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Traditional Ballads

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What is a ballad?  / 
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What Is a Ballad?

Is it defined by its form? by the way it tells a story? by who sings it? by the date of its composition or performance?  Is a ballad identical to its text, and, if so, to which text? As you read, note the use of past or present tense, and note how many of these statements propose a cultural location for "ballad" and then cut away as "not ballad" all material that doesn't fit. 

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Susan Tichy,
Master of Fine Arts, Poetry

Dr. Margaret Yocom

George Mason University

Best viewed in Netscape 7.2

A ballad is a song that tells a story, or -- to take the other point of view -- a story told in song. More formally, it may be defined as a short narrative poem, adapted for singing, simple in plot and metrical structure, divided into stanzas, and characterized by complete impersonality so far as the author or singer is concerned. This last trait is of the very first consequence in determining the quality or qualities which give the ballad its peculiar place in literature. A ballad has no author. At all events, it appears to have none.... Unlike other songs, it does not purport to give utterance to the feelings or the mood of the singer. The first-person does not occur at all, except in the speeches of the several characters. Finally, there are no comments or reflections by the narrator. He does not dissect or psychologize. He does not take sides for or against any of the dramatis personae.... If it were possible to conceive a tale as telling itself, without the instrumentality of a conscious speaker, the ballad would be such a tale.

--George Lyman Kittredge, Introduction to English and Scottish Popular Ballads, edited from the collection of Francis James Child. Houghton Mifflin,1904. p xi

A ballad is a story. Of the four elements common to all narrative--action, character, setting, and theme--the ballad emphasizes the first. Setting is casual; theme is often implied; characters are usually types and even when more individual are undeveloped, but action carries the interest. The action is usually highly dramatic, often startling and all the more impressive because it is unrelieved. The ballad practices rigid economy in relating the action; incidents antecedent to the climax are often omitted, as are explanatory and motivating details. The action is usually of a plot sort and the plot often reduced to the moment of climax; that is, of the unstable situation and the resolution which constitutes plot, the ballad often concentrates on the resolution leaving the listener to supply details and antecedent material.

Almost without exception ballads were sung; often they were accompanied by instrumental music. The tunes are traditional and probably as old as the words, but of the  two--story and melody--story is basic.

MacEdward Leach, quoted by Tristam Potter Coffin in The British Traditional Ballad in North America, Revised edition. University of Texas Press, 1977. p 164

“What is a ballad?” The short reply -- “It is a narrative song that has been transmitted by tradition” -- is not entirely satisfactory, as the processes of tradition have varied in response to social change. A longer, more satisfying, but more complicated account of the ballad has to take into consideration, first, ballad transmission, second, ballad-story, and, third, ballad text.

The three stages of tradition correspond to a culture’s periods of nonliteracy, initial literacy, and settled literacy. It is the degree or outright absence of literacy that determines the kind of composition and transmission employed by the folk at different times. The folk of the oral tradition were nonliterate and it is their method of composition and transmission that has given the distinguishing traits to what we normally think of as “the” ballads. 

David Buchan, Introduction to A Scottish Ballad Book, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973. p 1-2

To define the ballad...is the equivalent to determining  precisely what justifies distinguishing it from other forms of popular song. The most common notion of the ballad, certainly in the scholarship of the English-speaking world, is that it is a narrative song, current in popular tradition, which tells its story in a particular, specified way. Of the various factors composing this definition, the musical is at once the most important and the least useful...[because] the ballad tunes were part of a traditional corpus of melodies which could be applied to all kinds of song, narrative and lyric, traditional and journalistic. 

Similarly, insistence on oral transmission, by itself, is of little value in distinguishing the ballad from other forms of popular song...and is an oddly sideways approach to the problem... For many undoubted ballads we have no objective evidence that they were transmitted orally, as they survive exclusively in manuscript or on broadsides, and there are plenty of narrative songs, recovered directly from oral tradition, which no one has contemplated calling ballads.... The most frequent problem confronting any ballad scholar who goes beyond wrestling with definitions to the direct study of texts, is the availability, for any one ballad, of a multiplicity of variants from a wide range of dates and places.

Of the many responses which have been made to this circumstance...[the] more fruitful are the attempts to see oral transmission and its attendant textual instability as factors determining what we, as our title indicates, consider the most salient characteristic of the ballad, its peculiar mode of narration. The ballad, this approach implies, is not merely subject to variation in the course of transmission, but is somehow created by it; not merely in the sense that the text of any one ballad finally recovered from tradition is the compound of all the changes introduced by the singers who transmitted it, but rather that oral transmission is a fundamental cause of the narrative technique, which effectively defines the genre itself...

The traditional ballad belongs, and has always belonged, to that oddly named “little tradition:” of popular culture, as opposed the “great tradition” of the cultural elite, provided we are aware that by "popular tradition” we mean the culture shared by all members of a community, including the cultural elite, who are so distinguished by having access to their exclusive “great tradition” as well. As part of this little tradition the ballad is neither the debris... of some earlier phase of the great tradition--it has never in its recorded history been exclusively the possession of the cultural elite--nor did it become “folklore” until the very recent period when the educated elite rediscovered it as part of that common popular culture from which they had withdrawn in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is for this reason, presumably, that neither folklore...nor literary studies...has succeeded in coming to terms decisively with the ballad problem... We cannot define the ballad, if by that we mean recovering the concept of the ballad current among those who composed, sang or listened to it, for there was no such concept. Nor was the ballad a fixed and unchanging phenomenon, independent of context: the genre itself, as well as the individual song, has been subject to variation. What is needed is observation rather than definition. 

Thomas Pettit, in the introduction to The Ballad as Narrative: Studies in the Ballad Traditions of England, Scotland, Germany and Denmark, by Flemming G. Andersen, Otto Holzapfel, and Thomas Pettit. Odense University Press, 1982. pp 2-3

Our Scottish ballads are amongst the finest and most under-rated and neglected products of our traditional culture. The truth is that today people don't understand the meaning of oral tradition. At school I was told that ballads were passed on by word of mouth and the words changed because singers forgot the words. It was only in the Folk Song Revival of the 1960s that I came to realise what nonsense this was. People who sing ballads with anything up to a hundred verses or more don't have bad memories.

Sheila Douglas, ballad singer & scholar in “The Ballad Tree.”

A true ballad is a folksong of unknown authorship that tells a story in a special way. The stress of the story is on the crucial situation; it is told by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech. Ballads are always objective, impersonal, and unreflective; the language is direct, containing conventional epithets and set phrases.

The main reason that ballads have arrived at this rather mechanical condition is that over the years and centuries--the oldest date from the 13th century--the detailed and complicated features of the verse eroded, leaving the basic pattern and style of the present-day versions.

Anonymous. “The Heritage Club Sandglass,” issued to the members of the Heritage Club, Norwalk, Connecticut, with the release of The Heritage Book of Ballads, selected and edited by MacEdward Leach. New York: The Heritage Press, 1967. [I would like to know how the writer of the above knows about those complicated features that once existed. --ST]

In appropriating folklore genres, the literary tradition is able to create an idealization of itself through a separation of speech and writing. Such a separation, anchored in a mimetic theory of representation, always posits speech as a form of nature. Thus throughout the eighteenth century [the period of intense ballad collecting], the work of “untutored geniuses” becomes the paradigm for the last gasps of an oral culture, a culture now seen to be miming literary form--that is, producing a “natural” variant of it rather than simply imitating it. The taste for the fragment included this preference for individuals...severed from context and collected from the lower classes by an aristocracy eager to promote them. Yet this severance also depended upon the real contingencies of enclosure, industrialization, and the end of the old order of village culture...

...Theories of the ballad--from individual-genius positions to communal positions contending authorship by singing and dancing throngs--have always provided analogies to the prevailing conceptions of the folk held by the middle and upper classes.... 

Yet the nostalgia of the distressed genre is not a nostalgia for artifacts for their own sake; rather, it is a nostalgia for context, for the heroic past, for moral order, for childhood and the collective experiences of preindustrial life.... In fact, such genres point to the immateriality of all nostalgic objects. 

Susan Stewart, American poet and literary scholar, in Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. pp 70, 86-87, 91

A Listserv exchange:

Abbey Sale: At least subjectively, all on the list feel the difference between a "song" and a "ballad" may be no more then the balance between text and tune in near identical lyrics.  That is, if the tune is emphasized, we'll likely call it a "song," even if the text is really a narrative.  Take the ballad's simpl(ish) tune, jazz it a bit, add an electric violin & play loud and it's a different song.  At least socially. Yes, I think that a snappy (different) tune takes the meaning to a different place - perhaps making the drama melodrama, the pathos bathos or the surd absurd.

To which Hungry Gulch Books [Susan Tichy] replied: Does this mean that "Glenlogie" when John Strahan sang it was a ballad, but Dick Gaughan's warp-speed version on the live album is not? 

To which Abby Sale replied: Not familiar with John Strahan but I get the point.  Yes, I would claim that.  It's purely a judgment call of gradations, of course. ...The more the presentation upgrades the story aspect (as opposed to the musical or Art aspect), the more likely it is to be thought of as a ballad. That is, not only what's presented, but what can be perceived by the audience... The story has to be appreciateable [sic]..  If the audience can only hear the music, no story has been communicated.  Ergo, not a ballad.  A social dynamic event as well as a literary one.

To which some wise-ass at Hungry Gulch Books replied: So after you listen to the album ten times and can understand all the words, it turns back into a ballad?  ;-)

First post to the Ballad Scholarship Discussion List (Ballad-L), subsequent discussion private e-mail.

One moonlit evening..[in summer, in Aberdeenshire]...when the others were dancing “Petronella” and I sat on the fence listening to Harry’s news from his brother-in-law in Alberta, he said unexpectedly: “Wad ye like to hear an auld sang?” That was how I met my first Ballad.

It was “Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship”. I did not know its title then or for many years after. Harry [the senior bothy ploughman of the farm where Muir was visiting] did not trouble to announce a title; he went straight into the song, giving me the version I now recognize as Greig’s, though with a less extreme Aberdeenshire enunciation... The tune he sang might possibly be No. 10 from Bronson’s volume; I do not remember it exactly enough to be sure of it. What I do remember is the way he sang it, standing easily and using not much more than a speaking rather than a singing voice. The local speech tended to the falsetto, so that Harry’s heightened speaking voice was altogether a “head” voice, clear in its enunciation, not quite nasal, produced without any strain. There were none of the emotional gurglings one sometimes hears in the renderings of people who think they can sing. It was a flat, impersonal voice. 

At first the recurrent refrain at the end of every stanza, with its insistence on: “We’ll baith lie in ae bed, an you’ll lie neist the wa’” [and you'll lie next to the wall] made a faint ruffle of embarrassment in my [teen-age] feelings, but the unselfconscious directness with which Harry drove his way through the song cured me of that. Far from intruding itself, his personality vanished altogether; there was only a voice rhythmically telling a story to a tune. 

Willa Muir, Living with Ballads. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965. p 37

We should never forget that the ballad is a sung genre with a whole musical dimension that is not caught by the printed text; to gain a full appreciation, every opportunity should be taken of listening to live or recorded performances. Whatever efforts we make, however, we can never recapture contemporary singings of ballad versions from earlier centuries and it is useful, in thinking about this, to separate out the ideas of text and context. The text can be caught in print and transferred bodily from one context to another and may have quite different purposes and effects in different contexts.

Emily Lyle, Introduction to Scottish Ballads, edinburgh: Canongate Classics, 1997. p 12

I’ll tell you a we bit o’ my childhood. Within my family there was a lot o’ kids and I was the only one that was chosen out of the family ‘cause I liked to sit on my uncle’s knee--and my mother’s knee--and listen. The rest of them wanted to go out to play. My Uncle Donald... that’s the one who had all the ballads from my grandfather [and] taught them to my mother. But he didnae want no middle man teaching me--so he took me when I was two weeks old and he kept me till I was fifteen. I stayed with him.... Actually, I was severely brainwashed into the ballads, the songs, the stories and because I showed an interest -- It became a function and a natural way of life to me. I never knew anything else. I am glad I did it now but, sometimes I look oot the window at the other kids playing.. I wisnae allowed cause my uncle has just remembered another ballad. I was fully brainwashed -- not just the songs an ballads but the full culture of the Travellers and I had to carry on... That was my function within the family... It was very severe!... 

Travellers could never be that way [getting too emotionally involved with a song & spoiling the delivery]. We’re too open-minded. It’s our natural function. It’s like potty training. Once’t you learn how to do it, it’ll never consume ye. It’s just part of life!...This feeling was taught to me... and you can control it. You take it out when you need to use it. It was brainwashed into me... through the culture... through in the oral culture!... [O]ur ballads and stories were so precious to us that we had to sing them in a special way which was completely from the heart -- not from the head. We also had to play with the words and put our identity into it. You know, I used to sit on my uncle’s knee and he would teach me the ballad. He would pause on a word that I would jump over... or I would pause on a word that he would jump over... [d]ragging the words out... jumping over a word... making a word into two syllables... maybe words into three syllable... I’m no singing it exactly the way my mother sang it and I’m no singing the way that my uncle taught it to me. Because I have taken it played with the words and put my own identity into it.

Sheila Stewart, from a conversation with Doc Rowe, during recording sessions in  1998. Sleeve notes to From the Heart of the Tradition, Topic Records, Topic CD515.

Don't songs look bloody awful when they're written rather than sung?  Yuch. 

dg [Dick Gaughan] 95 10/25 rec.music.celtic [newsgroup]

A starting place for web resources:


Child Ballad texts offered in one big file: slow to load but easily downloadable. Child's notes not included.


This site offers each ballad as a separate page; based on the same source files as the first site listed.


Another site based on the same files, offering each ballad as a separate page. The formatting here seems easier to read.


The Child Ballads Project lists recorded sources for 218 Child Ballads


Listen to Child ballads in the Max Hunter Collection of Ozark folk-song, recorded between 1956 & 1976.


Digitrad (Digital Tradition) source for a lot of songs beyond the Child ballads


Mudcat Home Page: an incomparable resource, if you remember that those posting to the forum may or may not be experts. Especially useful because you can search for a phrase & thus possibly identify a song that's been posted under a different title than the one you know.


Lesley Nelson, "The Contemplator"' maintains a web site on Folk Music of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, & America. Her pages on selected Child Ballads are excellent. Pages on individual ballads include links to the Digital Tradition site as well as to related background info. For example, her page on Child 2 includes links to pages on Celtic fairy lore.


Traditional Ballad Index provides annotation on sources & related detail for each ballad. Does not provide ballad texts.

Two pages from the Society for Creative Anachronism. SCA has a bias toward believing the ballads to be “medieval” so they focus on those that can be dated to the early Modern period. These are by Dani Zweig


On early Child ballads


On 16th century ballads


A page of great ballad links, on Paula Kate Marmor's "Legends" site. On the same page, try her links to "Tam Lin," "Thomas Rhymer," and "The Borders," for background & source info on the two ballads, + a page of more links & info on the Scottish borders, border ballads, Sir Walter Scott, & more.


Home page of the Glasgow Broadside Ballad Collection at Glasgow University, a collection of 19th c. broadsides published or sold in Glasgow. Click "Broadsides & Oral Tradition" for a good introduction. Click "Hear the Broadsides" for some good sound files, including Dick Gaughan in live performance. Click on the Index & you'll go to a database. Click the title you're interested in and see a photo of same. All the links at the top lead to good bits of information, including the one for students. "More information" is a bibliography. Great web site!


Dick Gaughan’s home page, includes lyrics to most songs he has sung or recorded, some tunes, & interesting notes on music, history, & other topics. Gaughan is not known for being shy in his opinions.


Home page of Scotland’s Child Ballad Site, put up by Springthyme Records. Follow links to ballad lists & texts.


The John Quincy Wolf Collection of Ozark Folklore, folk-song page. Includes a lot of recordings to listen to, only a few Child ballads. Has "Black Jack Davy," "The Four Marys," & several versions of "The Dying Cowboy."


Scottish Ballads Weblog. Only a few posts, but some great photos of contemporary singers, including Sheila Stewart.


“Things I’ve Learned from British Folk Ballads” by Jim McDonald



Lyrics to all songs recorded by Steeleye Span. This is a fan's labor of love.
No information on the songs, not even authorship on those that are not traditional. But, yes, really, all the songs are here.



A few articles archived from Tocher a journal of Scottish traditional music & folklore, published since 1971 at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies.



The Living Tradition, a bi-monthly music magazine