Francis Child

Biography by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

+ Follow Artist

Although Francis James Child qualifies as the father of all song collectors, his name lacks the familiarity of a collector like Alan Lomax. Fans of traditional British and American folk music will nonetheless…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Although Francis James Child qualifies as the father of all song collectors, his name lacks the familiarity of a collector like Alan Lomax. Fans of traditional British and American folk music will nonetheless be familiar with his song collection, the Child ballads. For many, the 305 ballads that comprise the collection qualify as the mother lode of all folk song anthologies. Many of the ballads, including "Barbara Allen," "Mattie Groves," and "Gypsy Laddie," are among the best-known and loved folk songs. "His slice of folk song," wrote Benjamin Filene in Romancing the Folk, "came to be seen as the touchstone against which all folk songs were judged."

Child was born on February 1, 1825 in Boston, MA. His father supported the family working as a sail maker, but the family remained poor. Child attended public schools, first at Boston Grammar and then at English High School. He excelled at his studies at Boston Latin School, leading Epes Sargent Dixwell, the principal, to assist him in attending Harvard. There, he was chosen as class orator. After graduating at the top of his class in 1846, he was offered positions in mathematics, history, and economics.

With money gathered from the publication of Four Old Plays and a loan from Jonathan I. Bowditch, Child took a leave of absence in 1849 to study in Germany where he developed a love for Romantic poetry. Following studies in English Drama and Germanic philology, he returned to the United States in 1851, assuming the position of Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. He remained in the position for the next 25 years.

Child happened upon his most famous endeavor due to his growing reputation as a literary scholar in the 1850s. In 1857 he participated in a series on British poets, leading to the publication of English and Scottish Ballads in 1858. While working on the British poets project he became fascinated by the connection between Anglo-Scottish ballads and poetry. Child soon embarked on a wide-ranging study to fully document ancient varieties of folk songs that would absorb him for the remainder of his life.

Unlike many later songcatchers who traveled to remote locations to transcribe ballads sung by local bards, Child built his collection from the study of printed sources. After receiving a letter of encouragement in 1872, he collected ballads over a ten-year period and relied on Svend Grundtwig's method of documentation to organize the material. He disqualified ballads with questionable heritage, including material too bawdy for publication or influenced by commercial sources. "To ensure the purity of his collection," wrote Filene, "Child concentrated on songs that predated the printing press, which had come to Britain in 1475."

In 1882, Child published the first volume of his magus opus, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. While the number of ballads -- 305 -- published in the ten-volume work between 1882 and 1898 may seem rather meager for a lifetime's work, Child was a meticulous scholar who documented his work thoroughly. He explained the origins of each song, the history of changes made, and listed every known version of each song (1300 in all). Child's methods set an exacting standard for folklorists who would follow.

Child married Elizabeth Ellery Sedgwick in 1860 and they had three daughters and a son. A fervent patriot, he attempted to join the Union Army during the Civil War but was turned down because of poor health. He nonetheless supported the cause by writing articles and broadsides, and raising money. Child's short stature and stooped shoulders earned him the affectionate nickname "Stubby Child." After experiencing a carriage accident in 1893, his health, complicated by gout and rheumatism, declined. He died on September 11, 1896 and was buried in Stockbridge.

The last volume of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was published two years after his death and the completed work would have an enormous impact on the revival of the folk song in America and England. Child's 305 ballads provided a backdrop for English scholar Cecil Sharp when he visited the Appalachian mountains in the 19-teens. As American academics began to follow in Sharp's footsteps, they too relied on Child's ballads as a method of measuring song purity. American and English performers would likewise mine these ballads during the '50s and '60s as both countries experienced folk revivals.