Folk Ballads, Broadside Ballads, And Literary Ballads

There are three main types of ballads: the folk ballad, the broadside ballad, and the literary ballad.

Any narrative song can be called a ballad, but in technical terms a ballad is a specific literary form. The word comes from the late Latin and Italian word "ballare," meaning "to dance." A ballad is a song that tells a story, and was originally a musical accompaniment to a dance.

We can distinguish three main types of ballads: the folk ballad, the broadside ballad, and the literary ballad.

The folk ballad belongs to the oral tradition. It is anonymous, and it is transmitted from singer to singer by word of mouth. The folk ballad is found among illiterate and semiliterate peoples, and is still a living tradition in Sicily, parts of Greece, and the central Balkans.

In many places ballads form a large part of the orally transmitted national literature. In Serbia, the Battle of Kosovo (1389 a.d.) led to the development of a cycle of epic ballads. In the British Isles, the cycle of "border ballads" (for example, "Bonny Barbara Allen") arose from the border wars between England and Scotland. Stories from the Robin Hood legend were also often embodied in ballads.


The ballad form is quite ancient. In fact, the pre-existing oral materials that were integrated into the Homeric epics probably consisted largely of ballads and other closely related forms. The discovery that such orally transmitted ballads provide the foundation for oral epic traditions and that each performance, though different, precisely maintains its story line was made in 1934 by Milman Parry, a young Harvard professor, who recorded live performances by traditional bards in mountain villages in Serbia. Parry developed the now widely accepted theory that orally transmitted ballads and epics use what he called "formulas" to enable the poet to structure his song and to maintain the consistent story line, despite the uniqueness of each performance.

A formula, according to the Parry hypothesis, is a group of words regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express an essential ideas. Basically, the oral formula is a prefabricated linguistic unit that can be plugged in wherever it is needed to maintain the poem's meter and to aid the poet's process of oral creation. Such a phrase, or some variation of it, will be frequently repeated over the course of a recitation, and certain stock formulas are common to all poets within a given poetic tradition. Familiar examples found in Homer are the "Homeric epithets" like "wine-dark sea," "swift-footed Achilles," and "rosy-fingered Dawn."


Folk ballads have certain common characteristics. The story, which often begins abruptly and moves rapidly, is told as an impersonal narrative, primarily through dialogue and action. The theme is often tragic and the events sensational (though there are also a number of comic ballads). A ballad typically deals with a single episode, with minimal imagery or background information, and little attempt to develop character. Many ballads also have refrains or use the technique of incremental repetition, a rhetorical device in which the same phrase is repeated with progressive variations over the course of the poem.

Ballad poets drew their material from community life, from local and national history, and from legends and folklore. Their tales are usually of adventure, war, love, death, violence, betrayal, and the supernatural.

In places where the folk ballad remains as a living tradition, the bards not only recite ballads handed down through countless generations, but also compose new ballads along the familiar narrative pattern, though dealing with recent events.

The folk ballads of the British Isles are often composed in a traditional pattern known as the ballad stanza or ballad meter. The ballad stanza is a quatrain rhyming abcb, and alternating four-stress and three-stress lines. Many English hymns follow a very similar pattern, called common meter, which differs from the ballad stanza only in its rhyme scheme (abab, rather than abcb). Both A. E. Housman and Emily Dickinson wrote many of their poems in common meter.

Some well known traditional folk ballads include "The Twa Sisters," "Lord Randall," "The Cruel Mother," "The Three Ravens," "The Demon Lover," and "Get up and Bar the Door."


The broadside ballad, so called because it was printed on one sheet of paper, was a written form, but it was also a popular rather than a sophisticated "literary" form. The broadside ballad, modeled on familiar folk ballads, was essentially an early form of tabloid journalism""rhymed accounts of sensational news events. Like the folk ballad, the broadside ballad made use of simple language and rough rhyme, though the verse in the broadside ballad was likely to be mere doggerel.

Though many were anonymous, some broadside ballads are ascribed to specific authors. Among those whose authors are known we find "A Ballade of the Scottyshe King" (1513), by John Skelton; "Clever Tom Clinch Going to Be Hanged" (1726), by Jonathan Swift; "The Fine Old English Gentleman" (1841), by Charles Dickens; "Miss Bailey's Ghost" and "Danny Deever," by Rudyard Kipling.


The literary ballad, unlike the folk ballad and the broadside ballad, is a sophisticated rather than a popular form. Unlike the anonymous, orally transmitted folk ballad, the literary ballad is a written composition by a single poet, who deliberately chooses the sorts of themes found in folk ballads and imitates their form. Despite the similarities between literary and folk ballads, literary ballads are meant to be read rather than sung.

Well known literary ballads include Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1817), John Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci" (1888), and Dudley Randall's "Ballad of Birmingham" (1966).

Coleridge and Keats chose the ballad form because of their interest, as Romantic poets, in both the traditional and the exotic. Both ballads rely heavily on elements of the supernatural to give them an exotic flavor.

Randall's "Ballad of Birmingham" is a very recent example of a literary ballad that tells about a violent and poignant event, an event that is also of historical importance""the death of four young African-American girls in their church basement following choir practice. The fire-bombing of the church by white supremacists is drawn directly from reality, but the story is transformed by making the victim a single child, and much younger than the original victims, as well as by presenting a dialogue between the child and her mother before the bombing takes place.

Even today in the United States a rough sort of popular "street poetry" is often used to transmit information and as a means by which members of a community tell their own stories to one another. Despite the obvious differences between the forms of rap music and the folk ballad, the two also have a great deal in common. And just as the original form of the traditional folk ballad was appropriated by professional poets, so too has the form of street verse found in our urban centers been appropriated by professional performers.

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