History of the Ballad

History of the Ballad

            The ballad began as a type of folk song that told an exciting story.  It is a popular poetic form and is widely used all of over the world.  The ballad is usually made up of simple words and rhyme.  Traditional ballads were first created in Great Britain six or seven centuries ago.  They were passed on by word of mouth; they usually rhyme and are divided into stanzas.  People would often make up and sing ballads in places that there was no reading or writing taught.

According to Francis James Child, author of the book The English and Scottish Ballads, in the “English-speaking world, some of the oldest ballads came from the ‘border country’ between England and Scotland where families lived in clans far from one another.  It was thought that this area consisted of fairies, witches and ghosts which all made excellent subjects for ballads.”  Child also explains about the time when the ballad in the form of song changed to that of a literary form, “When Scottish and English ballads were rediscovered by poets and scholars in the 18th Century, poets began to write literary ballads.”  These ballads were meant to be read and not sung but they still consisted of rhythmic and narrative structure and dramatic style.

Many ballads relate stories of tragedy, hardship and death while others relate to us stories about history, both the good and the bad.  Take, for example, the Ballad of Hector in Hades by Edwin Muir.  This is a poem, or ballad, that tells us the story of Hector, the leader of the Trojan army and his battle and demise against the infamous Greek hero Achilles.  The story is chilling and the visual images brought to life here will make your hair stand on end.  For example, the voice is that of Hector, it is as if he is telling us his recounting of that day after the fact.  It starts right off with, “Yes, this where I stood that day,” (the day of his death) and ends with the actual moment of his death,

Two shadows racing on the grass,

Silent and so near,

Until his shadow falls on mine.

And I am rid of fear.

This ballad not only tells an historical story, but it also tells of great tragedy and sorrow,material that most ballads are made up from.  Whether spoken out loud or written down and read, ballads always have vivid imagery that takes the audience into the story.

The traditional ballad has four-line stanza’s (quatrains); lines 1 and 3 have four beats; lines 2 and 4 have three beats and rhyme.

Lewis Carroll, however, was fond of the six-line adaptation of the ballad and used it very nicely in such poems as The Walrus and the Carpenter:

The sun was shining on the sea,

Shining with all his might:

He did his very best to make

The billows smooth and bright-

And this was odd, because it was

The middle of the night.

This disturbing ballad was the story told to Alice by Tweedledee in Through the Looking Glass.  Although meant for children, this sequel to Alice in Wonderland, seems to be a bit more horrific in my personal opinion.  This particular ballad is morbid and it surprises me that its intent is meant for a younger audience.  However, it is a perfect example of a ballad that tells a story.  In the book, The Image of Childhood, Peter Coveney, describes both books of Alice to be “works of psychological fantasies” and he describes Carroll as being a “neurotic genius.”  I would say that the ballad, The Walrus and the Carpenter, support that idea.

Repetition is often common in the ballad and repeating entire stanza’s just like the chorus is repeated in songs, is seen.  Another common element of the ballad is dialogue between two people.  In the poem Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall, we can see the dialogue between the mother and her young daughter and we can see an example of lines being repeated:

“Mother dear, may I go downtown

Instead of out to play,

And march the streets of Birmingham

In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,

For the dogs are fierce and wild,

And clubs and hoses, guns and jails

Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.

Other children will go with me,

And march the streets of Birmingham

To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no you may not go,

For I fear those guns will fire.

But you may go to church instead

And sing in the children’s choir.”

This poem is also a perfect example of all the wonderful things that make up the ballad, including drama, vivid imagery, an exciting tale of a real event, historical reference, dialogue and unfortunately, tragedy.

Do not confuse the ballad with the ballade, pronounced “bah-LAHD.”  The ballade is a 14th and 15th Century French verse form with a heavy stress on rhyme and has strict rules on form.  The word ballade comes from an old French word that means “a dancing song”.

The ballad, in my opinion, is a form well liked by most readers, young and old.  The ballad is a story, and everyone likes a story.  Ballads have been written to cover many different people, young, old, old, rich, poor, heroes, villains and warriors.  The tales are of bravery, death, disaster, tragedy and adversity, all the things that keep a story alive and exciting to the reader.  Therefore, the appeal of the ballad covers many people and many generations.  The ballad itself had every element of a good story that includes dramatic characters, rich dialogue and climate endings.  Moreover, you know that a good story always makes for great reading and a great read can and will always be read repeatedly.

Works Cited and Referenced:

Child, Francis James. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. New York: Dover Books, 1965.

Coveney, Peter. The Image of Childhood: The Individual & Society, a Study of Theme in English Literature. Gannon Distributing Co., 1957.

Polonsky, Marc. The Poetry Reader’s Toolkit: A Guide to Reading and Understanding Poetry, NTC Publishing Group, 1998.

Untermeyer, Louis. The Pursuit of Poetry. Simon and Schuster, 2000.


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