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A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative and set to music. Ballads were particularly characteristic of Britishmarker and Irishmarker popular poetry and song from the later medieval period until the 19th century and used extensively across Europe and later North America, Australia and North Africa. Many ballads were written and sold as single sheet broadsides. The form was often used by poets and composers from the 18th century onwards to produce lyrical ballads. In the later 19th century it took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song and the term is now often used as synonymous with any love song.

The origin of ballads

The ballad probably derives its name from medieval French dance songs or ‘ballares’ (from which we also get ballet), as did the alternative rival form that became the French Ballade. In theme and function they may originate from Scandinavian and Germanic traditions of epic storytelling that can be seen in poems such as Beowulf. The earliest example we have of a recognisable ballad in form in England is ‘Judas’ in a thirteenth-century manuscript.

The ballad form

Most, but not all northern and west European ballads are written in ballad stanzas or quatrains (four line stanzas) of alternating lines of iambic (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables), known as ballad meter. Usually, only the second and fourth line of a quatrain are rhymed (in the scheme a, b, c, b), which has been taken to suggest that, originally, ballads consisted of couplets (two lines) of rhymed verse, each of fourteen syllables. As can be seen in this stanza from ‘Lord Thomas and Fair Annet’,

The horse| fair Ann|et rode| upon|

He amb|led like| the wind|,

With sil|ver he| was shod| before,

With burn|ing gold| behind|.

However, there is considerable variation on this pattern in almost every respect, including length, number of lines and rhyming scheme, making the strict definition of a ballad extremely difficult. In southern and eastern Europe, and in countries that derive their tradition from them, ballad structure differs significantly, like Spanish romanceros, which are octosyllabic and use consonance rather than rhyme.

In all traditions most ballads are narrative in nature, with a self contained story, often concise and relying on imagery, rather than description, which can be tragic, historical, romantic or comic. Another common feature of ballads is repetition, sometimes of fourth lines in succeeding stanzas, as a refrain, sometimes of third and fourth lines of a stanza and sometimes of entire stanzas.

The composition of ballads

Scholars of ballads are often divided into two camps, the ‘communalists’ who, following the line established by the German scholar Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) and the Brothers Grimm, argue that ballads arose by a combined communal effort and did not have a single author, and ‘individualists’, following the thinking of English collector Cecil Sharp, who assert that there was a single original author. The communalist position tends to lead to the view that more recent, particularly printed broadside ballads, where we may even know the author, are a debased form of the genre. The individualists position has tended to lead to the view that later changes in the words of ballads are corruptions of an original text. More recently scholars have pointed to the interchange of oral and written forms of the ballad.

Classification of ballads

European Ballads have been generally been classified into three major groups: traditional, broadside and literary. In America a distinction is drawn between ballads that are versions of European, particularly British and Irish songs, and 'native American ballads', developed without reference to earlier songs. A further development was the evolution of the blues ballad, which mixed the genre with Afro-American music. For the late nineteenth century the music publishing industry found a market for what are often termed sentimental ballads, and these are the origin of the modern use of the term ballad to mean a slow love song.

Traditional ballads

The traditional, classical or popular (meaning of the people) ballad has been seen as originating with the wandering minstrels of late medieval Europe. From the end of the fifteenth century we have printed ballads that suggest a rich tradition of popular music. We know from a reference in William Langland's Piers Plowman, that ballads about Robin Hood were being sung from at least the late fourteenth century and the oldest detailed material we have is Wynkyn de Worde's collection of Robin Hood ballads printed about 1495.

Early collections of ballads were made by Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) and in the Roxburghe Ballads collected by Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (1661-1724). In the eighteenth century there were increasing numbers such collections, including Thomas D'Urfey's Wit and Mirth: or, Pills to Purge Melancholy (1719-20) and Bishop Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). The last of these also contained some oral material and by the end of the eighteenth century this was becoming increasingly common, with collections including John Ritson's, The Bishopric Garland (1784), which paralleled the work of figures like Robert Burns and Walter Scott in Scotland.

Key work on the traditional ballad was undertaken in the late nineteenth century in Denmark by Svend Grundtvig and for England and Scotland by the Harvard professor Francis Child. They attempted to record and classify all the known ballads and variants in their chosen regions. Unfortunately since Child died before writing a commentary on his work it is uncertain exactly how and why he differentiated the 305 ballads printed that would be published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

There have been many different and contradictory attempts to classify traditional ballads by theme, but commonly identified types are the religious, supernatural, tragic, love ballads, historic, legendary and humorous.

Broadside ballads

An eighteenth century broadside ballad
Broadside ballads (also known as 'roadsheet’, ‘stall’, ‘vulgar’ or ‘come all ye’ ballads) were a product of the development of cheap print from the sixteenth century. They were generally printed on one side of a large sheet of poor quality paper. This could also be cut in half lengthways to make ‘broadslips’, or folded to make chapbooks. They were produced in huge numbers, with over 400,000 being sold in England annually by the 1660s. Many were sold by travelling chapmen in city streets or at fairs. The subject matter varied from what has been defined as the traditional ballad, although many traditional ballads were printed as broadsides. Among the topics were love, religion, drinking-songs, legends, and early journalism, which included disasters, political events and signs, wonders and prodigies.

Literary ballads

Literary or lyrical ballads grew out of an increasing interest in the ballad form among social elites and intellectuals, particularly in the Romantic movement from the later eighteenth century. Respected literary figures like Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott in Scotland both collected and wrote their own ballads, using the form to create an artistic product. Similarly in England William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge produced a collection of Lyrical Ballads in 1798, including Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. At the same time in Germany Goethe cooperated with Schiller on a series of ballads, some of which were later set to music by Schubert. Later important examples of the poetic form included Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Barrack Room Ballads’ (1892-6) and Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (1897).

Ballad operas

the eighteenth century ballad operas developed as a form of Englishmarker stage entertainment, partly in opposition to the Italian domination of the London operatic scene. It consisted of racy and often satirical spoken (English) dialogue, interspersed with songs that are deliberately kept very short to minimize disruptions to the flow of the story. Subject matter involved the lower, often criminal, orders, and typically showed a suspension (or inversion) of the high moral values of the Italian opera of the period. The first, most important and successful was The Beggar's Opera of 1728, with a libretto by John Gay and music arranged by John Christopher Pepusch, both of whom probably influenced by Parisianmarker vaudeville and the burlesques and musical plays of Thomas D'Urfey (1653–1723), a number of whose collected ballads they used in their work. Gay produced further works in this style, including a sequel under the title Polly. Henry Fielding, Colley Cibber, Arne, Dibdin, Arnold, Shield, Jackson of Exeter, Hook and many others produced ballad operas that enjoyed great popularity. Ballad opera was attempted in America and Prussia. Later it moved into a more pastoral form, like Isaac Bickerstaffe's Love in a Village (1763) and Shield’s Rosina (1781), using more original music that imitated, rather than reproduced, existing ballads. Although the form declined in popularity towards the end of the eighteenth century its influence can be seen in light operas like that of Gilbert and Sullivan's early works like The Sorcerer. In the twentieth century, one of the most influential plays, Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's (1928) The Threepenny Opera was a reworking of The Beggar's Opera, setting a similar story with the same characters, and containing much of the same satirical bite, but only using one tune from the original. The term ballad opera has also been used to describe musicals using folk music, such as The Martins and the Coys in 1944, and Peter Bellamy's The Transports in 1977. The satiric elements of ballad opera can be seen in some modern musicals such as Chicago and Cabaret.

Ballads beyond Europe

Native American ballads

Native American ballads are ballads that are native to North America (not to be confused with ballads performed by native Americans). Some 300 ballads sung in north America have been identified as having origins in British traditional or broadside ballads. Examples include ‘The Streets of Laredo’, which was found in Britain and Ireland as ‘The Unfortunate Rake’. However, a further 400 have been identified as originating in colonial north America, including among the best known, ‘The Ballad of Davy Crockett' and 'Jesse James'. They became an increasing area of interest for scholars in the nineteenth century and most were recorded or catalogued by George Malcolm Laws, although some have since been found to have British origins and additional songs have since been collected. They are usually considered closest in form to British broadside ballads and in terms of style are largely indistinguishable, however, they demonstrate a particular concern with occupations, journalistic style and often lack the ribaldry of British broadside ballads.

Blues ballads

The blues ballad has been seen as a fusion of Anglo-American and Afro-American styles of music from the nineteenth century. Blues ballads tend to deal with active protagonists, often anti-heroes, resisting adversity and authority, but frequently lacking a strong narrative and emphasising character instead. They were often accompanied by banjo and guitar which followed the blues musical format. The most famous blues ballads include those about John Henry and Casey Jones.

Bush Ballads

The ballad was taken to Australia by early settlers from Britain and Ireland and gained particular foothold in the rural outback. The rhyming songs, poems and tales written in the form of ballads often relate to the itinerant and rebellious spirit of Australia in The Bush, and the authors and performers are often referred to as bush bards. The nineteenth century was the golden age of bush ballads. Several collectors have catalogued the songs including John Meredith whose recording in the 1950s became the basis of the collection in the National Library of Australiamarker. The songs tell personal stories of life in the wide open country of Australia. Typical subjects include mining, raising and droving cattle, sheep shearing, wanderings, war stories, the 1891 Australian shearers' strike, class conflicts between the landless working class and the squatters (landowners), and outlaws such as Ned Kelly, as well as love interests and more modern fare such as trucking.

Sentimental ballads

Now the most commonly understood meaning of the term ballad, sentimental ballads, sometimes called "drawing-room ballads" owing to their popularity with the middle classes, had their origins in the early ‘Tin Pan Alleymarker’ music industry of the later nineteenth century. They were generally sentimental, narrative, strophic songs published separately or as part of an opera (descendants perhaps of broadside ballads, but with printed music, and usually newly composed. Such songs include ‘Little Rosewood Casket’ (1870), ‘After the Ball’ (1892) and ‘Danny Boy’. By the Victorian era ballad had come to mean any sentimental popular song, especially so-called "royalty ballads", which publishers would pay popular singers to perform in Britain and the United Statesmarker in "ballad concerts." Some of Stephen Foster's songs exemplify this genre. By the 1920s, composers of Tin Pan Alleymarker and Broadwaymarker used ballad to signify a slow, sentimental tune or love song, often written in a fairly standardized form (see below). Jazz musicians sometimes broaden the term still further to embrace all slow-tempo pieces.

Jazz, blues and traditional pop

As new genres of music, such as ragtime, blues and jazz, began to emerge in the early twentieth century the popularity of the genre faded, but the association with sentimentality meant led to the term ballad being used for a slow love song from the 1950s onwards. Most pop standard and jazz ballads are built from a single, introductory verse; usually around 16 bars in length, and ending on the dominant; the chorus or refrain, usually it is 16 or 32 bars long, and in AABA form (though other forms such as ABAC are not uncommon). In AABA forms the B section is usually referred to as the bridge; often a brief coda, sometimes based on material from the bridge, was added as in "Over the Rainbow". Other key traditional pop and jazz ballads include: "Body and Soul" by Johnny Green; "Misty" by Erroll Garner; "The Man I Love" by George Gershwin; "My Funny Valentine" by Rodgers and Hart, "God Bless the Child" by Billie Holiday, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" by Cole Porter and the instrumental ballad "Naima" by John Coltrane, "In a Sentimental Mood" by Duke Ellington and "Always" by Irving Berlin.

Pop and rock ballads

The most common use of the term ballad in modern pop music is for an emotional love song. When the word ballad appears in the title of a song, as for example in Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" or Billy Joel's "The Ballad of Billy the Kid", the folk-music sense is generally implied. Ballad is also sometimes applied to strophic story-songs more generally, such as Don McLean's "American Pie". Modern pop ballads of this kind tend towards greater formal complexity than their folk antecedents.

During the 1970s, the power ballad was developed by rock bands as an emotional song, generally focused on love, delivered with powerful vocals and using rock instruments, particularly electric guitars and drums. According to music essayist and author Charles Aaron, power ballads came into existence in the early 1970s, when rock stars attempted to be introspective and sensitive. In 1976, the power ballad broke the top 40: "earlier songs like (Led Zeppelin's) Stairway To Heaven, (Aerosmith's) Dream On, and (Lynyrd Skynyrd's) Free Bird had a new lease on life". He cites Mötley Crüe's "Home Sweet Home" as the power ballad that popularized the style in the 1980s The song aired frequently on MTV in 1985 becoming the most requested video for four months straight and the most requested video on the station in its history up to that time. Other examples include Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" (1984) and Heart’s "What About Love" (1985).


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References and further reading

  • Middleton, Richard. "Popular Music (I)". Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (subscription required). Accessed 2007-04-06.
  • Randel, Don (1986). The New Harvard Dictionary of Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-61525-5.
  • Temperley, Nicholas. "Ballad (II, 2)". Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (subscription required). Accessed 2007-04-06.
  • Witmer, Robert. "Ballad (jazz)". Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (subscription required). Accessed 2007-04-06.
  • Marcello Sorce Keller, "Sul castel di mirabel: Life of a Ballad in Oral Tradition and Choral Practice", Ethnomusicology, XXX(1986), no. 3, 449- 469.

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