12 Aug

A short definition of the popular ballad (known also as the folk
ballad or traditional ballad) is that it is a song, transmitted orally, which
tells a story. Ballads are thus the narrative species of folk songs, which originate,
and are communicated orally, among illiterate or only partly literate
people. In all probability the initial version of a ballad was composed by a single
author, but he or she is unknown; and since each singer who learns and repeats
an oral ballad is apt to introduce changes in both the text and the tune,
it exists in many variant forms. Typically, the popular ballad is dramatic, condensed,
and impersonal: the narrator begins with the climactic episode, tells
the story tersely by means of action and dialogue (sometimes by means of the
dialogue alone), and tells it without self-reference or the expression of personal
attitudes or feelings.

The most common stanza form—called the ballad stanza—is a quatrain
in alternate four- and three-stress lines; usually only the second and fourth
lines rhyme. This is the form of “Sir Patrick Spens”; the first stanza of this ballad
also exemplifies the conventionally abrupt opening and the manner of
proceeding by third-person narration, curtly sketched setting and action,
sharp transition, and spare dialogue:
The king sits in Dumferling towne,
Drinking the blude-red wine:

• “O whar will I get a guid sailor,
To sail this schip of mine?”

Many ballads employ set formulas (which helped the singer remember the
course of the song) including (1) stock descriptive phrases like “blood-red
wine” and “milk-white steed,” (2) a refrain in each stanza (“Edward,” “Lord
Randall”), and (3) incremental repetition, in which a line or stanza is repeated,
but with an addition that advances the story (“Lord Randall,” “Child
Waters”). (See oral formulaic poetry.)

Although many traditional ballads probably originated in the later Middle
Ages, they were not collected and printed until the eighteenth century,
first in England, then in Germany. In 1765 Thomas Percy published his
Reliques of Ancient English Poetry which, although most of the contents had
been rewritten in the style of Percy’s era, did much to inaugurate widespread
interest in folk literature. The basic modern collection is Francis J. Child’s English
and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98), which includes 305 ballads, many
of them in variant versions. Bertrand H. Bronson has edited The Traditional
Tunes of the Child Ballads (4 vols., 1959-72). Popular ballads are still being
sung—and collected, now with the help of a tape recorder—in the British Isles
and remote rural areas of America. To the songs that early settlers inherited
from Great Britain, America has added native forms of the ballad, such as
those sung by lumberjacks, cowboys, laborers, and social protesters. A number
of recent folk singers, including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Joan
Baez, themselves compose ballads; most of these, however, such as “The Ballad
of Bonnie and Clyde” (about a notorious gangster and his moll), are closer
to the journalistic “broadside ballad” than to the archaic and heroic mode of
the popular ballads in the Child collection.

A broadside ballad is a ballad that was printed on one side of a single
sheet (called a “broadside”), dealt with a current event or person or issue, and
was sung to a well-known tune. Beginning with the sixteenth century, these
broadsides were hawked in the streets or at country fairs in Great Britain.
The traditional ballad has greatly influenced the form and style of lyric
poetry in general. It has also engendered the literary ballad, which is a narrative
poem written in deliberate imitation of the form, language, and spirit
of the traditional ballad. In Germany, some major literary ballads were written
in the latter eighteenth century, including G. A. Burger’s very popular
“Lenore” (1774)—which soon became widely read and influential in an English
translation—and Goethe’s “Erlkönig” (1782). In England, some of the
best literary ballads were composed in the Romantic Period: Coleridge’s “Rime
of the Ancient Mariner” (which, however, is much longer and has a much
more elaborate plot than the folk ballad), Walter Scott’s “Proud Maisie,” and
Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” In Lyrical Ballads of 1798, Wordsworth begins
“We Are Seven” by introducing a narrator as an agent and first-person
teller of the story—”I met a little cottage girl”—which is probably one reason
he called the collection “lyrical ballads.” Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” on
the other hand, of which the first version also appeared in Lyrical Ballads,
opens with the abrupt and impersonal third-person narration of the traditional

It is an ancient Mariner
And he stoppeth one of three….
Gordon H. Gerould, The Ballad of Tradition (1932); W. J. Entwistle, European
Balladry (rev. ed., 1951); M.J. C. Hodgart, The Ballads (2d ed., 1962); John
A. and Alan Lomax, American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934); D. C. Fowler, A
Literary History of the Popular Ballad (1968). For the broadside ballad see The
Common Muse, eds. V. de Sola Pinto and Allan E. Rodway (1957).


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