MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada


Ballads are narrative songs. Sub-genres include Child ballads, Broadside ballads from Britain and Ireland, as well as America and Newfoundland ballads.

Many of the oldest English and Scottish ballads were compiled (and numbered) by the American folklorist Frances James Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, first published between 1882 and 1898. Bertrand Bronson published an extensive four-volume collection of The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads between 1959 and 1972.   Characterized by vivid imagery, lively dialogue among the characters, frequent references to the supernatural, and diverse melodic forms and tune variants, the Child ballads are valued highly by many folklorists, especially those of Leach's generation.   While historical events are sometimes referenced, many of these ballads have undergone centuries of re-creation, rendering them more generalized, classic stories. Among the Child ballads collected in Newfoundland by Leach are Barbara Allen, Golden Vanity, Lamkin, Lady Margaret, and Lord Bateman. Many Newfoundland performances of Child ballads have rare tunes.
Photo from the Leach collection, P10788

Later ballads often served as news reports, recounting local events or personages of note. While there are earlier examples, broadside publication flourished particularly in the 19th century. The most common melodic form of songs from this period was a four-line tune in the pattern, "abba," in which the middle lines ("b") are in a higher register. This form served to intensify the narrative performance in the middle of each stanza and then relax or finalize with the return to the "a" phrase. Broadsides from both European and American sources have been catalogued by American folklorist G. Malcom Laws. Laws numbers that begin with the letters A through I are indexed in his book, Native American Balladry (1964), while those with numbers that begin with the letters J through Q are indexed in the book, American Ballads from British Broadsides. Ballads from Irish sources have been indexed by Sam Henry in Sam Henry's Songs of the People (1990). Among the broadside ballads of European origin are Bonny Bunch of Roses, Daniel Munroe, Flying Cloud, Gay Spanish Maid, Molly Bawn, My Mantle of Green, Sally Monroe, Valley of Kilbride, Waterloo, Wexford Girl, and Young Edmund in the Lowlands Low. Ballads of American origin include: The Dying Cowboy, Jam on Gerry's Rock and Jealous Lover, while Wild Colonial Boy is Australian.

Photo from the Leach collection, P10717The tradition of narrating stories of events or people of local significance is a long-standing and continuing one in Newfoundland and Labrador. These local ballads were often neither understood nor valued by the collectors of Leach's generation (see: Newfoundland Vernacular Song), and hence, their extent and social significance has not been widely recognized in earlier studies. There have been many inaccurate statements to the effect that there were relatively few local compositions. Indeed, although Leach did not encourage singers to perform local compositions, the collection on this website has nearly fifty songs composed by Newfoundlanders and several others inspired by the place.   Shipwrecks and sealing disasters are prominent themes.   In the Leach collection, the following are some of the ballads composed in Newfoundland: The Flemings of Torbay, The Wreck of the Southern Cross, Bound Down to Newfoundland , Eastern Light, George Alfred Beckett, The Prisoner of Newfoundland, The Spanish Captain, and The Water Witch.

photos: Leach Collection P10788, P10717