How Musicians Invented the Antihero - Deepstash

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Preserving Heroes in Songs: The Folk Ballad Tradition

Preserving Heroes in Songs: The Folk Ballad Tradition

  • For centuries, heroes found immortality in the melodies of folk ballads.
  • In a world where music served as cloud storage for traditional societies, figures like Robin Hood emerged as protagonists in the English-speaking world's folk ballad tradition.
  • Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles's 1916-1918 expedition to southern Appalachia revealed an unexpected treasure trove—old British ballads surviving in a more authentic form than in their land of origin.


117 reads

Robin Hood: The Original Antihero

Robin Hood: The Original Antihero

  • Robin Hood, a key player in 38 of the 305 canonic Child Ballads, became a musical icon—a hero and an outlaw, a prototype for the antihero.
  • Long before Clint Eastwood's brooding characters or Humphrey Bogart's ironic personas, Robin Hood set the stage for a conflicted protagonist, a character type now dominating film and pop culture narratives.


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From Trickster Tales to Realistic Antiheroes

From Trickster Tales to Realistic Antiheroes

  • The antihero, in embryonic form, traces back to traditional Trickster tales present in Native American, African, and diaspora cultures.
  • While Homer infused some Trickster elements into Odysseus, it was with the rise of Robin Hood in the British folk ballad repertoire that the antihero acquired realistic, quasi-historical trappings.
  • The antihero now surpasses the traditional hero in pop culture, evident in the Joker's rise in popularity since his debut in April 1940, overshadowing even the caped superhero.


85 reads

Musicians as Architects of the Antihero

Musicians as Architects of the Antihero

  • Contrary to common perceptions, the antihero didn't originate in Hollywood or hard-boiled fiction but in songs and the oral tradition.
  • Robin Hood, the British folk ballad hero, served as the blueprint for characters like Clint Eastwood's and Humphrey Bogart's.
  • From Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain, musicians were influential antiheroes, their songs perpetuating the ethos of moral ambivalence.


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75 reads


“Robert Johnson is an antihero. Tupac Shakur is an antihero. Billie Holiday is an antihero. Even Glenn Gould is an antihero. Their mythos is as big as their music."



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The Arthurian Influence and the Hero Business

The Arthurian Influence and the Hero Business

  • King Arthur, with his Round Table knights, influenced a more mainstream approach to mass-market heroes.
  • However, the Arthurian legend, driven by commercial interests, led to a shift.
  • Heroes had to abandon their songs for printed narratives—products for commerce, not pathways for self-transformation.
  • One of the best measures of the influence of the Arthurian tradition is the sheer number of heroes it presents — his multifaceted wife Queen Guinevere, and knights of his Round Table.
  • If you are seeking a universal hero in the psyche of Western culture, this is the closest prototype you will find.


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“King Arthur is the first business-driven brand franchise in Western culture. He may have originated as King of the Britons, but he thrived as Servant to the Capitalists...And this had a terrible impact on music.”



64 reads

Lost Wisdom: The Price of Commercialization

Lost Wisdom: The Price of Commercialization

  • The transition from sung ballads to printed narratives led to a loss of metaphysical depth in hero narratives.
  • Heroes no longer embarked on quests for wisdom; instead, constant action and sensational elements became imperative to sell books, movies, and later, video games.


64 reads

Imagining a Different Cultural Landscape

Imagining a Different Cultural Landscape

Reflecting on the past prompts us to wonder:

  • What if recording devices predated the printing press?
  • Could singing bards have enjoyed wider acclaim than novelists?

In this alternate reality, songs might be revered as cornerstones of the humanities, with heroes never losing their songs.

The next time you hum a tune, consider that you might be echoing the legacy of the original antiheroes—forged not in Hollywood but in the melodies of folk ballads.


65 reads



Absurdist. Failed musician. Successful pessimist. Gamer.


In a world where the antihero dominates, it's crucial to recognize the forgotten connection between music and the origins of these conflicted protagonists.


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