Ballads, specifically folk ballads (also called traditional or popular ballads), are narrative folk songs transmitted orally among the common people in preliterate or partially literate societies.While ballads are known to have existed throughout Europe, the ballads composed in the remote areas along the English-Scottish border beginning in the 13th century are among the best known and most studied. These songs are simple and direct. They focus chiefly on plot, and most commonly present a single incident, beginning at a crucial turning point that moves the plot toward disaster. Action is presented impersonally—that is, the poet leaves out all personal feeling or commentary on the action— and dramatically—we are shown rather than told about events, and there is a great deal of dialogue at crucial points.
   The oral nature of the popular ballads is clear from a number of stylistic characteristics: stock epithets or formulas are used often (terms like blood-red wine or milk-white steed, for example); there is a good deal of parallelism and repetition— sometimes the repetition of a refrain, for example, but most often the use of “incremental repetition,” wherein the poet repeats a line or part of a line, but with an addition that helps advance the narrative.
   Other typical elements of folk ballads include the use of the supernatural; the concentration on love, courage, or domestic situations; the focus on common people; the absence of transitional devices between episodes; and the use of a summary closing stanza. Further, English traditional ballads are most often composed in what has become known as the ballad stanza: a four-line iambic stanza of alternating four- and three-foot lines, rhyming abcb. Rhyme in the ballads was not always exact rhyme.
   The well-known ballad “The Wife of Usher’s Well” might serve as an example of a “typical” folkballad. It begins with two stanzas that introduce a middle-class family and the sudden death of a widow’s three sons:
   There lived a wife at Usher’s Well,
   And a wealthy wife was she;
   She had three stout and stalwart sons
   And sent them o’er the sea.
   They hadna’ been a week from her,
   A week but barely ane,
   When word came to the carlin wife
   That her three sons were gane.
   The verse form is clearly a ballad stanza. There is a use of the stock epithet “stout and stalwart sons,” as well as the incremental repetition in lines five and six, repeating the detail of “a week” with the emphasis that it was only ane (one). And the sons’ sudden deaths are narrated without any comment by the narrator.
   As the ballad progresses, the sons return and spend the night at their mother’s home. They sleep in the bed she has made them, but when the cock crows, they must return to their graves. The eerily supernatural climax of the story is reached mainly through incremental repetition and the use of dialogue:
   Up then crew the red, red cock,
   And up and crew the gray.
   The eldest to the youngest said,
   “’Tis time we were away.”
   The cock he hadna’ crawed but once,
   And clapped his wings at a’,
   When the youngest to the eldest said,
   “Brother, we must awa’.
   “The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
   The channerin’ worm doth chide:
   Gin we but missed out o’ our place,
   A sair plain we maun bide.”
   (Child, no. 79)
   The last three lines might be translated, “The fretting worm chides: if we are missed out of our place [i.e., the grave], a sore pain we must abide.” The modern interest in folk ballads dates from the publication in 1765 of Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Francis Child created a five-volume standard edition in the late 19th century called The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Child’s edition contains 305 different ballads, some of them with up to 25 different versions. Though the earliest literary reference to ballads is a disparaging remark in the 14th-century poem PIERS PLOWMAN regarding ballads of ROBIN HOOD, it is likely that some of Child’s ballads date as far back as 1200. Child’s most recent examples are probably as modern as 1700.
   At one time there was a scholarly debate about the origins of popular ballads. Some scholars claimed that the ballads were composed communally by the “folk,” probably at common public events like dances. Others argued that the ballads must have been the work of individual poets, adopted by the community because they were delivered orally. Modern criticism favors the idea of individual composition, though certainly once the ballads were passed on by word of mouth, each individual singer would be likely to alter the text as well as the music of any particular ballad. Such a phenomenon would certainly explain why there are so many variant versions of individual ballads. Many modern scholars are interested in the ballads as the expressions of the common working-class people of the late Middle Ages. In the ballads, according to this point of view, we hear the voices of the common laborers and tradespeople, as opposed to those with a stake in the power structure, like the nobility or the church. Thus many popular ballads depict some inadequacy in the social structure, in the feudal system, or in the church. This is generally subtext, though, with love, heroism, and the supernatural remaining the chief overt themes of the popular ballads.
   ■ Bronson, Bertrand Harris. The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads: With Their Texts, According to the Extant Records of Great Britain and America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1959–72.
   ■ Child, Francis. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1882–98.
   ■ Fowler, David C. A Literary History of the Popular Ballad. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968.
   ■ Harris, Joseph, ed. The Ballad and Oral Literature. Cambridge,Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.
   ■ Morgan, Gwendolyn. Medieval Balladry and the Courtly Tradition. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.
   ■ Percy, Thomas. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. 1765. Reprint, London: Bickers and Sons, 1876.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.


Look at other dictionaries:

  • Ballad — Bal lad, n. [OE. balade, OF. balade, F. ballade, fr. Pr. ballada a dancing song, fr. ballare to dance; cf. It. ballata. See 2d {Ball}, n., and {Ballet}.] A popular kind of narrative poem, adapted for recitation or singing; as, the ballad of Chevy …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Ballad — Bal lad, v. i. To make or sing ballads. [Obs.] [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Ballad — Bal lad, v. t. To make mention of in ballads. [Obs.] [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • ballad — англ. [бэ/лэд] ballade [бэла/д] 1) баллада 2) в эстрад. музыке и джазе медленная пьеса с темой в 32 такта …   Словарь иностранных музыкальных терминов

  • ballad — (n.) late 15c., from Fr. ballade dancing song (13c.), from O.Prov. ballada (poem for a) dance, from balar to dance, from L.L. ballare to dance (see BALL (Cf. ball) (n.2)) …   Etymology dictionary

  • ballad — [n] narrative song carol, chant, ditty, serenade; concept 595 …   New thesaurus

  • ballad — ► NOUN 1) a poem or song telling a popular story. 2) a slow sentimental or romantic song. DERIVATIVES balladeer noun balladry noun. ORIGIN Provençal balada dance, song to dance to , from Latin ballare to dance …   English terms dictionary

  • ballad — [bal′əd] n. [ME balad < OFr ballade, dancing song < OProv ballada, (poem for a) dance < balar, to dance < LL ballare: see BALL2] 1. a romantic or sentimental song with the same melody for each stanza 2. a song or poem that tells a… …   English World dictionary

  • ballad — balladic /beuh lad ik/, adj. balladlike, adj. /bal euhd/, n. 1. any light, simple song, esp. one of sentimental or romantic character, having two or more stanzas all sung to the same melody. 2. a simple narrative poem of folk origin, composed in… …   Universalium

  • Ballad — A ballad is a poem usually set to music; thus, it often is a story told in a song. Any myth form may be told as a ballad, such as historical accounts or fairy tales in verse form. It usually has foreshortened, alternating four stress lines (… …   Wikipedia

  • Ballad — «Хор» Баллада …   Википедия

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