In cultures that are predominantly oral we seldom find original versions of songs or tunes. What we do have is a number of variants which can differ more or less from each other. A so-called ballad type consists of the sum of all known variants. The oldest recordings may be richer in detail, but this is not always the case: a number of unknown variants of a song with many verses might have existed, only to be documented later.
The plot of a ballad can change so that various variants can tell more or less different tales: the very same song can, for example, have an ending which is – for the main character – happy, unhappy or open. Some elements in a ballad narrative can in time fall by the wayside, thus changing the essential substance of the song. These variations may be the result of, on the one hand, deliberate alterations or creativity or, on the other, lapses of memory on the part of singers.
Oral transmission and change
Ballad tunes are, then, more dependent upon the ear and the memory of singers who do not use written music. We can find many variants of one and the same basic tune; the same tune can be used for a number of different ballads (by the same singer or by different singers); two siblings can sing different variants of the same ballad, depending upon which family member they have learned their version from and how much they have changed or added.
A ballad documented in the form of writing or a sound recording is but one version of the way in which that particular singer performed that particular ballad. The singer might have sung differently on other occasions, for example with more or fewer verses. In versions written down, both the music and the text can consist of the collector’s summary of a number of performances. On a number of occasions the singing may have been complemented by a spoken narrative – the singer can, for example, have related parts of the intrigue and sung but a few stanzas. When working with ballads today, we must bear in mind all of these factors in the oral milieu.
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Åkesson, Ingrid: ’Så varliga genom lunden med henne’. Återskapande, omskapande och nyskapande i nutida och äldre balladsång.
Även i Eriksson, Karin (red) 2009. I fråst och i kålle, Texter från nordiskt balladmöte, Växjö universitet 2008
Åkesson, Ingrid: Homogenisering och pussel – medeltidsballader i nutidsdräkt. Noterat 13. Stockholm: Svenskt visarkiv 2005.