Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

King Orfeo: Sung

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About the scene and clip:
Scottish singer Alison McMorland sings this traditional ballad.

About the work:
This song dates from the 14th century. It retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice—but in the medieval song, Orfeo is a great piper (in some versions, he is a harper) as well as a king, and he succeeds in rescuing his beloved wife. This version of the song is in the Shetland dialect of English, blended with Lowland Scots. The two refrain lines (the second and fourth lines in each stanza) are in Norn, a dialect of Old Norse, found in Shetland; the first line apparently means “The wood is green early”; the second, “Where the hart runs yearly.”

A related clip on this website is “Orfeo: Opening scenes,” taken from another medieval English version of the story of Orpheus.

About the genre:
A ballad is a song that tells a story; ballads are often fairly long, composed of a dozen or more stanzas. Although many other songs, both long and short, also tell stories, the term “ballad” used in this particular sense dates from the late Middle Ages. Some late-medieval ballads and a great many early-modern ballads survive, some of them in multiple versions, and throughout the world. Documentation for ballad melodies is in general substantially later than for the texts.

About the edition/translation:
The classic edition for traditional ballad texts, often with many variants, is The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis James Child, New York, Dover, 1965, 5 vols (orig. 1888). This song is Vol. I, No. 19. This melody was collected by Pat Schuldham-Shaw in 1947 from a singer named John Stickle of Unst: see The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads, ed. Bertrand Harris Bronson, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 75.

About the performer/ensemble:
Alison McMorland is a professional singer from Scotland who sings a wide range of traditional ballads and other songs, often with Geordie McIntyre. They have co-produced numerous recordings. This song is recorded on their CD “The Ballad Tree,” with full text and notes. Their website is http://alisonmcmorland.com.

About the production:
This clip was filmed for this website at the Eisteddfod Folk Music gathering in upstate New York, sponsored by the New York Folk Music Society, in October 2009. We thank Helen Hart for doing the filming.