Introduction

A ballad is a song that tells a story. The form originated in the British Isles probably in the 1200s. In that setting, ballads more or less served the same purpose as the National Enquirer--they told memorable stories of things that might or might not have really happened. Ballads began as an oral form of communication, so many ballads have been lost to history. We are nnnnn,,,,,,,,jjjjjdependent on written down versions, which probably post-date the origin of a particular ballad for who knows how many years.

See also Appalachian Culture.

Form

As a poetic form, ballads are typically but not always written in a rhyme pattern of abcb with a stress pattern of 4-3-4-3. Here's a verse of Barbry Allen to demonstrate this. Stresses are in caps; rhyme is underlined.

All IN the MER-ry MONTH of MAY
When GREEN buds THEY were SWELL-in'
Sweet WILL-iam ON his DEATH bed LAY
For LOVE of BAR-bry ALLen.

Even a very modern ballad, such as Hotel California, might follow this pattern (stresses are not as regular):

"Hotel California"

On a dark desert highway,
cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas,
rising up through the air

Up ahead in the distance,
I saw shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night

Interestingly, this poetic form is also one that Emily Dickinson used, although most of her poems are not stories. ?The result is that you can sing many of her poems to the tunes of songs that have lyrics in ballad verse form such as Greensleeves and Yellow Rose of Texas.

Many ballads do not follow this form--the necessary condition for a song to be a ballad is that it tells a story, not that its verses follow a particular form.

Imagery

It has been said that ballads are cinematic in that they use images to tell stories. One of the best examples of this is Strawberry Roan. The first verse covers a lot of temporal territory as does the second. The description of the horse is highly visual and it requires a whole verse for what must have been a ten-second look at the horse. The description of what happens on the horse is also cast in visual terms.

If you think about how the cinema tells stories, it uses the camera to highlight the important parts of a story. For example, when there is an important event that is going to take place, the camera might do a slow pan across the scene just as the cowboy does a slow pan with his eyes of the horse, examining it from head to tail.

Genres

People tend to write ballads about interesting events which gives rise to several genres of ballads. This is just a partial list.

Murder ballad

A genre of ballad where someone, usually a young lady, gets murdered, often by a false lover. Banks of the Ohio, Knoxville Girl, and Pretty Polly are examples of this. The young lady gets revenge in a ballad called The False Young Man.

Train wreck

Trains and mountains don't mix well because of the possibility of poorly maintained tracks and the build up of speed going downhill. As a result, there are many Appalachian train wreck ballads such as the Wreck of the Old 97 or Billy Richardson's Last Ride.

Cowboy ballads

Ballads that take place in the Western U.S. and feature the lives and loves of cowboys. Includes Strawberry Roan and Big Iron.

Outlaws

Jesse James, John Hardy.

Historical events

People often create ballads around real events. Examples would be Amelia Earhart, several different Titanic ballads, Wreck of the Old 97, The Scopes Monkey Trial as well as songs about Colton Harris-Moore, the Barefoot Bandit:
http://blogs.seattleweekly.com/dailyweekly/2010/05/camano_islanders_vent_frustrat.php

Learning Activity

Write your own ballad (or get with some friends and write a ballad as a group, which is more fun). When I use this assignment with students, I tell them the ballad should be at least three verses in length. It's hard to tell a story in less than that. Also, since writing a ballad includes making up a complete story (beginning middle end, not just bedtime to bedtime), it is helpful to encourage students to use folk tales such as Cinderella as the basis for their ballads. Finally, if students use a ballad tune as the basis for writing their ballads, they will not have to worry about stresses so much which means their story telling will be of higher quality. Give students access to rhyming dictionaries in book form or online to help them come up with better rhymes than the Moon June Spoon variety.

Early History of Ballads in English

http://www.bartleby.com/212/1701.html

Ballad Sources

http://www.moonwise.com/ballads.html
http://emc.english.ucsb.edu/ballad_project/
http://www.bartleby.com/243/
http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/ballads/
http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=7DYqAAAAMAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=history+of+ballad+grumble&ots=WCVx_gYM-_&sig=pAIqf2VQJlklc1nZsivCgbA1hGc#v=onepage&q&f=false
http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=zhcJLVGJnIgC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=history+of+ballad+grumble&ots=dGc5av3BuM&sig=Ha5Z32oLZI9q9tdkUsG_cg6S5t8#v=onepage&q&f=false
http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=6WMOAAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR16&dq=history+of+ballad+grumble&ots=ga_TcWxKJq&sig=oXiljKJ9YBlQO0f9IB0UiDi9O-I#v=onepage&q&f=false
http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=L7UQAAAAYAAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=history+of+ballad+grumble&ots=DSV8hCiUnv&sig=YIgL3xxoyh-xogrc5Z9eUj9Lfqw#v=onepage&q&f=false

Child Ballads discovered in Applachia

http://www.libraries.wvu.edu/wvconline/patrickgainer.htm


Ballad Examples with Words


Amelia Earhart

Historical ballad about the death of Amelia Earhart.
http://www.mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=247

Strawberry Roan

Cowboy ballad
http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/robbins-marty/the-strawberry-roan-11886.html

Barbara Allen

Traditional British/Appalachian ballad, death of true lovers
http://www.etni.org.il/music/barbaraallen.htm
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Bringing Mary Home

a ghost story
http://www.bluegrasslyrics.com/all_song.cfm-recordID=s86448.htm

Pretty Polly

A murder ballad
http://www.stlyrics.com/songs/s/stanleybrothers23434/prettypolly743964.html

Draglines

a song about the destruction of coal mining
http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiDRAGLINE;ttDRAGLINE.html

Waltzing Matilda

An Australian ballad
http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/lyrics/matilda.htm

Come All You Coal Miners

First person ballad, created and sung by miner's wife
http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiCOMMINER;ttCOMMINER.html

False Young Man

Murder ballad where (finally) the boy gets killed instead of the girl
http://www.contemplator.com/america/wtree.html

The Death of Floyd Collins

Historical ballad about an event that led to one of the first media frenzies.
http://methodmusic.wordpress.com/2009/06/28/music-the-death-of-floyd-collins-vernon-dalhart/

Wreck of the Old 97

A ballad about a train wreck; a true story
http://bluegrasslyrics.com/all_song.cfm-recordID=j100.htm

Knoxville Girl

Descendant of much older ballad; murder ballad
http://sniff.numachi.com/pages/tiKNOXGIRL.html

The Fox

A very old ballad about a fox who goes hunting for food in a barn
http://www.songsforteaching.com/philrosenthal/thefox.htm