Initially, the roaming minstrels of late mediaeval Europe have been given the credit as being the originators of the traditional, classical, or popular (people’s) ballad. Printed ballads date back to the end of the 15th century, indicating a long history of popular music.

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Well before we begin, let’s know what exactly a ballad is.

What is a Ballad?

Ballad is one of the ancient forms of poetry or song. A ballad can be thought of simply as a song or poem with a catchy rhythm and rhyme scheme that conveys a tale. Common metre, which alternates lines of iambic tetrameter (eight syllables) with lines of iambic trimeter, is the metre used traditionally in ballads (six syllables). So basically to put it in another way, a ballad is a song or poem with an appealing rhyming theme that tells a story.

2. The theme of the Ballad

It may refer to a folk poem with a narrative that is typically conveyed in a few stanzas that are frequently sung. Additionally, it could refer to a nostalgic or love ballad. In either case, the message that the ballad’s author is conveying will be referred to as the theme of the song.

3. Structure and tone

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The basic building block of a ballad is a quatrain i.e four-line stanza, which can be written using the rhyming patterns abcb or abab. Iambic tetrameter is used in the first and third lines, with four beats per line, and trimeter is used in the second and fourth lines, with three beats per line. The tale you want to tell is the second component.

4. Format

Ballads initially have 13 lines with an ABABBCBC structure and rhymed couplets (two lines) with 14 syllables each. Another typical format is the repetition of ABAB or ABCB in lines of alternately eight and six syllables.

Now, let’s look at 10 Ballad examples everyone should learn:

  01. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”

Sir Frank Dicksee, via Arts-Prints-on-Demand

“I met a lady in the meads

Full beautiful, a faery’s child;

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.”

­­                                           –John Keats

Firstly on our list is one of John Keats’s well-known love poems. This poem is one of the most famous ballad poems written in Keats’s interpretation of a mediaeval romance. This ballad tells the tale of a knight who falls in love with a lovely fairy lady and the rhyming scheme used in this poem is abcb.

02. “The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner”

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

                                     –Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This ballad is one of the most famous ballads written. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a man travelling by ship makes a rash and horrible decision that alters the course of both his life and his death. The Mariner must comprehend his acts and carry out his punishment because he is struggling inside over the crime he did.

With more than 600 lines, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s longest poem. This poem is an example of epic poetry because of its length, and the stanza mentioned above is one of its most well-known stanzas.

03. “Annabel Lee”

“It was many and many a year ago,

   In a kingdom by the sea,

That a maiden there lived whom you may know

   By the name of Annabel Lee;”

                                           –Edgar Allan Poe

One of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous ballads written, his signature style has been seen in the way he writes about Annabel Lee. The poem starts off sounding like a fairy tale and offers the reader a sense of everything that is positive and joyful. Poe utilises specific words and phrases to create the frightening impression that lies behind this happy tone. The poem’s readers realise that this is not your typical fairy tale about halfway through. Instead, this is a dark and scary tale.

04. “A Red, Red Rose”

“O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune”

                                         –Robert Burns

Another famous ballad poem was written by Robert Burns. This beautiful poem was written by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.  This poem was initially printed in the year 1794 in a book of musically arranged traditional Scottish ballads.

The poem has a balladic structure and is meant to be sung aloud. It conveys the speaker’s passionate love for their spouse and promises that their relationship will last for eternity, outshining all human existence in addition to the universe altogether.

05. “Bonny Barbara Allan”

“He turned his face unto the wall,
And death was with him dealing:
‘Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allan.’”

                                        –Joan Baez

This poem is one of the older ones on this list; initially, they first referred to the 1600s. These ballads entered the oral tradition of England and Ireland as musicians generally performed them at festivals and other events.

Sir John Graeme is on his deathbed with Barbara Allan by his side when the story of this poem starts. Although Sir John Graeme had previously rejected Barbara, he still had a profound affection for her, and he even attributed his death to a broken heart. Despite the ballad’s emotionless tone, the plot and literary elements move listeners and readers to tears.

Additionally, it has a traditional four-line verse format and uses the traditional abcb rhyme scheme. It features nine stanzas in the Irish dialect, for which most anthologies in which it appears offer explanations.

06. “John Henry”

“When John Henry was a little tiny baby

Sitting on his mama’s knee,

He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel

Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,

Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”

                                                      –Anonymous

John Henry is a  literary ballad well-known for its novel idea of humanity vs machinery. This poem is also referred to as the folktale about an African-American guy who is building a railroad but who tragically perishes in the process.

Even though John Henry’s statue still stands outside the town of Talcott in Summers County, West Virginia, this poem was first written in the 19th century.

This poem’s key themes are bravery, heroism, and death.

07.  “The Ballad Of The Red Earl” By Rudyard Kipling

“Ye have followed a man for a God, Red Earl,

As the Lord o’ Wrong and Right;

But the day is done with the setting sun

Will ye follow into the night?”

                                         –Rudyard Kipling

Kipling based “The Ballad of the Red Earl” mostly on ancient ballad compositions from the Scottish Borders. His utilisation of abbreviations, many of which are derive from the Scottish dialect, is common.

In the poem, the joke is on Earl Spencer, which published just two days after Earl’s controversial remark. In the above-mentioned passage that follows, Kipling accuses the Earl of mindlessly adhering to Liberal Party leader William Gladstone as if he were a deity.

08.  “The Solitary Reaper” By William Wordsworth

“Will no one tell me what she sings?—

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago:”

                                          –William Wordsworth

When it comes to romantic poetry Wordsworth is its founder. He peacefully resided in a lake district in England, and the stunning and desolate landscape served as inspiration for his poetry.

In 1907, environment poet William Wordsworth published “The Solitary Reaper” as a lyrical poem. Initially this piece is compose on November 5, 1805, nevertheless. This is a well-known poetry that was prominent in the poetry anthology Poems, in Two Volumes. Considering Thomas Wilkinson, the writer’s buddy and the creator inspired this poetry instead of the writer personally, it shines out. Wordsworth mentions all of this in Tours to the British Mountains.

William Wordsworth recalls an intense emotional experience in this poem.  It speaks about a Solitary Reaper’s song. Without regard for other people, “The Solitary Reaper” was singing and working. The poet, though, was watching her while enthralled by the melody. He claims that her singing is the best even if he compares it to that of the nightingale and the cuckoo bird. The poet cannot understand the song’s meaning, but he knows that it is a song of melancholy. The melody never left the poet as he listened impassively until he departed the scene. He claims that even after leaving that location for a while, he could still listen. The music continued to play in his heart long after it could no longer be heard. The beautiful encounter, which also gave him immense pleasure, had a profound effect on him.

09. The Ballad Of Reading Gaol” By Oscar Wilde

“He did not wear his scarlet coat,

  For blood and wine are red,

And blood and wine were on his hands

  When they found him with the dead,”

                                             –Oscar Wilde

The most famous ballad by Oscar Wilde was also his final masterpiece before passing away in 1900. After losing a legal battle with the father of his long-term companion, Wilde was condemn to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol, which is how he initially experienced the emotional experience of imprisonment.

The poem starts by talking about Charles Thomas Wooldridge, who was executed in 1896 after killing his wife in a fit of jealousy. He cut her throat with a knife as they fell to the ground on the street during a disagreement. He asked the police to arrest him after the killing and grieved his deed right up until his passing.

10. “The Ballad Of Father Gilligan” By William Butler Yeats

“The old priest Peter Gilligan

Was weary night and day;

For half his flock were in their beds,

Or under green sods lay.”

                                             –William Butler Yeats

The poem comprises of several extremely short stanzas. The song is the perfect ballad because of its rhyme scheme and its length. This poem tells the tale of an elderly priest named Peter Gilligan who became worn out from the constant calls from people who were dying.

The poem’s primary idea is to demonstrate God’s mercy. He sends guidance to those in need at precisely the ideal time. One of Yeats’s few contributions to Irish folklore, the poem also depicts the rural poverty of Ireland. 

Let’s dive into the different types of ballads. There are 5 different types of Ballad:

1. Broadsheet Ballads:

Street ballads, also known as broadsheet ballads, are typically murder ballads that frequently narrate from the perspective of the murderer.

Let’s look at some famous street ballad examples:

E.g. 01 “Country Death Song” (abab rhyme scheme)

“Don’t speak to me of lovers with a broken heart

You wanna know what can really tear you apart?

I’m going out to the barn; will I never stop in pain?

I’m going out to the barn to hang myself in shame.”

                                                               –Violent Femmes

E.g. 02. The long black veil

“Ten years ago on a cold dark night

Someone was killed ‘neath the town hall lights

There were few at the scene, but they all agreed

That the slayer who ran looked a lot like me.”

                                                               –Johnny Cash

2. Folk Ballads:

Folk ballads, also known as traditional ballads, such as “Barbara Allen” and “John Henry,” are examples of anonymous songs that tell tragic, humorous, or heroic tales with an emphasis on a key dramatic incident.

Take a look at these famous folk ballads to understand them better:

E.g. 01. Paradise

“And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County

Down by the Green River where Paradise lay

Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking

Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away”

                                                               –John Prine

E.g. 02. Blowin’ in the Wind

“How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, and how many times must the cannonballs fly

Before they’re forever banned?”

                                                         –Bob Dylan

3. Literary Ballads:

A literary ballad is any narrative poetry that tells a story without the use of music. The literary ballad became more well-known throughout the Romantic era. A literary ballad is basically a parody or reworking of a folk ballad. The traditional ballad usually referred to as a folk ballad, tells tales of tragedy, humour, and bravery. In contrast to the literary ballad, they don’t have a definite author. Technically speaking, polished folk ballads are literary ballads. Since it is initially written, on contrary to the traditional ballad, once a poet modifies it, it then becomes his.

Some examples of literary ballads are:

E.g. 01. Thomas Hardy’s  “During Wind and Rain”
E.g. 02. John Keats “La Belle Dame Sans Merci

4. Opera Ballads:

Ballad opera is an explicitly English style of comic opera that dates back to the 18th century. Its stories are sometimes ridiculous or exaggerated. Songs were basically used as background music for spoken dialogue. Such operas initially utilised ballads or folk melodies with new lyrics; later, tunes from successful operas were adopted, or occasionally new music was produced.

One of the most famous ballad opera examples to learn more about opera ballads is John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera.” John Gay performed and published his three-act ballad opera “The beggar’s opera” in 1728. The language of this work is a mixture of humour and satire and both modern and classic English, Irish, Scottish, and French tunes mesh with these songs.

In this piece, Gay portrays a group of thieves and prostitutes in 18th-century London. The main characters are Macheath, a highwayman, Polly, his daughter, and Peachum, a fence for stolen goods. Gay has harsh criticism for the authorities, wealthy culture, marriages, and Italian operas. The parallels between the moral corruption of the opera’s protagonists and contemporary highborn society are particularly evident.

Other examples of ballad operas include:

E.g. 01. Thomas Arne and Isaac Bickerstaffe’s – “Love in a Village”
E.g. 02. William Shields – “Rosina”

5. Jazz Ballads:

The “ballad” style in jazz is personal, poetic, and rhythmic. It is frequently sung

at a slow tempo and in the traditional 32-bar song format. Albeit without the lyrics, you can hear a tale developing in the best jazz ballad instrumental playing.

Here are a few famous jazz ballad examples:

E.g. 01. Infant Eyes

“One of the best classic Jazz ballads is Infant eyes by Wayne Shorter. 

There’s no place beneath the sky

the voice will never arise

That could sing of my love

for my dear infant eyes.”

                                –Wayne Shorter

E.g. 02. Stardust

“You wander down the lane and far away

Leaving me a song that will not die

Love is now the stardust of yesterday

The music of the years gone by.”

                                  –Hoagy Carmichael

In conclusion, one of the ancient types of poetry or song that tells a story with or without melodies is a ballad. These ballads have eventually developed brilliantly over the years, and their writers have increased their understanding of this ancient genre of writing.

If you can explicitly be a storyteller, writing a ballad is not that tough. Anyone can perform a lovely ballad and raise the profile of this work of literature in popular society with the right rhyme schemes.

From Henry Harvin’s Creative Writing Course, you can learn about ballads and other types of poetry, as well as story writing, fiction writing, screenwriting, and many other various types of creative writing.

This course has the unique aspect of being a 9-in-1 course, where you will be fully instructed by specialists and given projects and internships to learn and get experience with the workings of the creative sector. This programme has full certification and the institute’s support for a 100% placement guarantee. You will get access to e-learning, which offers a wealth of video content, tests, and other resources. Regular Bootcamp sessions and Hackathons (#AskHenry competitions and hackathons) are available, and you will receive a one-year gold membership with access to your course at any time.

FAQs

01. What is the idea of a ballad?

A ballad’s primary goal is to convey a tale, and it does so by including each of the essential components of a narrative: storyline, actors, storyteller, interaction, environment, and drama.

02. How can you identify a ballad in a poem?

A ballad is a musical or lyric with a catchy rhythmic and rhyming pattern that recounts a tale.

03. What kind of poem is a ballad?

A ballad is a type of rhyme that employs lyrical wordplay to create an engaging story over the span of its quatrains (four stanzas) and abides by a predetermined rhyme scheme.

04. How many lines must ballad poetry have?

A standard ballad has four musical lines, or quatrains, in each of its stanzas. The brevity of the poem, however, is not very significant.

05. Why do authors write a ballad?

Ballads can occasionally be written by poets as a direct response to other types of poetry that they find to be pretentious or confusing. 

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