Ballad

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. For further discussion, see Folk music.

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.

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

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.

Literary ballads

Literary ballads are those composed and written formally. The form, with its connotations of simple folkloric authenticity, became popular with the rise of Romanticism in the later 18th century. Literary ballads may then be set to music, as Schubert's Die Erlkönig, set to a literary ballad by Goethe. In Romantic opera a ballad set into the musical texture may emphasize or play against the theatrical moment. Atmospheric ballads in operas were initiated in Weber's Der Freischütz and include Senta's ballad in Wagner's Fliegender Holländer, or the 'old song' 'Salce' Desdemona sings in Verdi's Otello. Compare the stanza-like structure and narrative atmosphere of the musical Ballades for solo piano of Chopin or Brahms.

Ballad opera

A particularly English form, the ballad opera, has as its most famous example John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, which inspired the 20th-century cabaret operas of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (q.v.).

Francis James Child, Sir Walter Scott and James Hogg were early collectors and publishers of ballads from the oral tradition and broadsheets. They also wrote new ballads. Many ballads are referenced in scholarly works by their number in Child's compilation. 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 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.

Jazz ballad

The jazz ballad is a sentimental narrative adagio akin to a blues song. The regrets of love gone wrong provide the elements of the ballad called a 'torch song.' By extension, any popular song with a slow beat is termed a 'ballad.' In modern music, a song called a ballad is one which tells a story but may not follow any of the other conventions. Many styles of music such as rock, pop, and country label some songs as ballads.

Famous Ballads

  • Traditional
    • Barbara Allen
    • Sir Patrick Spens
    • Lord Randall
    • Ballad of Jesse James
    • Henry Martin
    • The Three Ravens
    • Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight
    • Tam Lin
    • The Cruel Brother
    • The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry
    • Mary Tamlin
    • Many ballads of Robin Hood
    • Ballad of Chevy Chase
    • The Battle of Otterburn
    • The Battle of Harlaw
    • The Gypsie Laddie
    • Golden Vanity
    • Verner Raven - oldest Scandanavian ballad with music
  • Modern



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