An Opportunity Fumbled: Francis James Child and the Late Victorian Folksong Revival in England
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Francis J. Child’s professed aim was to include in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads “every valuable copy of every known ballad”. He encountered three major obstacles to achieving this goal. One was the problem of deciding what was and what was not an authentic “popular ballad”. A second was obtaining access to all the manuscript and printed sources in which the latter might be found. A third was the fact that he had a moving target: variants of his chosen ballads and other ballads that ostensibly fitted his criteria were still being collected from oral tradition during the 1880s and 1890s. The English content of Child’s magnum opus was weaker than the Scottish and, moreover, heavily dependent on the broadside industry that he so despised. The folksong revival in Late Victorian England presented him with the chance to rectify to some extent this disparity between English and Scottish texts, and also to add more melodies to his Tune Appendix in Volume 5. The aims of this paper are to assess how thoroughly Child took advantage of this opportunity and to identify what he missed. My conclusions are based on archival research recently conducted for my forthcoming book on the Late Victorian Folksong Revival.