Little Musgrave

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The traditional ballads of the British Isles are renowned for their vivid, but objective, style. Descriptions are generally impersonal (in contrast to the lyric songs), and characters establish their motives via direct dialogue, as in a play.

One of the better ballads is Little Musgrave, number 81 in Francis James Child’s collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: 1882-1898. Child collected as many manuscript and printed versions as he could find, and also described related ballads in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. For Little Musgrave (familiar to Americans as Mattie Groves), he collected 15 versions, the earliest of which is dated 1658. Beaumont and Fletcher mention it in The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613), the earliest known reference. 400 years have worked their usual transformation on the material, preserving what best pleases the singers.

Since we need a concrete example for discussion, I’ve selected a version recorded by Nic Jones, part of the English Folk Revival movement, on his album Ballads and Songs (1970). He heard or read more than one version, and in this recording collated elements of several around an American version. Like all such performances, this is a combination of traditional material and personal choices. He presents a very clean distillation of the story. Text.

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The path not taken

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Let’s start with something simple. What makes this photo so appealing?

This comes from a recent January meet with the Nantucket-Treweryn Beagles in the Shenandoah Valley of northern Virginia. It’s a view of an interior road of a largish farm in a rural area. Despite the timeless air to the place, I know these oaks are less than 100 years old, and that the path probably intersects a public road not far from where it vanishes here, but none of that matters to how the picture registers with me.

There are formal elements that are pleasing — the straight lines of the fences contrasted to the winding line of the lane, the various vertical angles, the flat lane against the low hillocks in the distance, the proportions of sky to land. But I find I have projected personalities and narrative into the scene, and that is the foundation of its appeal to me.

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