by Bob Askew, researcher and publiciser of traditional songs from Hampshire with a particular interest in folk song collector George Gardiner. He also runs the monthly Ballad Chats at Cecil Sharp House.
Why does no one sing Robin Hood Ballads nowadays? We are more likely to hear an obscure ballad that was rarely sung in the tradition, than one about the most popular ballad figure. There are over 40 ballads about Robin Hood, more than any other figure.
I have heard various arguments why this is so, but most of them do not seem to ring true.
“The ballads were written pieces with no proof that they were sung”. This might be true of one or two poor imitative ballads. There is evidence that most of them were sung, however, and anyway there are a number of ballads that are very popular today that have no cast iron proof that they were sung in the past.
“The content is light: there is no great tragedy, no one dies.” Many Robin Hood ballads do have a happy ending, but I would argue that ballads have a wide range of subject matter and mood. What is wrong with hearing a lighter happier ballad as well as the heavier ones?
But there are heavier subjects in Robin Hood ballads if that is what you are looking for. Some versions of the ballads have Robin Hood and his band killing his antagonists, and they even kill an innocent servant boy, so he cannot tell on them. Robin Hood’s Death is tragic with a fitting serious modal tune collected in the community.
“The tunes are not impressive”. Robin Hood ballads often have common ballad tunes whose main aim is to carry the story. This is true of the majority of ballads noted in the community, so it cannot really be accepted as a reason for not singing them. And a few of the Robin Hood Ballads do have an impressive tune: Robin Hoods Death by Willy Stewart and Robin Hood and the Peddlar by George Cole.
Robin Hood was a nationally popular hero for 600 years. The Robin Hood story has been of major importance in English and British culture since the later Middle Ages, and there is evidence that Robin Hood ballads were sung in the community from the Middle Ages until the 20th century. The story has been so popular that it has been continually updated and adapted through the generations.
Robin Hood started as a middle class yeoman fighting with a sword. He was adopted by lower class people and then fought with a staff. He was adopted by aristocrats and kings and became a nobleman down on his luck. He was incorporated into the May games, and Maid Marion was invented as a consort. Two Robin Hood plays were more popular than Shakespeare in the late 16th century. In the romantic era, Walter Scott made him an Anglo Saxon fighting Norman oppressors. In the 19th century he became a children’s book hero who did not kill anybody, and who robbed the rich to give to the poor. He became a film hero once cinema was invented, and later a TV hero. Recently he has been depicted with involvement with space travellers.
The ballad stories have been used as a basis in every major adaption. So I think that Robin Hood’s continuing popularity is the real reason why the ballads are not sung much nowadays. He seems to be current rather than from the mysterious past. He has, however, remained a historical figure, set in the era of medieval kings, monks and outlawry.
Most of the ballad stories are tougher than their modern derivatives, and each presents a subtly different Robin Hood figure. He is never shown robbing the rich to give to the poor in the ballads. He is a devout Christian worshiper of the Virgin Mary, but he opposes monks and bishops who extort and oppress. He opposes the force of Law and Order in the form of the Sherriff, when he tries to hang three young men for poaching. He is chivalrous to women, although he acts like a modern mugging gang leader, confronting travellers and attempting to extort from them. He also frequently loses when he fights: perhaps only an English hero could do this!
Above all, Robin Hood stands for freedom: a life away from families, employers and landlords in the wild forest where it always seems to be summer. I believe that this was the core of his universal appeal: to town dwellers who dreamt of escape; or to rural workers who relished Robin Hood’s life in the open air, their own working domain.
Robin Hood ballads were collected in the community and survived as late as the 20th century. The fact that seven were sung in the small area around Axford in 1907 suggests to me that they had been popular throughout Britain until the 19th century, when all ballad singing began to fade.
I think that it is high time that people started to sing Robin Hood Ballads in folk clubs again. They are great ballads, and there are over 40 to choose from, so it is likely that most people could find one to suit their singing.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.