A ballad is a poem that tells a story, usually (but not always) in four-line stanzas called quatrains. The ballad form is enormously diverse, and poems in this form may have any one of hundreds of different rhyme schemes and meters. Nearly every culture on earth produces ballads, often in the form of epic poems relating to the culture’s mythology. Ballads have a long history and are found in many cultures.

The ballad began as a folk song and continues today in popular music. Many love songs today can be considered ballads. In popular music, the word ballad can also refer to a slow, romantic, or sentimental song. However, this has no significant relationship to the literary definition.

A typical ballad consists of stanzas that contain a quatrain, or four poetic lines. The meter or rhythm of each line is usually iambic, which means it has one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. In ballads, there are usually eight or six syllables in a line. Like any poem, some ballads follow this form and some don’t, but almost all ballads are narrative, which means they tell a story.

A ballad is a type of poem that is sometimes set to music. Because the ballad was originally set to music, some ballads have a refrain, or a repeated chorus, just like a song does. Similarly, the rhyme scheme is often ABAB because of the musical quality of this rhyme pattern. While ballads have always been popular, it was during the Romantic movement of poetry in the late 18th century that the ballad had a resurgence and became a popular form. Many famous romantic poets, like William Wordsworth, wrote in the ballad form.

Many folk songs are ballads. For example, the “Ballad of John Henry,” also known as “The Steel-Driving Man.” There are countless versions of the song, ranging across blues, folk music, and bluegrass, but the basic story is always the same: John Henry’s job on the railroad is threatened by the industrial power of a steam drill. John challenges the machine to a drilling race, and wins through his immense strength and stamina – but in the end, the effort kills him.

Ballads in Popular Culture

Example 1

Johnny Cash’s timeless classic “Boy Named Sue” is a great example of a ballad put to music. The story is about a boy whose father names him Sue just before leaving. Humiliated, the young boy goes on a quest to find his father and take revenge for the terrible insult of being given a girl’s name. When he finally catches up with his father, though, the old man explains the reasoning behind the name and the story ends with a surprising twist.

Example 2

Many bands, especially in progressive rock and heavy metal, release “concept albums,” which could be thought of as long-form ballads. Each of the songs on a concept album tells part of the story and taken together they form a single, unified ballad. For example, Pink Floyd released their concept album, The Wall, in 1979. The album describes the story of a young boy who rises out of difficult circumstances and becomes a rock legend but still finds it difficult to sustain meaningful friendships and relationships. The album’s story was loosely based on the life of lead singer Syd Barrett.

However, in the modern world, the preservation and transmission of such literary treasures have become easier. The availability of advanced technology and common languages has improved not only the documentation but the accessibility of these resources for people in every part of the world.

Categories of Ballads

Following is a broad list of categories of the ballad:

    • Stall ballad
    • Lyrical ballad
    • Popular ballad
    • Blue ballad
    • Bush ballad
    • Fusion ballad (pop and rock)
    • Modern ballad

All these categories are primarily meant to convey popular messages, stories, or historical events to audiences in the form of songs and poetry.

Examples of Ballads

Scottish traditional ballad
Tam Lin (Unknown)

‘O I forbid you, maiden all,
That wears gold in your hair,
To come or go by Carterhaugh
For young Tam Lin is there.

Lyrical ballad
Rime of an Ancient Mariner (By Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Day after day, day after day
We stuck nor breathe, nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Blue ballad with roots in American folk music
Stagolee (By John Hurt)

Stagolee was a bad man
They go down in a coal mine one night
Robbed a coal mine
They’s gambling down there

Bush ballad
Drover (By Elton John)

From the sunburnt plains of far off North Australia
Came a fella born to ride the wide brown land
Oh he grew up running wil
But soon by all was styled
As the country’s greatest-ever droving man

Modern ballad
The Ballad of Billy the Kid (By Billy Joel)

From a town known Wheeling, Wes Virginia
Rode a boy with six gun in his hands
And his daring life crime
Made him a legend in his time
East and west of Rio Grande

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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