The Ballad Matrix: Personality, Milieu, and the Oral Tradition - William Bernard McCarthy
This is not a book likely to appeal to someone who knows nothing at all about ballad scholarship. Though clearly and carefully written, it contains a certain amount of jargon. McCarthy has taken pains to put all his readers, from whichever field of scholarship they come, on the same page; thus, he includes definitions like what he means by standard ballad meter, and brief sketches of the chief theoretical works he’s drawing on: namely Albert Lord’s work on oral poetry, and David Buchan’s extension of it to ballads; also structuralist approaches practiced by Buchan and by Fleming G. Andersen.

The meat of the book, however, is considering the corpus of 22 ballads that Motherwell collected from a single singer, Agnes Lyle of Kilbarchan, in 1825. Note that not all the texts of these songs are included in the book; however, they’re readily available in various collections of Child ballads, as well as online. The author intends to elucidate Lyle’s individual style and values with consideration of her social and historical context, and demonstrate that she used an oral composition technique to remake transmitted material into a unified and personal body of songs.

McCarthy devotes three chapters to Lyle's technique of composing, and how she could achieve aesthetic success, in his opinion, as well as factors (such as unusual meters) that worked against her ability to compose in some ballads. McCarthy ends with a discussion of ways in which Lyle extended and transcended her technique, and makes a case for at least three of the ballads, "Mary Hamilton", "The Cruel Mother", and "The Braes o Yarrow", as great poetry by any standards.

There follows a discussion of the use of symbolism to add meaning and social and emotional content to the relatively stark outward form of the ballads. The author uses Agnes Lyle’s repertoire to illustrate the theories of Roger deV. Renwick ("semiotics" of sexual relationships, sketchily and unconvincingly presented), Elizabeth Rogers (much more satisfactory, elucidating standard symbolic elements such as e.g. "hunting" or "gift of clothes"), and Fleming G. Andersen (commonplaces and themes as carriers of "supra-narrative" contributions to meaning).

The seventh chapter relates what the ballads reveal of Agnes Lyle’s political and moral views to her surroundings and the events of 1820’s Kilbarchan — she was understandably angry, and there was a strong strain of egalitarianism in the local culture anyway, so that Lyle’s songs have a relentless emphasis on the perfidy of titled, propertied, or mercantile individuals, and on the disaster that attends anyone who marries one. The author makes the point that it is by comparing an individual singer’s texts to a broad corpus that one gets a sense of what is personal in her selection and treatment of the material.

The concluding chapter tries to generalize a theory of oral poetry that is flexible enough to take in all the phenomena of Anglo-Scottish balladry. All in all, this strikes me as a very thorough, very well-thought-through book.