Charles Vess, et al,
(Green Man Press, 1997)

Songs, obviously, have a musical component. Ballads, specifically, have more than just words; they have stories to tell as well. Now, thanks to Charles Vess, they have their visual side, too.

In his book Ballads, collected from earlier issues of his Book of Ballads and Sagas, Vess gives a new aspect to folk songs passed down through the ages. Visually stunning, his black and white illustrations expose the true faces of the heroes and villains of song.

Vess drew on the writing talents of writers Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Midori Snyder, Sharyn McCrumb, Delia Sherman and Jeff Smith to give focus to the words, tightening the ballads into short story-length vignettes. Combined, their work is a wonderful way to re-expose yourself to the ballads. Anyone new to the folk song milieu will likely be inspired to track down some of the recordings listed in Ken Roseman's accompanying discography.

The collection begins with "The False Knight on the Road" (Child No. 3), adapted by Gaiman. The meaning of the story is unclear -- it centers around an exchange between a young boy and a knight; the subtext here seems to indicate that the knight is the boy's own father, drowned and damned. But even without complete clarity, the ballad becomes a powerful verbal duel as presented by Gaiman and Vess.

Next is "King Henry" (Child No. 32), which tells how courtesy and bravery in the face of a horrid creature's evil demands won Henry a beautiful wife. Yolen adapted this one, adding details to flesh out Henry VIII's arrival at the scene -- as well as the ultimate fate of his fair bride once his courtesy was spent.

Sharyn McCrumb has her way with "Thomas the Rhymer" (Child No. 37), the familiar tale of the minstrel taken away by the Queen of Elfland who, after seven years spent silent in her company, returned to the mortal plane with the gift of foretelling. Although McCrumb adds little to his years away, she expands on his years of homecoming -- and his final, happy fate.

Then Midori Snyder takes "Barbara Allen" (Child No. 84) and adds an aspect of faery (much like "Tam-Lin") to give motive to the maid's hard-heartedness. She also explains why, after shunning young William, she dies after him and followed him as a true lover in death.

"Tam-Lin" (Child No. 39) is an obvious choice for this collection, and Vess tackles it alone. Instead of telling and illustrating the tale in comic book style, this one is presented in play form, with single, full-page illustrations to round out the story and gives faces to the characters therein. Vess's version makes effective use of various lines from the song in his retelling, and he focuses on heroine Janet's stubborn streak and strength of will.

Jeff Smith handles the whimsical "Galtee Farmer," in which an aged farmer and his son sell and buy a mare at market and get the worse of the deal. The art veers away from the somber work which has dominated the book so far; Vess must have had great fun with the characters and expressions in this one.

But at Delia Sherman's prodding, Vess turns grim again for "The Daemon Lover" (Child No. 243). A long-ago lover returns and lures a young bride from her husband and child. But wait -- wasn't her long-ago lover dead? Then who...? There is a dark price to pay for yielding to temptation in this one!

Charles de Lint brings a modern flair to the book with "Twa Corbies" (Child No. 45). The ballad tells of two crows and a dead knight; de Lint sets that story within the bounds of his modern Newford world. The crows are none other than his popular Crow Girls (see his novel Someplace to Be Flying if you don't know them); the knight is a dead homeless man recalling a former life; and the narrator who overhears them is de Lint's reoccurring supporting character, Jilly Coppercorn. This one uses very little of the actual ballad, building instead on the general idea of it to create something entirely new.

The collection concludes with "Sovay," also by de Lint, in which a woman tests her lover's faithfulness by disguising herself as a highwayman. The story and art ring with a certain playfulness and sensuality, but a serious tone underscores it all -- for if he'd failed her test, she wouldn't have hesitated to shoot him dead.

Each section ends with the original text of the ballad illustrated, so readers can compare that version to the adaptation used by Vess. At the end of the book, Ken Roseman has compiled a list of recordings where these ballads can be heard. It's a great bonus, and a wonderful resource for fans of the music.

Ballads is a delightful collection, both for the text and the art which helps tell the story. I sincerely hope Vess finds time for more of this sort of thing -- this should be a series, not a single volume.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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