from memory – some had learned them by ear and never seen the ballad in a printed form. The formulas therefore function as handy pegs upon which the singer hangs the narrative framework, allowing a certain amount of variation (or improvisation) whilst still retaining a recognizable story.

Formulas are also a handy form of referential shorthand. A phrase or motif can carry the weight and import of its use in other ballads, often with an unnerving or unexpected effect, as with Mary Hamilton’s dress. Formulas could of course also be used by those deliberately composing a poem or song, maybe writers of popular street or ‘broadside’ literature, or the purveyors of Romantic poetry, to give the piece a ‘traditional’ stamp.

Whatever the motivation, the technique is timeless; creators from Homer to Bob Dylan have harnessed the power of formulaic diction in their art.