I. What is a Ballad?
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. However, the word “ballad” typically refers to the relatively short lyrical poems produced by European poets starting around the 13th century.
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.
II. Examples and Explanation
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.
One of the most popular ballads is The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore. Moore’s poem is easy to remember because it has a simple rhyme scheme and a very predictable rhythm (meter), and because the story it tells is a charming Christmas narrative that parents love to tell to their kids.
III. The Importance of Ballads
Ballads are perhaps the most ancient of all literary forms – the earliest works of literature that we know of are all mythological epic poems that tell the stories of the culture that produced them. Today, a ballad is still a great way to combine two separate forms of literature – like a novel or play, the ballad tells a story with characters and a plot line; but at the same time, it has the meter and rhyme of a poem. This combination of art forms lends ample opportunity for creativity and individual expression.
IV. Examples of Ballads in Literature
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner is one of the best examples of a ballad. The poem is very strictly structured in terms of meter and rhyme, and tells a story of an old sailor who stops people on their way into a party. The sailor describes a sea voyage he once took, in which the ship was lost and everyone on board (with the exception of this one old man) perished.
Perhaps the earliest ballads (in the narrower sense, not including epic poetry) were produced in Spain and France starting in the 13th These ballads were expressions of romantic love, often telling the story of the poet meeting and falling in love with his beloved. This is why modern love songs are often referred to as “ballads.”
V. Examples of Ballads in Popular Culture
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.
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.
VI. Related Terms
An epic poem is a kind of poetry very closely related to ballads – so closely, in fact, that we might say epic poems are a kind of ballad. These poems are very long and tell mythical, heroic, or religious stories. Epic poetry is found in all the literatures of the ancient world, from the Greek poet Homer to the Indian Mahabharata. There are two main differences between epic poetry and ballads. The first is length: epic poems are extremely long (the Mahabharata, for example, has over 200,000 lines)! There’s no clear cut-off point between a ballad and an epic poem in terms of length, but in general epic poems are longer. The second difference is themes: a ballad can be about any sort of story, whereas an epic poem must deal with heroic or mythical themes.