What is Ballad?


The ballad’s name is most likely derived from mediaeval French dance songs or “ballares” (from which we also get ballet), as did the alternative rival form that became the French Ballade. They may have originated in theme and function from Scandinavian and Germanic storytelling traditions, as seen in poems such as Beowulf.

In England, the earliest example of a recognisable ballad in form is ‘Judas,’ which appears in a 13th-century manuscript.


A ballad is a type of verse that is often a narrative set to music. From the late mediaeval period until the nineteenth century, ballads were a distinctive feature of British and Irish popular poetry and song, and they were widely used throughout Europe and, later, the Americas, Australia, and North Africa. A large number of ballads were written and sold as single sheet broadsides. From the 18th century onwards, poets and composers frequently used the form to create lyrical ballads. It took on the meaning of a slow form of popular love song in the late nineteenth century, and the term is now often used as synonymous with any love song, particularly the pop or rock power ballad.

Most 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 14 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 romances, which are octo-syllabic and use consonance rather than rhyme. 

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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. 

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

Classification of Ballad

Traditional, broadside, and literary ballads are the three major types of European ballads. In America, there is a distinction between ballads that are versions of European songs, particularly British and Irish songs, and ‘native American ballads’ that are developed without reference to earlier songs. The evolution of the blues ballad, which combined the genre with Afro American music, was another step forward. The music publishing industry discovered a market for what are commonly referred to as sentimental ballads in the late nineteenth century, and these are the origins 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 is thought to have originated with the wandering minstrels of late mediaeval Europe. We have printed ballads dating back to the end of the 15th century, indicating 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 as early as the late 14th century, and the earliest detailed material we have is Wynkyn de Worde’s collection of Robin Hood ballads, which was published around 1495.

Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) amassed an early collection of ballads, as did Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, and Mortimer (1661–1724) in the Roxburghe Ballads. There were an increasing number of such collections in the 18th century, such as 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 included some oral material, which was becoming more common by the end of the 18th century, with collections such as John Ritson’s The Bishopric Garland (1784), which paralleled the work of figures such as Robert Burns and Walter Scott in Scotland.

Svend Grundtvig of Denmark and Harvard professor Francis James Child of England and Scotland did important work on the traditional ballad in the late nineteenth century. They attempted to record and categorise all known ballads and variants in their respective regions. Because Child died before writing a commentary on his work, it is unclear how and why he distinguished the 305 ballads printed in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Many different and contradictory attempts have been made to classify traditional ballads by theme, but the most commonly identified types are religious, supernatural, tragic, love ballads, historic, legendary, and humorous.

Broadsides Ballads

Broadside ballads arose as a result of the 16th century’s development of cheap printing. They were usually printed on one side of a medium to large sheet of cheap paper. They were printed in black-letter or gothic type and included multiple, eye-catching illustrations, a popular tune tile, and an enticing poem during their heyday in the first half of the 17th century. By the 18th century, they were often printed in white letter or roman type with little decoration. These later sheets could include a number of individual songs that would be cut apart and sold separately as “slipsongs.”

Alternatively, they could be folded to make small cheap books or “chapbooks,” which frequently drew on ballad stories. They were mass-produced, with over 400,000 sold in England each year by the 1660s. Tessa Watt believes the number of copies sold was in the millions. Many were sold in city streets or at fairs by travelling chapmen. The subject matter varied from what has been defined as the traditional ballad, despite the fact that many traditional ballads were printed as broadsides. Love, religion, drinking songs, legends, and early journalism, which included disasters, political events and signs, wonders, and prodigies, were among the topics covered.

Literary Ballads

Literary or lyrical ballads arose from a growing interest in the ballad form among social elites and intellectuals, particularly during the Romantic Movement in the late 18th century. Respected literary figures in Scotland, such as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott, collected and wrote their own ballads, transforming the form into an artistic product. Similarly, in 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, which included Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Simultaneously, in Germany, Goethe collaborated with Schiller on a collection of ballads, some of which were later set to music by Schubert. Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Barrack Room Ballads’ (1892-6) and Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Goal’ were later important examples of the poetic form (1897).

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Characteristics / Features of Ballad

The main characteristics of a ballad are :
It is impersonal’. Even if there is an ‘I’, who sings the tale, the speaker addresses us from a perspective outside the action and he comments for our benefit on the character and situation presented.

The ballad is full of refrains. This is known as incremental repetition (a device which repeats what has been said before, sometimes lines, sometimes words). Stock epithets are also often repeated.

The ballad is remarkable for its ordinary narration and it concentrates on details. It is compressed and tends towards the dramatic with a good deal of action and dialogue in the course of narration.

The ballad is a poem in short stanzas usually of four lines, having eight and six syllables alternately. The best example is Coleridge’s ballad THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER.

Here are some more typical Features:

a single episode of highly dramatic nature is presented.
• the supernatural is likely to play an important part.
• the incidents are usually such as happen to common people (as opposed to nobility) and often have to do with domestic episodes.
• physical courage and love are frequent themes.

incremental repetition is common
• transitions are abrupt
• often the ballad is brought to a close with some sort of summary stanza

• slight attention is paid to characterization or description in a detached narration.

• action is largely developed through dialogue with little clue as to who is speaking.

tragic situations and sudden disasters are presented with the utmost simplicity using plain, simple language.

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