Performing Medieval Narrative Today

A Video Showcase

Tam Lin: Unaccompanied song

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About the scene and clip:
A solo performer sings the full version of Child ballad 39A unaccompanied.

About the work:
Tam Lin is number 39 of 305 English and Scottish ballads collected by Francis James Child in the late 19th century. Child collected 14 variations of the Tam Lin ballad; 39A he considered to be the oldest variation, although the inherent oral tradition of the ballad makes it impossible to date it with accuracy. The earliest printed reference to the ballad comes from an anonymous 1549 tract titled The Complaynt of Scotlande: vyth ane Exortatione to the Thre Estaits to be vigilante in the Deffens of their Public veil. The ballad is referred to as one of the “ancient” tales told in Scotland.

There are clues to the age of the ballad in the language used. For example, Janet is described as wearing a “kirtle,” a garment that was popularly worn in Scotland from the 14th through 16th centuries. The expression “syne,” meaning “directly after,” fell out of use in the mid 15th century, as did the term “aboon” for “above.” This version of the ballad is commonly dated to the late 14th century, as the majority of the colloquial terminology used in the ballad was at its peak popularity at that time.

The musical notation of this ballad, by James Johnson in the 18th century, was part of a large compilation he collected on popular Scottish songs.

The ballad tells the story of Janet, a young woman who is the daughter of a nobleman. She enters the woods of Carterhaugh (an area near modern-day Selkirk, Scotland), where she meets Tam Lin, a fairy knight who guards the well there. Tam Lin requires a tribute of all who pass the well, and Janet pays the tribute of her virginity. She becomes pregnant and returns to her father’s hall, where her pregnancy is discovered. Although her father wants her to marry one of his knights, Janet refuses, claiming that only Tam Lin – the true father of her child – will be her husband. She returns to the well, where Tam Lin tells her that he was once a mortal knight. He then explains that on Halloween, she can win him back from the fairies if she can pull him down off a white horse and hold him in her arms while he turns into various dangerous animals and objects. Janet accomplishes this, and Tam Lin is transformed from a fairy knight back into a naked mortal man. The Queen of Fairies curses the pair as she acknowledges that Tam Lin belongs to Janet now.

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. 39. The musical notation the performer uses comes from Scots Musical Museum, Originally Published by James Johnson with Illustrations of the Lyric Poetry and Music of Scotland by William Stenhouse, Hatboro, PA, Folklore Associates, 1962 (orig. 1787).

About the performer/ensemble:
Gina Guadagnino graduated from New York University in May 2003 with a major in English; she minored in Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Irish Studies. She has loved Tam Lin since childhood (2008).

About the production:
This performance was created for this website. It was videoed in a reception room at New York University in spring 2008.