Francis J. Child's five volume work, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898), is considered by many as the "canon" of folk music. Scholarly works refer to "Child Ballads" by number. For instance, Child #2 = The Elfin Knight, Child #12 = Lord Rendal, etc. The collection consists of exhaustive research on 305 ballads. Unlike earlier scholars, Child's research focused primarily on manuscripts of ballads rather than printed versions. Child also investigated and collected songs and stories in other languages that were related to the English and Scottish ballads. Child's research was international in scope, covering thirty-seven languages.(1)
Child's research focused on the history of the words and themes rather than music. Child provides single line melodies (some very brief) for only about fifty of the tunes in an addendum. The reasons for what he chose to exclude or include is much debated among scholars and appears to be inconsistent.
Child's work owed debts to numerous scholars, including (for Scottish ballads) William Motherwell who wrote Minstrelsy: Ancient and Modern, and Svend Grundtvig. He corresponded in six languages with a vast number of scholars.(2)
Child was born on February 1, 1825, the son of a Boston sail maker. Child's family was poor and he attended Boston Grammar School and the English High School, Boston's public schools. It was only through the generosity of Epes Sargent Dixwell, the principal of the Boston Latin School, who recognized Child's genius, that Child was able to enter Harvard. As a student Child was elected class orator.(3)
He graduated first in his class in 1846 and was offered a position in mathematics and then in history and political economy. Child published Four Old Plays and a loan from Jonathan I. Bowditch (to whom the work was dedicated) enabled Child to take a leave of absence from Harvard.(3)
Child took a leave of absence from 1849 - 1851 to study English drama and Germanic philology in Europe, studying in Berlin and Gottingen. In 1851 he was named the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory - and held the position for 25 years. Throughout his tenure at Harvard he collected ballad books in many languages and corresponded with scholars throughout the world in several languages. Through his efforts the Harvard library came to house one of the largest folklore collections in existence. Child never completed a doctorate. Three doctorates were granted to Child. The University of Gottengen granted him an honorary doctorate when he was 29, Harvard granted him an LL.D. in 1884 and Columbia granted him an L.H.D. in 1887.(4)
Child published many works. In addition to English and Scottish Popular Ballads, The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser (5 volumes published in 1855) and Observations on the Language of Chaucer and Gower (given as a paper in 1862 and published in 1863) are considered his most important. In addition he was the general editor of a series of British Poets, begun in 1853 and eventually including one hundred and fifty volumes.(5)
In 1860 Child married Elizabeth Ellery Sedgwick. They had three daughters and one son. He was described as a man of charm and humor and affectionately referred to as "Stubby Child" because of his short stature and stooped shoulders. He was an ardent patriot. Unable to enlist in the Union Army because of his health, Child raised money and wrote articles, broadsides and ballads in support of the Union. (6)
In 1893 Child was in a carriage accident. His health, already troubled by gout and rheumatism, further weakened. Francis J. Child died on September 11, 1896. He was buried in Stockbridge. At the time of his death Child was completing the last volume of his work. The introduction and bibliography were not complete. The bibliography was in preparation, but the notes he had made for his introduction were insufficient to complete. No one felt equal to the task of completing it.(7)
Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads remains the standard all other works are measured by. His exhaustive research and attention to detail are remarkable. His work inspired succeeding generations and continues to do so today. And while Child's work is of interest to ballad scholars, it is not solely their province. English and Scottish Popular Ballads is no less interesting or valuable to hobbyists and musicians. It is a unique work that endures and inspires people from all occupations and those both with and without musical talent.
(3)Sigrid Rieuwerts, In Memoriam: Francis James Child (1825-1896) in Cheesman, 20.
(4)Ibid., 21. and Encyclopedia Britannica Online (see below)
(5)G. L. Kittredge in the Preface to English and Scottish Popular Ballads, xxvi
(6)Rieuwerts in Cheesman, 22
(7)G. L. Kittredge in the Preface to English and Scottish Popular Ballads, xxix
(I apologize for not using a standard format for footnotes - I am being lazy. I believe the most important thing is that the necessary information is there!)
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
Edited by Francis J. Child
Dover Publications, New York, 1965
(First published in 1884-1898)
Ballads into Books: The Legacies of Francis James Child
Edited by Tom Cheesman and Sigrid Rieuwerts
(Selected Papers from the 26th International Ballad Conference
Swansea Wales, 19-24 July, 1996.)
Peter Lang, European Academic Publishers, Berne, 1977
"Child, Francis J(ames)" Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
[Accessed August 1 1999].