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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Charlie Baum Taking on the Big Boys? - classic big long ballads (549* d) RE: Taking on the Big Boys? - classic big long bal 03 Jan 10

The important thing about a ballad is telling a good story. Sometimes great length is needed and sometimes a more concise version does the trick.

There's a native American ballad called "Elk River Boys"or "The Murder of Jay Legg" that derives from the details of an actual murder in West Virginia in 1904, and is sung in many versions in a small area of central West Virginia. I'd heard eight-and nine-verse versions that never grabbed me, but it wasn't until I listened to a field recording of Henry Bowers, who had honed the tale to five verses that I wanted to learn it. Henry Bowers threw out all sorts of extraneous detail and polished the nugget. My version (I had to restore a missing half-verse where the field recording skipped when they digitized it) takes maybe one minute to sing, but still produces the "wow" you can get from a longer ballad.

I'm not saying that all ballads should be short. Complex tales take many verses to relate. But if each verse pushes the narrative along, you'll maintain the attention of the listeners to your tale.

For me, one thing that loses my attention in a story will be detailed descriptions of ships fit only for an audience of sailors, or precise details of battles fit for soldiers. Your interests may vary, but those things bore me, and i wouldn't include them in anything I sing--if they bore me, how much moreso would they bore an audience that has to listen to me, singing about those details without conviction or care.

My advice then, is to sing a version you can sing with conviction. If you include many old verses merely because they were collected in Child or Bronson or wherever, then you're singing it as a museum piece, and museum pieces tend to bore lots of folks other than historians and antiquarians. If you include the verses because they interest you, then you've got verses you need to tell your tale. Don't be afraid to trim or translate. Make it live by making it your own version of the story, and you can tell the story to most any audience.

--Charlie Baum

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