Francis James Child

Brief life of a Victorian enthusiast: 1825-1896

Francis James Child, A.B. 1846, was a model of nineteenth-century academic achievement. Named Harvard’s Boylston professor of rhetoric and oratory at 26, he was one of his century’s leading Chaucer scholars and received honorary degrees from his alma mater, Columbia, and Göttingen. His close friends included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry and William James, and Charles Eliot Norton. Yet today he is better remembered than many distinguished colleagues because, at the height of his career, he decided to apply a gift for scholarship honed on the study of traditional literature to the oral traditions of the folk ballad.

That a sailmaker’s son achieved eminence of any sort was largely because the Boston of his youth was progressive enough to offer free public education—at least for white boys—and small enough to spot and foster talent. His record at Boston Grammar and Boston English came to the attention of Epes Sargent Dixwell, A.B. 1827, headmaster of Boston Latin, who facilitated his admission to that school and then to Harvard College.

Child graduated first in his class and became a College tutor in mathematics and then in history, political economy, and English. When a benefactor lent him funds for a trip to Europe, he took a leave of absence from 1849 to 1851 to study in Berlin and Göttingen, an extraordinary opportunity given his youth and background. On his return, he became Boylston professor, a post he held for a quarter-century before becoming Harvard’s first professor of English, in 1876. He served as general editor of the British Poets, a popular series that ran to 150 volumes. He issued a five-volume edition of Spenser’s poems and the influential Observations on the Language of Chaucer. And he introduced generations of undergraduates to these poets, to Shakespeare, and to the Romantics.

He combined scholarship with a gift for friendship. He corresponded for three decades with James Russell Lowell—“Jamie,” even when Lowell was ambassador to Great Britain—and for near-ly two decades with Miss Emily Tuckerman of Stockbridge, Mas-sa-chusetts, in each case combining his love of literature with a sense of humor and humility not always associated with his fellow academics. Time remained for his rose garden, his family, and more worldly demands. Though ill-suited by nature to the rough and tumble of politics, he canceled classes to canvass for Lincoln during the Civil War and joined in local political battles on behalf of his adopted Brahmin class with enthusiasm, if not success.

But increasingly his life was dominated by one great and abiding passion—the preservation of a ballad tradition that was dying even as Child struggled to record it. His first collection of ballads appeared in eight small volumes (1857-58) in the British Poets series, but he had something far more ambitious in mind: the comprehensive recordation of all known English and Scottish ballads and their American and Canadian variants. That demanded patience in tracking manuscripts across continents, judgment in interpreting and clarifying textual discrepancies, and persistence in dealing with collectors ranging from the high-born Lord Rosebery to the eccentric Devon clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould.

In all, Child collected 305 ballads, ultimately published in five volumes (1882-98), including “Lord Randall,” “Sir Patrick Spens,” and a good three dozen variations on the adventures of Robin Hood. Some, like “Barbara Allen,” had been in print for generations and were sung from London to Appalachia. Others, like “Thomas the Rhymer” or “Tam Lin,” evoke a world of magic that survived outside the written record for centuries. Child’s enthusiasm and erudition shine throughout his systematic attempt to set the British ballad tradition in context with others, whether Danish, Serbian, or Turkish. He made no attempt to conceal or apologize for the sexuality, theatrical violence, and ill-concealed paganism of many ballads, but it is characteristic of the man that in his introduction to “Hugh of Lincoln,” an ancient work about the purported murder of a Christian child by a Jew, he wrote, “And these pretended child-murders, with their horrible consequences, are only a part of the persecution which, with all moderation, may be rubricated as the most disgraceful chapter in the history of the human race.”

Our own period doesn’t readily lend itself to an undertaking such as Child’s, but the timing was right for him, as for other Victorian obsessives. He could attack a subject that—instead of being studied half to death—was in danger of disappearing entirely, with a level of knowledge and self-confidence that eludes our more specialized age. For half a century, scholars and musicologists embraced his collection, but added little to it. Then, in the 1950s, the ballads were taken up as part of the folk-music revival, so that Time magazine, writing about Joan Baez in 1962, would note, “Folkupmanship absolutely requires that a ballad be referred to as Child 12, Child 200, or Child 209….” In succeeding decades, new interpretations have appeared regularly, remarkably fresh and original given the ancient sources of the lyrics. Child passed on to subsequent generations of audiences and performers a legacy of scholarship that they have been able to enjoy on their own terms and express in their own fashion. In doing so, he preserved the continuing vitality of the ballad tradition that he loved so much.

John Burgess, J.D. ’76, is a senior partner in the Boston office of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, where he practices corporate and international law.

Source: Francis James Child | Harvard Magazine

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You say potato, I say pomme de terre

By: Michael Stevenson

As I listen more to French singers performing songs they’ve translated from English, I’m becoming fascinated by the inherent complexities of that process. Even in a proper translation, a song’s rhyme and poetic qualities may suffer.

In a poor translation, a song’s meaning can be completely lost. “It’s like searching for the best path through the forest which must satisfy several conflicting criteria,” says Russian translator Stanislov Korotyginit,  “It must be the shortest path, the nicest and the safest. And you have to meet the wolf on the way.”

porter-music
Cole Porter

Imagine translating the lyrics of Cole Porter. Porter’s iconic cleverness is sometimes found in his rhyme, other times with his vernacular and idioms. When Porter writes, “heaven knows, anything goes” (simple rhyme, right?) Porter expects that we understand both these expressions. A literal translation wouldn’t work. Heaven knows what? Anything goes…where? (The classic Monty Python “Anything Goes” sketch is an example of hearing the lyrics “anything goes” with fresh ears.)

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that in bad translations, “jokes are commonly the first things to go.” Vonnegut was referring to translating the Gospels, but I’m sure his theory applies to music as well. Porter wrote lyrics often with his tongue firmly in cheek. His music performed without his lyrical cleverness and randy wordplay would be like being served a Crème brûlée in a hot dog roll.

“You’re a rose,
You’re Inferno’s Dante.
You’re the nose
On the great Durante.”
(Porter)

On Ne Va Nulle Part … Or Are You?

The French singer Francis Cabrel  recorded a terrific LP of Bob Dylan covers entitled Vise le Ciel.  Listening to French versions of these Dylan classics, I realize even Dylan’s song titles would make for a difficult translation. Cabrel translates the song title “A Simple Twist of Fate” as “Un Simple Coup du Sort.” Google, however, translates it “Un Simple Torsion du Destin.” Which is correct? Listen to Cabrel’s  “On Ne Va Nulle Part” (“You Ain’t Goin Nowhere”) and you know Dylan is in good hands.

Sometimes the sound of the word is most important to its meaning. In “Like a Rolling Stone” Dylan cries, “Ah, how does it feeeel?”  Cabrel didn’t translate this song, but if he did, would he sing “Ah, Comment vous sentez-vous?” Which word would get the emotionally punctuation that Dylan’s “feel” gets? If  vous gets the punch, then the meaning is lost.

Gershwin wrote “You say potato, I say puh-tot-oh,”  first deciding to “call the whole thing off,”  then finally concluding “better call the calling-off, off.” How would one translate that silly yet complex idea into French? Heaven knows.

“The Sound Comes With the Word”

In the YouTube clip below, one of my favorite young singers, Brazil’s Mallu Magalhães talks a bit about the translating process, and about how important the sounds of the words are. Of course, with her beautiful Brazilian accent she could be explaining the complexities of the Brazil tax code and I grin and nod “Yes Mallu, let’s call the whole thing off.”

How important is it to understand what the singer is expressing lyrically? There are songs I’ve loved containing words I’ve never understood. “Dulaman” is a great Celtic worksong performed in the Irish Gaelic language by the band Altan. This track was stuck on my Toyota’s cd player for years before I learned what the song was about. I imagined the lyric was about a lad and his sweetheart. In actual fact, Dúlamán is about seaweed.

Here’s another beautiful song in the bossa nova tradition, performed by Mallu Magalhães. I don’t have a clue what this song’s about. I doubt it is about seaweed, but I don’t much care. I love it.

Read more about "Killing Eve"

Lankum  “The Young People”

I saw Lankum play a delightful show at Boston’s Club Passim on a chilly Spring evening earlier this year, and then again recently in Fall River.
This new video and the song within is just brilliant. We look forward to the band’s next trip to the States. – THE HOBBLEDEHOY

The chorus of ‘The Young People’ first appeared as a kind of Scottish singalong in Daragh’s head one morning as he woke up, and not sure whether it was a traditional song he’d heard before, a composite of folk songs and melodies from his subconscious, or a completely original piece, he sang it into a dictaphone before it disappeared, like so many before it.
The band originally tried using it as a verse, writing others in the same style, but it didn’t seem to work quite as well as imagined. After sitting down and writing a couple of verses on suicide and loss one day, Daragh found that it fit perfectly as the chorus, providing some light to the darkness and adding a satisfying minor to major lift.
The resulting song, although quite mournful at times, is ultimately a reminder to cherish and appreciate your friends and loved ones while you still can.

“It is set over an autumn morning in Dublin, with all the action happening in the same little sliver of time. The idea was inspired by the lyricism of the first verse, especially the line ‘his feet were ringing a bell’. I found myself thinking about the starkness of that image, but then also considering what sort of actions other people’s feet might be doing at the same time to contrast that. I was interested in the idea of doing a video with a street photography approach, shooting it in a simple documentary-style, and concentrating on just feet and legs, set against the textures of the city. I spent a lot of time travelling through Dublin with my eyes on the ground, watching and waiting for interesting moments to happen. The way people move through or occupy city spaces, even in the most routine ways, form a sort of interconnected ephemeral dance. You start to see that there’s something very expressive about feet that makes them easy to empathise with. You somehow see more of a person by seeing less of them in the frame” [ Source: Nialler9.com ]

BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Winners Announced 

Brìghde Chaimbeul, winner of the Horizon award (Photo: Andy Catlin)

Seckou Keita, Brìghde Chaimbeul, Ríoghnach Connolly and Ye Vagabonds among winners.

The winners of the 20th BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards were announced last night at an event at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.

The Trials of Cato won Best Album for Hide and Hair and Ye Vagabonds won Best Traditional Track for ‘The Foggy Dew’. Karine Polwart and Steven Polwart won Best Original Track for ‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’ from the album Laws of Motion.

Senegalese kora player and drummer Seckou Keita won Musician of the Year and Scottish piper Brìghde Chaimbeul won the Horizons Best Emerging Act award. Keita also won Best Duo with Welsh harper Catrin Finch.

Maddie Morris was presented with the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award, which is an educational talent contest open to musicians from the UK aged 16 to 21.

Ríoghnach Connolly from Armagh won Folk Singer of the Year and Dervish and English folk and blues singer and guitarist Wizz Jones were given Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Leonard Cohen was inducted into Radio 2 Folk Awards Hall of Fame, joining artists such as Nick Drake, Sandy Denny, Woody Guthrie, Ewan MacColl and Cecil Sharp.

For the full list of winners and nominees, see below. The RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards take place next Thursday 24 October in Dublin.

 

Source: BBC Radio 2 Folk Award Winners Announced | The Journal of Music: News, Reviews & Opinion | Music Jobs & Opportunities