A ballad is a narrative, rhythmic saga of a past affair, which may be heroic, romantic or satirical, 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. (Ballads should not be confused with the ballade, a 14th and 15th century French verse 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.
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 of the characteristics of a ballad are:
• A ballad tells a story
• A ballad focuses on actions and dialogue rather than characteristics and narration.
• A ballad has a simple metrical structure and sentence structure.
• A ballad is sung to a modal melody.
• A ballad is of oral tradition, passed down by word of mouth. Therefore, it undergoes changes and is of anonymous authorship.
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, cheaply printed and often topical, humorous, even mildly 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.
Thomas Percy, Robert Harley, Francis James Child, Sir Walter Scott and 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 Christ. Many modern
written musical ballads are in the repertory of American folk music.
• Traditional Ballads: o Barbara Allen o Sir Patrick Spens o Lord Randall o Ballad of Jesse James o John Barleycorn o Henry Martin o The Three Ravens o Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight o Lyke-Wake Dirge o Tam Lin o Thomas Rhymer o The Cruel Brother o The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry o Mary Tamlin o Many ballads of Robin Hood o Ballad of Chevy Chase o The Battle of Otterburn o The Battle of Harlaw o The Gypsie Laddie o Golden Vanity o Verner Raven - oldest Scandanavian ballad with music o
Modern Ballads: o American Pie o Ballad of the Alamo o
Ballad of the Green Berets o Ballad of Davy Crockett