Anaïs Mitchell’s new album is as old as the hills. That is, the songs on Child Ballads have been around nearly as long as there have been singers. But the contents are anything but kids’ stuff. Drowning, hanging and a cursed pregnancy feature among the seven tracks the Vermont-based singer has cut with her duettist, Jefferson Hamer. Had she been so inclined, she could have chosen to include musings on incest, infanticide and multiple regular murders, along with Arthurian legends and vignettes about Robin Hood.
The wider Child Ballads on which Mitchell draws – 305 numbered texts and their variants – are named, for short, after their compiler, Francis James Child (1825-96). His book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898. A sailmaker’s son who became a Harvard professor, Child was a words man. Although another literary scholar, Bertrand Harris Bronson (1903-86), would issue four companion volumes of music between 1959 and 1972, the tunes for these lyrics have generally been passed down from musician to musician. Beyond the British folk realm, artists from Joan Baez to Fleet Foxes have sung them.
“The Child Ballads are epic folk-tales that – because of the depth of their symbology or something – have remained on people’s tongues and in their hearts and minds,” says Mitchell, who worked on the project at the same time as her previous album, 2012’s acclaimed Young Man in America. “A lot of the ballads we do are love stories – and the lovers often have to go through some sort of trial.”
Mitchell and Hamer were inspired by the English folkies who came to prominence in the 1970s, performers such as Martin Carthy, Nic Jones and the Silly Sisters (Maddy Prior and June Tabor). Their task, Mitchell explains, was to figure out “how to be true to the source material but also, because we’re Americans, to sing these songs in the US and not feel like we were playing dress-up.” Being outsiders in that sense gave them a degree of licence.
The American folk music that the pair were raised on tended to be “starker, more realistic and moralistic”, she adds, making the Child Ballads – with their knights and ladies, their fairies and “cruel mothers” – seem “fantastical and exotic for us”. Musically, they spent a long while on different approaches before deciding they wanted to keep things simple, focusing on two guitars and the harmonies – perhaps in a poppier way than is customary with this material – and later giving the tracks a light dusting of bass, fiddle and accordion.
They tweaked some of the language, too, so that it wouldn’t sound false or overly archaic in their mouths and also to render it intelligible for contemporary American audiences. “In ‘Willie’s Lady’, Child Ballad No 6,” Mitchell explains, “there’s a line like, ‘Who was it that killed the master kid that slept under thy lady’s bed?’ We couldn’t, for the life of us, work out what the master kid was. Was it a goat? Then I asked Martin Carthy, and he told me it was a toad! So we changed that to ‘spider’, which is more obvious today as a witch’s familiar.”
The abiding fascination with the Child Ballads can be attributed to their exquisite depictions of love and loss. “Circumstances change, but people don’t, fundamentally,” says the Scottish singer Karine Polwart, whose album of traditional fare, Fairest Floo’er, came out in 2007. “And so we find a truth about ourselves, our ancestors, our world in these songs.”
Nevertheless, Polwart notes, it’s “a mighty musical challenge to sustain momentum and interest” in stories that unfold over six or seven minutes. Jim Moray, who salutes Mitchell and Hamer’s “immaculate pacing”, has learnt that lesson well. The English singer has just received a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award for best traditional song for “Lord Douglas”, his version of “Earl Brand”, or Child Ballad No 7, in his 10th year in the business. In the early days, he admits, the “big ballads” seemed beyond him: “A lot of life experience needs to be poured into them. When you’re 19 you don’t have that. I felt I couldn’t pull them off.”
Moray has no problem with an American literature professor now being synonymous with the traditional music of England and Scotland, because “there’s so much crossover” between the British and American folk canon. “Englishness is all about assimilating influences,” he adds.
Polwart takes a similar view. “Hallelujah for all the academic geeks and fanatics, wherever they hailed from, who scoured the rural landscapes of Britain and North America in search of songs and stories that might otherwise have been lost to us,” she says, pointing to the Greig-Duncan folk-song collection and Scotland’s digital archive of Gaelic and Scots balladry, Tobar an Dualchais – Kist o Riches.
Moray is adamant, though, that folk needs to keep on the move if it is to survive. “People think it’s all about the past, or something that you can’t meddle with, but doing it your own way, so it reflects your life, and then someone picking it up from you and changing it to be about their life, that – by definition – is what traditional music is: it isn’t a static thing.”
A more pertinent matter is how might the ballads, in turn, influence current artists’ own songwriting? “Balladry does not shirk dark elemental forces, and that’s given me confidence to tell tales of grief and loss and hope and cruelty in my own way,” says Polwart. For Mitchell, the impact may be less straightforward – she usually operates more in a folk-rock idiom – but it’s there all the same.
Mitchell and Hamer bring a freshness to this antique material – not innocence exactly but a guileless, even a homesteader’s optimism. It makes the betrayals all the more unbearable; the sticky ends all the stickier; the enduring loves all the harder won. Some will argue Mitchell’s voice is too pretty for the Child Ballads; others that it only increases their poignancy.
“For me,” Polwart concludes, “the test is always: ‘Do I believe this ballad? Does the telling of this singer embody it?’ There’s no right way to sing these songs – except, perhaps, a little like your life depended on it.”
‘Child Ballads’ is out now in the UK on Wilderland/Cadiz and released on March 19 in the US. Mitchell and Hamer tour the UK from Tuesday and the US from March 15; www.anaismitchell.com