I’ve loved the Old English & Scottish Ballads since discovering them in high school–I came across them in both print & musical form at about the same time, in the college literature anthologies one of my teachers loaned me & on the early records of folk stars like Joan Baez & Buffy St. Marie. I came of age with the morally ambiguous stories of Lord Randall, Sir Patrick Spence, Matty Groves & others. I also came to love the ballad stanza’s mode of free but muscular expression & have adapted it pretty often in my own work, most recently in the manuscript I’ve just completed, River with Birds & Trees, in which every poem with four-line stanzas is effectively a free verse ballad, alternating long & short lines to develop my pieced-together narratives. Here is that standard list of variations & versions of “Matty Groves.”
My attraction to the ballad crystalized while I was in college with Dylan’s use of the form, as well as the recordings of traditional singers that proliferated in the 1970s. (I have to admit to a long-standing attraction to the pop-folk balladeer Donovan, especially his “Season of the Witch” with its fine line, “Must be the season of the witch / Beatniks out to make it rich . . .” “There is a Mountain,” & “Sand and Foam,” this last one a particularly fine example of the folk ballad put to popular use.) But the modernization of the traditional ballad can be said to date from Fairport Convention’s recording of “Matty Groves,” a ballad that goes back at least to the 17th century in Scotland, with a more English version of the same story going under the title “Little Musgrave.” In looking around on the internet this afternoon for links to some of these songs, I discovered a startlingly beautiful version of “Musgrave” by an acoustic band called Planxty, apparently of long standing, with whom I was not familiar. I recommend it.