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Poetry Guide: Ballad

A ballad is a story in a song, usually a narrative song or poem. It is a rhythmic saga of a past affair, which may be heroic, romantic or satirical, political (affected by the previous three types mentioned, refers to either glorifying the exploits or causes of a particular leader or group, and is typical of totalitarian political systems), almost inevitably catastrophic, which is related in the third person, usually with foreshortened alternating four- and three-stress lines ('ballad meter') and simple repeating rhymes, and often with a refrain. If it is based on political or religious themes, a ballad may then be a version of a hymn. Ballads should not be confused with the ballade, a 14th and 15th century French verse form.

Origin and form

The origin of the word suggested something that could be danced to. Ballads are most often folk poetry in a musical format, passed along orally from generation to generation, set to conventional tunes and usually sung by a solo voice, the hearers joining in the refrain. Until written, the content evolves and changes over time, unlike a more literary poem. For further discussion, see Folk music.

Unlike more traditional poetry, ballads do not use a large amount of explanation. The narrative is usually simple, clear and easy to read. Emotion is usually kept to a minimum, and the motives of characters are rarely probed in any great detail. Dialogue is kept to an economical level, but frequently used to empower the language.


Five characteristics of a ballad are:

Repetition and refrains are also used in many ballads. This is a strong resemblance to many forms of traditional music. Many traditional ballads have themes related to the supernatural, and occasionally ballads contain a moral dimension to them, usually expressed in a final verse.

Broadsheet ballads

Broadsheet ballads (also known as broadside ballads or blackletter ballads), cheaply printed and often topical, humorous, even subversive, were hawked in English streets from the 16th century; the legends of Robin Hood and the pranks of Puck were disseminated through broadsheet ballads.

New ballads were written about current events like fires, the birth of monstrous animals, and so forth, giving particulars of names and places. Satirical ballads and Royalist ballads contributed to 17th century political discourse. In a sense, these ballads were antecedents of the modern newspaper.

Thomas Percy, Robert Harley, Francis James Child, Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg were early collectors and publishers of ballads from the oral tradition and broadsheets. Percy's publication of Reliques of Ancient Poetry and Harley's collections, such as The Bagford Ballads, were of great import in beginning the study of ballads. Some of the collectors also wrote new ballads. Many ballads are referenced in scholarly works by their number in Child's compilation (see the Child Ballads). The American poet Carl Sandburg was influenced by ballads, and published a collection he had assembled as The American Songbag (1927).

The form of a ballad has been imitated in modern poetry— most notably by the Canadian ballads of Robert W. Service, in Kipling's 'Road to Mandalay' or in 'Casey at the Bat.' 'The Ballad of the Bread-man', is Charles Causley's re-telling of the story of the birth of Jesus. Many modern written musical ballads are in the repertory of American folk music.

Murder ballads

A specific subgenre of the broadsheet ballad is the murder ballad. Usually told from the point of view of the killer, murder ballads typically recount the details of the crime — who the victim is, why the murderer decides to kill her, how she is lured to the murder site and the act itself — followed by the escape and/or capture of the murderer. Often the ballad ends with the murderer in jail or on their way to the gallows, occasionally with a plea for the listener to learn from the evils committed by the speaker. Most of the murderers are male and the victims women. An exception to this general rule would be 'Henry Lee' (a duet with PJ Harvey) and 'The Curse of Milhaven' on the Murder Ballads album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

One of the most well known writers of the murder balled is John R Cash (Johnny Cash). His song Delia's Gone is a classic example:

Begins: I went down to Memphis, And I met Delia there, Found her in a parlour, Then I tied her to a chair

Chorus: Delia's gone,One more round,Delia's gone

Ends: Jailer oh Jailer, Jailer I can't sleep, Cause all around my bedside, I here the patter of Delia's feet

Chorus: Delia's gone, One more round, Delia's gone

Often the details and locales for the murder ballad change over time, reflecting the audience and the performer. For example, "The Wexford Girl"[1] is essentially the same ballad as "Knoxville Girl'[2] with the setting transposed from Ireland to Tennessee.

Border ballads

Border ballads are a subgenre of folk ballads collected in the area along the Anglo-Scottish border, especially those concerned with border reivers and outlaws, or with historical events in the Borders.

Notable historical ballads include "The Battle of Otterburn" and "The Hunting of Cheviot" or "The Ballad of Chevy Chase".

Outlaw ballads include "Johnnie Armstrong", "Kinmont Willie", and "Jock o' the Side".

Other types of ballads (including fairy ballads like "Thomas the Rhymer") are often included in the category of border ballads.

Literary ballads

Literary ballads are those composed and written formally. The form, with its connotations of simple folkloric authenticity, became popular with the rise of Romanticism in the later 18th century. Literary ballads may then be set to music, as Schubert's Der Erlkönig, set to a literary ballad by Goethe (see also Der Zauberlehrling). In Romantic opera a ballad set into the musical texture may emphasize or play against the theatrical moment. Atmospheric ballads in operas were initiated in Weber's Der Freischütz and include Senta's ballad in Wagner's Fliegender Holländer, or the 'old song' 'Salce' Desdemona sings in Verdi's Otello. Compare the stanza-like structure and narrative atmosphere of the musical Ballades for solo piano of Chopin or Brahms.

Ballad opera

A particularly English form, the ballad opera, has as its most famous example John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which inspired the 20th-century cabaret operas of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (q.v.). Ballad strophs usually alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic pentameter, though this is not always the case.

Jazz ballad

The jazz ballad is a sentimental narrative adagio akin to a blues song. The regrets of love gone wrong provide the elements of the ballad called a 'torch song.' By extension, any popular song with a slow beat is termed a 'ballad.' In modern music, a song called a ballad is one which tells a story but may not follow any of the other conventions. Many styles of music such as rock, pop, and country label some songs as ballads. See also blues ballad.

Power ballad

See also Power ballad. Not really a ballad at all but a love song performed using rock instruments.

Famous ballads

Ballad of Jesse James
Ballad of Chevy Chase
Barbara Allen
The Battle of Harlaw
The Battle of Otterburn
Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair
The Cruel Brother
Golden Vanity
The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
The Greensleeves (Greensleeves)
Henry Martin
John Barleycorn
Johnny Has Gone For A Soldier
Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight
Lord Randall
Lovely Joan
Lyke-Wake Dirge
Mary Tamlin
The Mines of Avondale
Many ballads of Robin Hood
The Scarborough Fair (Scarborough Fair)
Sir Patrick Spens
Tam Lin
The Three Ravens
Thomas the Rhymer
The Gypsie Laddie
Verner Raven - oldest Scandinavian ballad with music

American Pie
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Frankie and Johnny
House of the Rising Sun
The Devil Went Down to Georgia
Ballad of the Alamo
Ballad of the Green Berets
Ballad of Davy Crockett
Where Were You? (When The World Stopped Turning)
The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins
Morning Bell
The Ballad of John and Yoko
Hotel California
Taxi Driver
Going to California

External Resources