What are Ballads?

Ballads are narrative songs that are usually anonymous and, until fairly recently, were preserved by oral transmission.

Traditional ballads are difficult to date; we can use the first publication date as a cut off point, but often the language indicates that the ballad was composed several hundred years before it was published. In general, a composition date between 1200 and 1700 applies to these ballads, though none were printed before the 18th century. Ballads remained popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and the traditional ballads like those included here became popular again in the sixties and seventies, in part because of the performances of people like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and folk rock performers like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.

The form of the ballad is variable, but the fact that they are meant to be sung is crucial. Often ballads use the ballad stanza, (see “Mary Hamilton”) a quatrain in alternate four and three stress lines; usually only the second and fourth lines in the quatrain rhyme. Many English traditional ballads use formulaic phrases, repeated lines and choruses. Many ballads contain dialect words from the Scottish border; these include archaic northern dialect spellings of modern words, like “sall” for “shall,” or “dee” for die, and vocabulary that is no longer used but that was retained longer in the north of England and Scotland than in the more metropolitan areas of Britain. Later forms of the ballad include broadside ballads, printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper and sold in the street, and the literary ballad popular among Romantic poets. Keats’ “La Bell Dame Sans Merci” is an example of a literary ballad.

Francis James Child

The ballads that are probably best known in English are traditional ballads collected by Francis James Child and published in his five volume collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–1898). Child was the first to actively study ballads, grouping each ballad with variants and numbering them in a system that is still used today. Earlier collections by Bishop Thomas Percy and Sir Walter Scott have also assisted in preserving English and Scottish ballads, though both had a tendency to rewrite the texts they collected. And the practice of selling single ballads on broadsheets for a few coins has also preserved a number of ballads.

Most of the 305 traditional ballads collected by Child as well as those he missed are in a dialect, typically Scots, a northern dialect of English used along the Scottish border. They also use archaic language. Many ballads are loosely based on historical incidents, like the ballads about Mary Hamilton, inspired by the horrific murder of an infant. Other varieties of ballads are about love lost and won, like “Barbara Allen,” or strange yet oddly compelling narratives of the supernatural, like the stories of “Tam Lin” or “The Great Selchie of Sule Skerry.”

Ballads really are stories; think of them as compressed novels. This is especially true of the English and Scottish popular ballads collected by Francis James Child, and known as Child Ballads.

For a list of the Child Ballads, many of them with annotations to Child’s text, see The Child Ballads Listed.