Most of us have never sat down and listened to storytelling ballads. They are not a popular style of music nowadays, to say the least. Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland is a fine introduction to the fading form.
The ballads on both volumes of Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland were recorded 50 years ago by a fella the name of Alan Lomax, who also lends his name to the series: The Alan Lomax Collection. Mr. Lomax spent eight years in England, based in London, and with his “calling card”—his Magnecord portable tape recorder-he scoured the countryside of both England and Ireland, recording in homes and barrooms the traditional storytelling ballads of both countries, all of this between 1950 and 1960. Now offered by Rounder in a two-volume set, the recordings have been cleaned up and expanded. The CD, as a medium, as Peter Kennedy says in the notes, has given them the ability to include all of the songs and all of them intact, whereas the older mediums had forced the producers to edit some of the tunes.
So, the question most of us will be asking by now, and the question I was asking when confronted with the two discs, was what exactly are storytelling ballads? They’re nothing but unaccompanied singing. The ballads all tell stories, as one might guess, but it’s the delivery that makes the listening particularly enjoyable. The dialect and the rhythm of the words and lines has a certain gallop that is hard to deny, especially considering the authenticity of the recordings. Many ballads are offered in several versions, sung by different singers, and the differences are oft times very wide yet typically with the common thread of the song. All told, there are 24 offerings on the first disk, and 27 on the second disc, almost three hours of listening. The only limitation of the set would have to be some of the recordings are still fuzzy sounding, but that’s to be expected when most of them are over half a century old I suppose.
And the books that come neatly packed with the discs are massive affairs—the booklet that accompanies volume two is 56 pages long! Along with the lyrics to the ballads and historical descriptions, there are also included historical selections describing Alan Lomax’s efforts, the history of storytelling ballads, and even a modern note from Peter Kennedy, one of the original recorders and editor of the present compilation, not to mention a massive bibliography of books on the subject.
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