The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Ballad: A poem that recounts a story — generally some dramatic episode — in the form of a song. Traditional ballads (also called popular or folk ballads) are folk songs usually sung by common people that typically relate popular and often tragic stories in simple language. The form, which arose in the later Middle Ages, ultimately became popular throughout Europe as well as in North America. Francis J. Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882—98) remains the standard compilation of traditional ballads in English.

“Traditional” ballads are so called because they are passed down orally from one generation to the next. The tradition of oral transmission results in ongoing and continuous modifications of the ballad, which accounts for, among other things, the many variations a ballad is likely to exhibit over time and across geographical space. It also renders traditional ballads common property, their authorship long forgotten.

Traditional ballads typically exhibit the following features: (1) simple stanzas, many of which take the form of the ballad stanza; (2) abrupt transitions between stanzas due to weak verses that have been dropped from the ballad at some point; (3) refrains, which often include a nonsense line that probably resulted from a mistake or misunderstanding in oral transmission; (4) stock descriptive phrases, often incorporated to make it easier for the singer to remember the words of the ballad; (5) incremental repetition, the restatement of a phrase or line with a variation that adds additional information or meaning; (6) dialogue used to advance the story line; (7) minimal characterization; and (8) an impersonal narrator. Despite the “objectivity” of the singer’s language, ballads typically veil a great deal of emotion.

Other types of ballads include the broadside ballad, the literary ballad, and the various contemporary works we currently refer to as ballads. The broadside ballad, an English form that arose in the sixteenth century, typically addressed current events and was printed on a broadside (a large sheet of paper) sold by street vendors. The literary ballad, which arose in the late eighteenth century with the rise of romanticism, is a poem written in imitation of the traditional folk ballad. (Nineteenth-century poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Hardy wrote literary ballads in an attempt to reground poetry in the language and emotions of common people.) Since the 1960s, ballad has been used loosely to refer to lyrics associated with social protest movements and slow love songs as well as folk songs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Well-known traditional ballads include “Bonny Barbara Allen,” “Danny Boy,” and “The Demon Lover”; other more recent examples include “Alouette,” “Camptown Races,” and “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.” Two of the most well-known literary ballads are Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) and John Keats’s “La belle dame sans merci” (1820). More recent examples of ballads with traditional elements include Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” (1967), a late 1960s protest song; John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” (1982); Billy Joel’s “Downeaster ’Alexa’” (1989); and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” (1994). Ballads in the contemporary love-song sense include The Eagles’ “Desperado” (1973); Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” featured in the movie Titanic (1997); Sheryl Crow’s and Sting’s duet “Always on Your Side” (2006); Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” (2011), written for The Twilight Saga (2008—12); Taylor Swift’s “Begin Again” (2012); and Adele’s “Hello” (2015).