If you read many liner notes or recollections of sixties folkies, you will inevitably come across references to the Child Ballads, expressed either exactly like that or else as follows: “this song is a variant of Child #86.”
“Child Ballads” does not mean songs for children. It refers to the printed texts of songs called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, collected by Francis James Child. Words only, no music. These are ballads, a structure we have discussed before: they are narrative songs, often recounting real historical events, characterized structurally by a series of identically-organized verses.
The Child Ballads were a wellspring for the folk revival, and continue to inspire musicians and writers today. Unless you’re a folkie, you’re not going to recognize most of these songs on first sight — and that makes them worth reading. And some of them, you just might know… “Matty Groves” or “Barbara Allen”or some of the songs about Robin Hood, for instance. Enjoy.