Oral Transmission[1]

Contents: Introduction * Signs of Oral Transmission * The Effects of Oral Tradition * An Example of the Parallels between Folk Ballads and Biblical Manuscripts * Try It Yourself * Footnotes


It is generally conceded that the material that made up the gospels was originally transmitted orally -- that is, by word of mouth. After all, neither Jesus nor his immediate followers seem to have written anything (with the possible exception of 1 Peter and perhaps the writings of John -- but even these were written much later, and probably from dictation).

However, oral tradition did not die with the writing of the gospels. Papias, we are told, always preferred oral traditions of Jesus to the written word. And, until very recently, the common people learned about Jesus primarily from oral tradition, for they could not read the gospel.

Even today, there are people in Appalachia who sing songs like "The Cherry Tree Carol," (Child #54)[2] telling a story of Jesus found only in the Infancy Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew.

Oh, Joseph was an old man, an old man was he,
When he courted Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee,
When he courted Virgin Mary, the queen of Galilee.

(The song goes on to tell how, as Mary and Joseph travelled, Mary asked for cherries because she was pregnant. "Then Joseph flew in anger, In anger flew he. Let the father of the baby gather cherries for thee!" The unborn Jesus commanded the cherry tree to bow down to feed Mary. Joseph repented of his anger at her.)

Modern examples of this sort could be multiplied indefinitely, and there is no reason to believe it was otherwise in antiquity: Folklore about Jesus must have been extremely common.

Even scribes might have heard these stories in their youth. At times, the well-known tale might influence the way they copied the Biblical text. And while it may be objected that oral tradition experienced less "control" than the carefully written copies made in a scriptorium, it should be noted that oral tradition often has controls of its own -- stress, metre, rhyme, melody. It's not likely that a singer will change a text so that it no longer fits its tune!

At least one Biblical variant almost certainly comes from oral tradition. "John 7:53-8:11" is clearly no part of John's (or any other) gospel. What's more, the text as it stands has all the signs of oral transmission: Variations in wording, incidents in different order, irrelevant but lively details, an economical plot.

One example does not a rule make. But one is tempted to list other long insertions as the result of oral tradition. "Mark 16:9-20" is obviously a literary creation, but Luke 22:43-44 (the Bloody Sweat) looks oral. Luke 23:34 ("Father, forgive them") and Matthew 16:2-4 (the Signs of the Times) might also have been transmitted by word of mouth. The famous insertion by D at Luke 6:5 (the man working on the Sabbath) is almost certainly oral; the insertion by D and F at Matthew 20:28 may also come from tradition. It is even conceivable that the Doxology of Romans (16:25-27) comes from an oral source. One suspects that much of the material offered by Codex Bezae in Acts is also traditional.

Oral tradition probably did not cause many of the minor variants we see in the Biblical text; the division between the secluded world of monks and the bustling villages where folklore spread was usually too wide. But scholars cannot be certain of this without testing the hypothesis. (It should be noted, e.g., that many of the English Miracle Plays, usually regarded as folk productions, had clerical authors.) The following list shows some of the hallmarks of oral tradition, illustrated (where possible) both by traditional ballads and by reference to Biblical variants (usually from the story of the adulteress, since it is the largest oral insertion in the gospels).

As an aside: Extreme claims are sometimes made of oral tradition -- e.g. in the past attempts to break the Odyssey up into dozens of smaller fragments cobbled together into an epic. That sort of school might claim the same for much of the New Testament. This is flatly silly. The gospels used oral sources, and at least one of these sources (the elements in "Q," where Matthew and Luke have substantially different versions) was probably oral. But the gospels as they stand are literary compositions, and so are most of their sources.

Signs of Oral Transmission

  1. Conciseness of expression. An oral source will not waste words, since every excess word is more baggage for a storyteller to remember. My favorite example of this is the old ballad "Sheath and Knife" (Child #16), which in the space of eighteen lines manages to tell the complete story of a prince's incestuous mating with his sister, her pregnancy, his killing of her, her burial, his return home, and his repentance. Not even a soap opera could cover that much ground that fast. Compare the story of the Adulteress. No time is wasted on details of the woman's adultery. Her family is never mentioned. We don't know what Jesus wrote on the ground. We don't know how long it took the crowd to leave. Only the necessary details are covered. This conciseness extends not only to the plot, but to the language (see the next point). Oral tradition deals in nouns and verbs; in bright colors and brief snatches of speech. Involved constructions are left behind.
  2. Use of simple language. Folk song and folk tale avoid elaborate usage. For example, I once tested a set of ten traditional ballads. [3] These ten ballads had a total of 276 stanzas, averaging about fourteen words per stanza. In these 276 stanzas, totalling close to four thousand words, there were (apart from the names of a few cities) exactly eighteen words of three syllables, and none with more than three. All other words were one or two syllables. This simple language at once makes the songs more effective and easier to rememember. (I can cite no comparable NT example, but consider that books like Luke and 2 Peter, which are obviously literary, use much more elaborate vocabulary than, say, Mark, which is largely oral.)
    Related to this is the phenomenon of "explication" -- of putting the unfamiliar in familiar terms. W. Edson Richmond explains this phenomenon as "explain[ing] what they have heard in terms of what they think they have heard or in terms of what they know." [4] Richmond gives this example from the ballad "The Gypsy Laddie" (Child #200). A Scottish text runs
    She cam tripping down the stair
    And all her maids before her;
    As soon as they saw her weel-faurd [well-favored, i.e. attractive] face,
    They coost [cast] their glamourie o'er her.

    In another version, where the archaic word glamourie (magic) was not understood, this became the trivial but easily understood
    The earl of Castle's lady came down,
    With the waiting-maid beside her;
    As soon as her fair face they saw,
    They called their grandmother over. (!)

    (See also the next point and its discussion of Mondegreens.)
    This phenomenon, of course, occurs in written material as well, but is particularly common in oral tradition, where there is no authoritative text to refer to. This particular error is especially common with names, nouns, and foreign words; compare the Biblical confusion of Gerasenes/Gadarenes/Gergesenes (Mark 5:1 and parallels).
  3. Confusion of language. Oral tradition tends to preserve plots rather than words. It doesn't care if Jesus "answered," "replied [to]," or "spoke" in response to a question; all it concerns itself with is the rejoinder! Thus in one version of "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" (Child #4), the murderous rogue rides a white horse, in another a brown, and in another a dappled gray. Irrelevant details like this are easily lost. Compare John 8:6: Did Jesus "scribble" (kategrafen) on the ground, or "write" (egrafen) on it? In terms of the story, it hardly matters.
    There is another form of confusion of language: the "Mondegreen," so-called after a famous instance. In the ballad "The Bonnie Earl of Murray (Moray)," one stanza runs,
    Ye Highlands and lowlands, where hae ye been?
    They hae slain the Earl of Murray, and laid him on the green.

    Somewhere, a listener heard the last line as
    They hae slain the Earl of Murray, and Lady Mondegreen.
    As long as the resulting error makes sense (and it often makes more sense than the original, because people tend not to hear nonsense!), the reading may be preserved.
  4. Confusion of order. Even the best storytellers will sometimes leave out a detail. Realizing their fault, they may well go back and insert it later. After enough generations of this, the detail may go anywhere -- even into another story! For example, the song "Barbara Allen" (Child #84, described below) ends with a rose and briar growing out of the dead lovers' graves and knotting together. This ending has now worked its way into at least half a dozen other songs. Compare the comment in the story of the Adulteress that the crowd brought the woman before Jesus "to test him." In most manuscripts, this opens verse 6. But in D it appears in verse 4, and in M it occurs at the end of the story. It had to be included somewhere, but a storyteller could easily forget where....
    A somewhat similar situation occurs in the parable of the Ten Pounds (Luke 19:11-27), though here the effects of tradition were felt before the story became part of the gospel. The gist of the story has to do with ten slaves who were given a sum of money to work with. We see two interesting features, however: There were only three slaves whose activities are described; (this may explain the story as found in Matt. 25:14f.; the unused slaves were shuffled off the stage). More significantly, we see a side-plot about the master taking over a country where the people opposed him. This is almost certainly the result of oral mixture of two stories linked by the theme of a master going away.
  5. Errors of hearing rather than of sight. A scribe copying a manuscript makes errors of sight (e.g., haplography; also, mistakes of appearance, such as, in uncial script, writing AMA for ALLA). This will not happen in oral transmission. The storyteller may mistake HMIN for UMIN, but not AMA for ALLA. Similarly, if the singer or storyteller omits something, it will not be a haplographic error, it will be a logical entity (a stanza, an incident, a sentence). Whereas scribal errors in written work make nonsense (recall the scribe of manuscript 109, who made God the offspring of Aram[5]), errors in oral transmission will make sense even if they aren't very relevant to the context. (For example, the final line of the song "Shenandoah" usually runs "Away, we're bound away, across the wide Missouri." In the Bahamas, where "Missouri" was not a familiar place, this became "We are bound away from this world of misery.")
    We might also note the related phenomenon of faulty word division. For example, Child #253 is officially titled "Thomas o Yonderdale" -- a title which probably came about when a listener heard four words ("Thomas o[f] yonder dale") as three. This error, of course, also occurs in uncial script (hardly ever in minuscule, where words were more clearly divided), but it could sometimes be oral.
    This ambiguity can actually be deliberate. A common gag stanza begins:
    While the organ pealed potatoes,
    Lard was rendered by the choir.

    Consider the word "pealed" in the first line. An organ peals, but one peels potatoes. This ambiguity can be maintained in speech but not in writing.
    It should be noted that errors of hearing can occur in manuscripts (in a scriptorium, manuscripts were sometimes copied by dictation, with one reader reading a master copy to several scribes who took down the words; also, since scribes would be mumbling their texts aloud as they wrote, they might mishear what they had just mumbled!); this is probably responsible for at least some HMIN/UMIN errors. But these are the minority, whereas almost all changes in oral transmission are errors of hearing or memory.
  6. Clichéd expressions. In folk songs, if a girl runs away from home, she generally has seven brothers to pursue her. Her father's stable has thirty-and-three horses. In a fight, the hero always slays all the enemies but one. This is the coin of folklore. Stories, as they are handed down, will take on more and more of these cliches -- just as, in John, Thomas is always "the Twin." We see examples of this in the scribal tradition of John. If by some chance Jesus merely "answered" a question, the scribe is likely to convert that to "answered [and] said" (APOKRIQH [KAI] EIPEN).[*6] This also has something of an analogy in the accumulation of divine titles. It is true that when a scribe changes, say, "Jesus" to "the Lord Jesus Christ," the motives are more complex than simply conforming to a standard expression. But the process is quite similar.
  7. Vividness of detail. Folklore tends to rid itself of unneeded detail -- but when it gives detail at all, it is vivid. (Francis Gummere called this "Leaping and Lingering" -- the story leaps over all that is inessential and lingers over key incidents. No other art form devotes so much of its attention to the key details.) In "Bonnie Susie Cleland" (Child #65), the song spends a mere three stanzas describing how Scotswoman Susie falls in love with an Englishman, and her father orders her to get over it on pain of burning. Then song then spends five stanzas describing Susie's final message to her love (the final stanzas of the message, in anglicised form, run as follows, "Give to him this wee pen-knife, And tell him to find him another wife.... Give to him this right-hand glove, And tell him to find him another love.... Give to him this gay gold ring, And tell him I'm going to my burning!"). It then only takes one stanza to burn her. Compare the story of the Woman taken in Adultery: There are only three actions (the woman is brought, Jesus writes on the ground, the accusers leave). The rest is described in vivid conversation.
  8. Limited concern for context. Folklore does not concern itself overly with consistency or coherence. The obvious example of this in folklore is the three dozen or so Robin Hood ballads in the Child collection. These have only one thing truly in common: Robin is an outlaw who lives in the greenwood. Usually he is an archer, and usually Little John is his right-hand man. But everything else varies: The names of his other followers, the names of his enemies, the reason he is an outlaw, the king during whose reign he lived. We see this, in practice, in the case of the Woman Taken in Adultery. No matter where it is placed in the New Testament, it is an interruption. There is no place for it; it is not consistent.

See also the article on memes, which discusses this rather universal phenomenon of collective memory.

The Effects of Oral Tradition

Some of the effects of oral tradition are described above. Others have yet to be explored. Consider the Gospel of Thomas. Its relationship to the synoptic "Q" source is obvious -- but the differences are as striking as the similarities. My personal suspicion is that both Thomas and Q go back to a common oral tradition, with the forms drifting apart over some generations of storytelling.

On the other hand, oral tradition can also "level" differences. Storytellers describing the life of Jesus will often combine incidents from different accounts. This, rather than literary influence, may explain some of the "Diastessaric" readings that scholars often point up in different sources. Such readings need not be from the Diatessaron; they could be just a story a scribe heard as a child!

Malcolm Laws, in American Balladry from British Broadsides, makes an interesting comment (pp. 95-96):

For some time scholars have recognized opposing but not contradictory tendencies in ballad transmission. The more familiar is the tendency toward degeneration. Degeneration refers to the obvious corruptions and omissions from a text which are caused by the singers' failure to remember or understand what they have heard.... The opposing tendency is that toward deleting from the story much of the tiresome detail which burdens many broadsides. If this process... is not carried too far, the result may be a more compact and effective ballad than the original.

Compare these two phenomena with the scribal processes which produced the texts of P66 and P45, respectively! (see Colwell, "Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45, P66, P75," pp. 196-124 in Studies in Methodology). A further tendency, when faced with this sort of degeneration, is the rebuilding of songs from other materials -- there are any number of ballad texts which are hybrids of multiple songs. Sometimes the combination will be simply a matter of adding a verse or a line here or there, but in others it will be a detailed conflation of two texts. This, in turn, appears strongly reminiscent of the process which produced Codex Bezae. (See also the article on Destruction and Reconstruction.)

Few scholars have paid much attention to oral tradition; it's hard to study something one cannot verify or see in action. But we would be wise to keep it in mind; we never know where it might turn up. There are a number of myths which survive via oral tradition. Consider, for example, how many people will say "Columbus discovered that the earth was round." That is false on all counts; first, every educated person of the fifteenth century knew the world was round, and second, Columbus never managed to sail around the world to prove its spherical shape. In fact, Columbus was consistently wrong about the earth's shape; he thought it was a third smaller than its actual size, and so insisted to his dying day that he had discovered a western passage to the Indies, not a new continent!

In the above, we have generally treated the case of material initially transmitted by oral tradition. We should note that this doesn't always work this way. Some works start out in print and go into oral tradition. (This happens with many modern songs. It is still happening, occasionally, with Christmas songs -- the one form of oral tradition commonly encountered by ordinary people.) And there are interesting cases of oral and written traditions interacting. We mentioned the example of preachers harmonizing stories. The works of Shakespeare are another example. The plays were initially written, but these autographs have perished. Moreoever, these are not necessarily the plays as performed. In rehearsal, the plays could have been, and probably were, modified at least slightly. So the text of the plays as performed is not the text of the autograph. If it is preserved at all, it is probably preserved in the so-called "bad folios." These are believed to have been taken from actors' recollections -- from oral tradition (although first-hand tradition). Without getting into Shakespeare criticism (a field in which I have no competence at all), this makes matters much more complicated....

Another interesting point, which might affect such things as harmonization of parallels, is the ability to different traditions to produces very similar results. Consider these two accounts, one from the account of how the Anglo-Saxon Cædmon became a poet, the other from a tradition of the revelation to Mohammed:
From the Venerable Bede's History of the English Church and People, iv.24:

From Islamic tradition (as described in the English translation of the Quran by N. J. Dawood; compare Surah 96 of the Quran itself):

"[Cædmon] did not gain the art of poetry from human beings or human teachers but as a free gift from God.... [At first he was so poor at poetry that] when he saw the harp coming his way [to sing a piece, as was expected at Anglo-Saxon entertainments], he would get up from the table and go home.... Suddenly in a dream he saw a man standing beside him who called him by name. 'Cædmon,' he said, 'Sing me a song.' He answered, 'I don't know how to sing. I left the feast and came here because I cannot sing.' [The other said,] 'But you shall sing to me....' And Cædmon immediately began to sing verses in praise of God the Creator." One night in Ramadan, when Mohammed was in a dream, the Angel Gabriel came to him and said, "Recite." Mohammed answered, "What shall I recite?" This was repeated three times, then Gabriel said, "Recite in the name of your Lord who created, created humanity from drops of blood."
Bede proceeds to quote "Cædmon's Hymn," a praise to the creator said to be Cædmon's first writing, composed in that dream. The result, of course, was the Quran. But even the Exordium to the Quran has parallels to Cædmon's Hymn. Both start by praising the Lord of Creation.

Bede's history was finished in 731, and so this account must be older than that. Mohammed began to receive the Quran in about 610, so this legend must be more recent than that. Bede lived and died in England; he could not have known an Islamic legend. The two are independent stories -- but they arose at the same time, and nonetheless are fundamentally the same legend.

The failure to understand folklore and its effects has significantly affected textual studies in at least one instance, though it is in the Old Testament rather than the new. This is the case of 1 Samuel 17-18 -- David and Goliath and the meeting of Saul and David. The Hebrew text is long; the Greek text of Vaticanus and other LXX manuscripts is much shorter.

Some scholars have explained the shorter LXX text as eliminating doublets. Well, this is formally true -- and completely fails to look at the evidence. If one takes the material found in both types of text, and the material found only in MT, a folklorist can instantly see the difference: The common material is history of the sort found in the rest of 1 Samuel. The material peculiar to MT is a folktale of how David met Saul. Neither more nor less. In fact, it's a fundamental type of the folktale, found, e.g., in pre-Christian Scandinavian myth: The commoner performs an act of heroism and so comes to the attention of the king. The MT-specific material is not a doublet of the common material; it is a folktale grafted onto the initial text of the court history which comprises the bulk of 1 Samuel. Even the language is that of folktale. (Note, e.g., that in 17:16 the Philistine challenges Israel for forty days -- far longer than an army could have stayed in camp without facing starvation and disease.) Textual criticism of this passage must start from the fact that the MT-specific material is a Hebrew folktale.

An Example of the Parallels between Folk Ballads and Biblical Manuscripts

Perhaps the best-known of all traditional English ballads is "Barbara Allen" (Child #64). Some 600 texts and 200 tunes have been recorded. The outline of the text is as follows: A young man is dying for love of Barbara Allen. He begs her to come to his side. She comes, but refuses to pity him (in some versions, when he was drinking, he toasted "the ladies all" rather than Barbara). She leave; he dies. She "hears the death bell knelling." She takes to her bed and dies for sorrow. They are buried next to each other in the churchyard. From his grave grows a rose; from hers, a briar (or other objectionable plant). The two twine together on the churchyard wall.

Observe the following parallels to the Biblical tradition:

Obviously we should not make too much of the analogies above. The examples are all from traditional ballads, and the ballad form (particularly with reference to rhyme, but also regular metre) cannot be verified before about the twelfth century. And yet, previous oral tradition had much in common with the folk ballad. The earliest long pieces in oral tradition were poetry, not prose. (Witness Homer or Beowulf. The epic form of these pieces, with their metre and conventional expressions, made them much easier to remember than an equivalent prose form.) There are prose folktales -- indeed, they receive more scholarly attention than folk songs. But these are relatively unfixed; two tellers will tell the same story with entirely different language. Whereas poetry always has something to hold it in place. In modern ballads, it is rhyme and metre. Rhyme was not at all common in early epics, but Beowulf has its alliteration, and all ancient epics have some sort of metre. They also have their formulae. In Beowulf and other early Germannic poetry, for instance, we have the "kennings" -- two words put together to mean something else while preserving metre and alliteration (the first of these occurs in line 10 of Beowulf: "hron-rade"=whale-road, i.e. the sea). In Homer, the equivalent is the epithet (a feature found in most folk forms, but most developed in Greek poetry. These actually take two forms. One is a set of key synonyms for particular virtues such as bravery; these are similar to the cliches found in English folk songs. The other is the standard epithet, from "bright-eyed Athena" to "Diomedes of the mighty war cry." These generally occupy one or two or three complete metrical feet, giving the poet, in effect, an automatic half line without having to think about it.)

Try It Yourself

If the above doesn't convince you, I'd like to offer you the special opportunity of trying to work out this process yourself, to see the parallels between oral transmission and written transmission. It also may give you a chance to see how critics can go wrong.

What we'll do is take a sample piece, the American folk song "Old Dan Tucker," by Daniel Decatur Emmett. This is a song for which we have the original sheet music printing, which I've shown at the end. But before that, I'm going to print assorted versions collected from oral transmission. You are welcome to try getting from those to the original.

Example 1: Collected by Vance Randolph from Carl Durbin of Pineville, Missouri on June 4, 1927. From Randolph, Ozark Folksongs, Volume III, p. 302.

Old Dan Tucker down in town,
Swingin' the ladies all around,
First to the right an' then to the left,
An' then to the one that you love best.

  Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker,
  He's too late to git his supper,
  Supper's over an' breakfast a-cookin',
  An' old Dan Tucker standin' a-lookin'.

Old Dan Tucker down in town,
A-ridin' a foat an' a leadin' a hound.
The hound give a howl an' the goat give a jump,
An' throwed Old Dan a-straddle of a stump.

Old Dan Tucker he got drunk,
Fell in the fire an' kicked out a chunk,
Fire coal got in Dan's old shoe,
Oh my golly how the ashes flew!

Example 2: Collected by Vance Randolph from Jewell Lamberson of Bentonville, Arkansas on November 21, 1935. From Randolph, Ozark Folksongs, Volume III, p. 303.

Old Dan Tucker is a fine old man,
Washing his face in the fryin' pan,
Combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
An' died with a toothache in his heel!

Example 3: Collected by Vance Randolph from Mabel E. Muller of Rolla, Missouri on April 5, 1938. From Randolph, Ozark Folksongs, Volume III, p. 303.

I went to town the other night,
I heard the noise and I saw the fight,
The watchman was a-running round,
Cryind Old Dan Tucker's come to town!

Old Dan he worked in the cotton field,
He got a stone bruise on his heel,
He left the field and went through the woods
To the little pond where the fishin's good

Old Dan he went down to the mill
To get some meal to put in the swill,
The miller he swore by the point of his knife,
He never seen such a man in his life.

And now old Dan is a done gone sucker,
And never will go home to his supper,
Old Dan he has had his last ride,
And the banjo's buried by his side.

Example 4: Collected by John Meredith from Herb Tattersall of Australia. From John Meredith and Hugh Anderson, Folk Songs of Australia, p. 263.

Old Danny Tucker was a dirty old man,
He washed his face in the frying pan,
Combed his hair with the leg of a chair,
Died with a toothache in his hair.

Example 5: From Jon & Marcia Pankake, A Prairie Home Companion Folk Song Book. Informant not named.

Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man
He washed his face in a frying pan
He combed his hair with a wagon wheel
And died with a toothache in his heel.

CHORUS: So get out of the way for old Dan Tucker
        He's too late to get his supper
        Supper's over and dinner's cookin'
        Old Dan Tucker just stand there lookin'.

I come to town the other night
I heard the noise and saw the fight
The watchman was a-runnin' round
Crying "Old Dan Tucker's come to town."

Old Dan Tucker is a nice old man
He used to ride our darby ram
He sent him whizzing down the hill
If he hadn't got up, he'd lay there still.

Old Dan begun in early life
To play the banjo and the fife
He played the children all to sleep
And then into his bunk he'd creep.

The Original Sheet Music Text

From sheet music published 1843 by Chas. H. Keith.
The cover of the sheet music is generic:
        OLD DAN EMMIT's

The interior page is headlined
               The Original
              OLD DAN TUCKER
As sung by the              Virginia Minstrels
        Words by Old Dan. D. Emmit

I come to town de udder night,
I hear de noise an saw de fight,
De watchman was a runnin roun, cryin
Old Dan Tucker's come to town, So

Gran' Chorus.
get out de way! get out de way!
get out de way! Old Dan Tucker
your to late to come to supper.

Tucker is a nice old man,
He used to ride our darby ram;
He sent him whizzen down de hill,
If he had'nt got up he'd lay dar still.
         Get out, &c.

Here's my razor in good order
Magnum bonum -- jis hab bought 'er;
Sheep shell oats, Tucker shell de corn,
I'll shabe you soon as de water get warm.
         Get out, &c.

Ole Dan Tucker an I got drunk,
He fell in de fire an kick up a chunk,
De charcoal got inside he shoe
Lor bless you honey how de ashes flew.
         Get out, &c.

Down de road foremost de stump,
Massa make me work de pump;
I pump so hard I broke de sucker.
Dar was work for ole Dan Tucker.
         Get out, &c.

I went to town to buy some goods
I lost myself in a piece of woods,
De night was dark I had to suffer,
It froze de heel of Daniel Tucker.
         Get out, &c.

Tucker was a hardened sinner,
He nebber said his grace at dinner;
De ole sow squeel, de pigs did squal
He 'hole hog wid de tail and all.
         Get out, &c.

This is, of course, an extreme case, because there is no coherent narrative to the song. (That may be a warning in itself.) But even tightly plotted songs can go widely astray, or show extreme variations on particular points. Child #286, for instance, involves a ship, a wicked captain, and a heroic sailor who saves the ship from an enemy warship. But the English ship may be the "Golden Vanity," the "Sweet Trinity," the "Merry Golden Tree," the "Sweet Kumadee," the "Golden Victory," or any of a dozen others.

As a last reminder of the importance of understanding oral tradition to the practice of textual criticism, consider this: Textual criticism was originated by the Greeks to deal with the text of Homer -- a work transmitted orally for centuries. Modern manuals tend to make fun of those early scholars, and rightly so. But their biggest single fault was their failure to take oral tradition into account.


1. I would like to thank Ulrich Schmid for asking the questions that helped me formulate the points in this article. [back]

2. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1882-1898. At the time it was a comprehensive collection of British ballad texts, and "Child Numbers" (ranging from 1 to 305) are still the standard way of referring to the songs it contains. For further information about Child and other basic ballad works, as well as a large on-line bibliography of traditional song, I would suggest visiting The Traditional Ballad Index . [back]

3. The "A" texts of Child 1-10. [back]

4. W. Edson Richmond, "Some Effects of Scribal and Typographical Error on Oral Tradition," first printed in the Southern Folklore Quarterly and now printed in MacEdward Leach and Tristram P. Coffin, eds., The Critics & the Ballad, 1961. The quote and the following example are from page 227. [back]

5. See Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (2nd/3rd Edition, Oxford, 1992), p. 195. [back]

6. This effect can be even more clearly demonstrated in non-Biblical literature, where we have external sources to refer to. An excellent example is found in the Middle English romance Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight. In line 958 of the only surviving manuscript we read Chymbled ouer hir blake chin with mylk-quyte vayles, "Covered over her black (i.e. dark, swarthy) chin with milk-white veils." But the alliterative metre makes it imperative that, instead of milk-white, we have a word beginning with "ch." All editions of Sir Gawain therefore emend the text to read chalk-quyte, "chalk-white." But this is no ordinary error; clearly the scribe was influenced by the many folktales and songs that use the phrase "milk-white" ("milk-white steed," "milk-white hand," etc.).
A similar example occurs in an Australian poem/song called simply "Holiday Song." One verse reads
Come with me, merry and free,
Gay as a bird on the spray,
Grief and care, come if you dare;
We will be happy today.
Reciters regularly give the second line as "Gay [or FREE] as a bird on the wing," even though this ruins the rhyme; the idiom is just too strong.[back]

7. Quoted by Child in his introduction to the ballad he calls "Bonny Barbara Allen." This appears on p. 276 of volume II of the Dover edition of Child (the most widely available printing). [back]

8. Private communication, based on a previous journal article. The four "basic" first lines are "All in the merry month of May," "It fell about the Martinmas time," "So early, early in the spring," and "In Scarlet town where I was born." [back]