Written Composition and (Mem)oral Decomposition: The Case of “The Suffolk Tragedy”


In seeking to understand the processes and identify the products of oral transmission in early English verbal culture, it can be useful to seek enlightenment in the study of later traditions that are better documented. This paper pursues an ongoing line of research that focuses on English crime ballads, originally published as broadsides, and recovered from folk tradition decades or centuries later. The known relative provenance of the texts allows the impact of oral transmission to be identified exactly and with confidence. In this instance a ballad published in 1828 on the trial of William Corder for the murder of Maria Marten is juxtaposed both with a version recorded from an Oxfordshire singer in 1972, and with a journalistic prose account that was evidently a direct source, enabling an analysis of both the song’s written composition and its “decomposition” in what it is suggested might properly be called “memoral” tradition.


Performance of the “The Suffolk Tragedy” by Freda Palmer as recorded by Mike Yates (Hall 1998, item 12):

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