Albert B. Friedman

Ballad scholar
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The Independent Online

Albert Barron Friedman, ballad scholar: born Kansas City, Missouri 16 August 1920; died Los Angeles 11 November 2006.

It is increasingly hard to imagine the importance and shaping influence that songbooks once had. What is now a click on a mouse away once took erudition, diligence and patience to access. The ballad scholar and commentator Albert B. Friedman was part of the older, yet much-travelled, information highway that stretched back to time out of mind. His speciality was balladry in the English language, drawing on the folk traditions of England, Scotland, North America, the Caribbean and Australia.

Friedman was born in Kansas City, Missouri, of Lithuanian Jewish stock, the fifth of a dozen children. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1941 he went on to Harvard University before Second World War service. He served in army intelligence and returned to Harvard where he completed his PhD dissertation in British Medieval Studies entitled "A Selective History of the Ballad Revival" (1952).

Anglophone ballad and folksong scholarship was changing, but over every work hung the dark cloud with the silver lining of Francis James Child's multi-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published between 1882 and 1898. The Harvard scholar's work was intimidating but, as a fellow Harvard alumnus, Friedman must have gladly advanced Child's scholarship with The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World (1956 - subsequently Penguin replaced Viking in the title).

Friedman's book was at the forefront of a new wave of songbooks with, in Britain, Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd's The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959) and Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's Our Singing Island (1960). It went into paperback and double-figure editions by the 1980s, and hailed what its author called "illiterature", themed into categories such as Romantic Tragedies, Tabloid Crime, Ballads of the Scottish Border and Accidents and Disasters. It went beyond the British and North American traditions, as with its inclusion of a Jamaican variant of "The Prickilie Bush" - a ballad that undulates with tension as the about-to-be-hanged spots his "saviour" from the gallows tree of the title, reminding why stories in song have such potency. The book also included some tunes and a discography.

Friedman's The Ballad Revival: studies in the influence of popular on sophisticated poetry (1961) - "a scholarly study concerned with balladry and criticism of the 17th century and beyond", opined Ray M. Lawless in his Folksingers and Folksongs in America (1960) - was predated by Evelyn Kendrick Wells's The Ballad Tree (1950) and others, and proved less successful. Nevertheless, it became part of the groundswell of Anglophone ballad studies.

Friedman also wrote for academic journals such as the Journal of American Folklore and taught at Harvard and at Claremont Graduate University. He retired to the Hollywood Hills in the 1980s.

Ken Hunt