Alan Palmer (Independent Scholar; County Durham): Emotion and Cognition in the Traditional Ballads of Early Country Music


Monday, July 10, 2017, 4:00pm


Narrative theory has been extended into several new subject areas in recent years. But, as far as I know, very little attention has been given within narratology to the role of narrative in the various American popular music genres such as country and western, blues, soul, folk, and gospel music. This neglect of the stories contained in popular song lyrics is a regrettable gap in narrative theory. And so I want to try to extend some of the tools of cognitive narratology that I have developed for the analysis of fictional minds in novels to this new field and, in particular, to the study of the historical development of country and western music. I’m doing this because I think that it is only possible to understand a narrative song by following the mental functioning of the characters who inhabit the storyworld created by that lyric.

My talk will focus on two groups of songs: six traditional ballads of British and Irish origin that are still sung within the American country music scene and eight ballads of American origin, most of which arose out of actual events in American history - usually infamous murder cases. After a brief discussion of some of the general characteristics of ballads, I consider the following narratological and cognitive aspects of the 14 song lyrics: their heterodiegetic (or third-person) and homodiegetic (or first-person) narrators; the attribution of reasons for actions and mental states generally by the narrators, by characters to themselves and also by characters to other characters; and the presentation of emotions.

My initial hypothesis was that the first group would reveal a stable, settled and fairly uniform pattern of characteristics associated with traditional ballads, while the second would be much more varied. I thought that some of the American ballads would stay close to the British model and be rather randomly thrown together in the ways that I describe in my talk, while others would be more carefully crafted and show signs of the initial development of the country song form that became commercially popular from the 1930s onwards. As is so often the case with this sort of exercise though, my unsurprising conclusion, having now studied the evidence, is that it’s a little more complicated than that. There are some similarities and some differences between the two groups, and it’s not always obvious why either should be so. Certainly, the second group has more in common with the first than I assumed when I began this exercise.


About Alan Palmer

Alan Palmer is an independent scholar living in Weardale, County Durham. His first book Fictional Minds (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) was a co-winner of the MLA Prize for Independent Scholars and also a co-winner of the Perkins Prize (awarded by the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature). A special issue of the journal Style (45:2, Summer 2011) was devoted to the subject of his second book, Social Minds in the Novel (published by the Ohio State University Press in 2010). His chief areas of interest are cognitive narratology, the nineteenth century novel and the history of country and western music.