Ballads are narrative songs. Distinguished from the more reflective lyrical songs, ballads tell a story. Many traditional ballads involve characters whose words and actions suggest that they are outside of heteronormative standards for sexual orientation and gender expression. Scholars are incorporating such ballads into Gay folklife as examples of pre-Stonewall Gay-related expression, even though the ballads were recorded before current LGBTQ identities came into existence. This article examines ballads from English-speaking traditions of Euro North America (Canada and the USA).
Folklorists generally recognise three subtypes of narrative songs in Euro North American cultures. Native (North) American ballads are those composed in North America and generally collected from oral tradition, such as those folklorists call “murdered girl” ballads, about pregnant women who are killed by their lovers. These songs are often based on actual events and characters. A second type, the broadside ballad, has texts originally distributed via print in the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, but they were often also collected in oral tradition. They include songs about women who dress as men and go to sea following their (male) lovers. While the topics are historically accurate — that is, throughout history women did actually dress as men to access male work—broadside ballad narratives are usually generalised and fictionalised.
Finally, classic ballads were generally collected from oral tradition, and have origins that reach well into the sixteenth century across Europe, though the majority probably come from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are usually seen as symbolic more than realistic. Those published in Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898) are considered the primary canon of classic ballads. They include songs like “Willy O’ Winsbury,” in which a man expresses a wish to become a woman so that he can become the “bedfellow” of his daughter’s lover.
“The Handsome Cabin Boy”
Certainly, most ballads can be read as heteronormal narratives. However, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered individuals and their allies may consider the texts’ non-Straight, non-heterosexual, and non-mainstream possibilities. For example, a song like “The Handsome Cabin Boy” tells the story of a woman who boards a ship as a cabin boy, only to find her/himself apparently sexually involved with both the captain and the captain’s wife. When the cabin boy becomes pregnant, her/his biological sex is discovered by the doctor and crew. The latter conclude that they hope to encounter more sailors like the handsome cabin boy.
This text involves what looks like a heterosexual relationship (between the captain and cabin boy) and a homosexual relationship (between the captain’s wife and cabin boy). However, the ambiguous sex identity of the cabin boy her/himself clearly queers those connections—the one with the captain looks like a same sex relationship, and the one with the captain’s wife looks like a different sex relationship. Further, we need not presume that the captain and the captain’s wife themselves are conventionally sexed and gendered. It is possible that the captain is actually transgendered female to male, and his/her wife transgendered male to female. These characters’ ambiguity is underlined when the captain’s wife comments, on finding the cabin boy pregnant, “‘Twas either you or me betrayed the handsome cabin boy,” understanding the word “betrayal” to mean “made pregnant.” Finally, the kinds of negative judgements and brutal violence that too often accompany the discovery of non-binary or non-heteronormative individuals in current Euro North American contexts do not appear to be part of the ballad texts. The cabin boy is an ideal partner to both her/his lovers, as well as a good fellow sailor to the ship’s crew.
Questioning Presumed Heterosexuality
It is often controversial to argue that texts originating before the coining of terms like “homosexual” and “transgendered” actually represent those acts and identities. However, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick sardonically comments in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), all kinds of absurd evidence is conventionally demanded when arguing for anything other than heterosexuality. Too many Euro North American scholars simply presume that heterosexuality has always existed–and that it has done so in exactly its current forms. Historic and anthropological research shows that concepts of sex, sex/gender identity, and sexuality are variable across time and space. Thus, we cannot know whether or not individuals who sang classic ballads in the seventeenth century intended them to reference any kind of sex, sex/gender identity, or sexuality that would currently be recognised as such. It is clear, however, that the current audience of native North American, broadside, and classic ballads understand the texts and characters according to their own notions, which include Gay as well as Straight, and Trans as well as binary sex, possibilities.
Dugaw, Dianne. Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989.
Greenhill, Pauline. “’Neither a Man nor a Maid:’ Sexualities and Gendered Meanings in Cross Dressing Ballads.” The Journal of American Folklore 108 #428: 156-177, 1995.