(Notes from 'Memory in Oral Traditions'. Everything is quotes. Line breaks added by me,
Ballads of British origin are much as they were in the Old World, with minor adoptions to the new culture and geography. They are more likely than North American ballads to contain suspense, class distinctions, pageantry and supernatural agents, and they usually have a greater geographic distribution and popularity.
North American ballads are more likely to have an explicit moral, to omit descriptions of sex or shocking details even when they are central to the story, to be about physical labour, and, because they are more recent, to have their content more easily traced to an actual event or single source.
(There is more of this kind of stuff under the break)
He took her by her lily-white hand, from stanza 13, is usually a rape or seduction formula, and in many cases, including this one, can be a prelude to death. When the line is followed by He lead her through the hall, as it is here and in nine other ballads noted by Andersen, the sexual act is minimized and it is usually a prelude to marriage. Thus this simple concrete act is a way of indicating to those familiar with the genre that Annet has been chosen over the brown girl by Lord Thomas and that her death may be near (Andersen, 1985, pp. 161-174).
Annular or ring structure or composition is common in ballads, epic, and other oral traditions (e.g., Andersen, 1982; Gaisser, 1969; Niles, 1983, pp. 152-162; Stanley, 1993). Progress through a piece can be viewed as a skewer traveling in a straight line through an onion, piercing the skin, each layer, and the centre before continuing through the same layers in reverse order before the skin is reached again on the opposite side. Each layer entered provides the expectation of a layer to be encountered again. Individual layers can contain incremental repetition or other forms of organisation, making the ring structure a flexible frame for a ballad.
In computer terms, it is a push-down stack: first in, last out. Lord (1991b) argues that although this pattern can be transformed into a technique of literary rhetoric, it is a natural way for an illiterate poet to compose orally. Momentary continuity of thought is maintained by picking up the most recentlly dropped theme. In Havelock's (1971) words, ring structures “are not patterns … but echoes” (p52).
It is not just ballads that have these constraints. Cohen argues effectively that many, but not all, of the constraints are part of the larger culture and are reflected in the newspapers of the time. For instance, in the press, Bryan started out as a lower-class woman of the town, but became a young, trusting, girl as soon as the coroner discovered she was pregnant. Unlike the ballad tradition, the press presented both the murdered-girl pattern and the criminal-brought-to-justice pattern, but kept them in separate stories.
The newspapers shared with the ballads not only the basic character types and plot structures, but also the alliterative epithets “poor Pearl” and “dreadful deed.” These practices may not have diminished. An extension student enrolled at my university was accused of posing as an heir to the Rothschild fortune. In the headlines, he became the “bogus baron.”
Moreover, as can be seen from examining the table, there was no statistical relationship between the constraints used and the constraints stated, even though the two tasks occurred one right after the other. Characteristics that are easy to use are not always easy to state, and characteristics that are easy to state are not always easy to use. For instance, all beginning experts avoided using a setting, but none mentioned this as a rule, whereas more beginning experts mentioned consistent rhythm than produced one. Thus after very little active exposure, the beginning experts could produce many aspects of a new ballad, often following rules they did not state.
Quantitative measure, descriptive and inferential statistics, and the logic and use of the experimental method all functioned well, though there were times when I felt I could not quantify or manipulate some subtlety that nonetheless appeared real.
English-language schooling was most important in a host of what Scribner and Cole (1981) call “expository talk in contrived situations” (p.244), which included explanations of sorting tasks, of grammatical rules, of game instructions, and of logic. The effects of English-language schooling on the ability to talk about tasks were often strong even when performance on the tasks being talked about did not differ.