Born in the Middle Ages from folk songs which were passed on orally, the ballad exists in many forms but all of them have common traits. The ballad was a form of poetry used for singing and dancing, and as such it still survives today. The 1970s saw a revival of the folk ballad in contemporary music with authors such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
All ballads share these common traits:
- The ballad tells a story of a tragic, sad or violent event.Not all ballads have a sad ending but most of them have. The supernatural plays an important part in many ballads, with the presence of ghosts, witches and the like.
The storyline is usually simple and deals with a single event or a string of related events.
The story is either narrated in third person by an impersonal, omniscient narrator or in first person.
The narration usually begins in medias res – mid-action. Very little or no background is given about what happened before, or about the characters because the focus of the ballad is usually the event, not the place or the people.
The narrative technique is normally a mixture of dialogue and narration, often without solution of continuity. In this it differs greatly from the epic poem, where each talking character was introduced (“And so spoke Beowulf, the son of Ecgeow…”). As said before, the narrator is mostly external, impersonal and does not judge the situation or the characters. The narration proceeds through coordination, in a series of successive statements, therefore imitating .
The themes are very often unrequited love, fights, death, revenge. A special kind of ballad called border ballad tells stories of conflicts between the English and the Scottish, while another called outlaw ballad tells stories of Robin Hood or of other famous British bandits (even abroad: a famous Irish ballad called The Wide Colonial Boy relates the story of the adventurous though tragic outlaw career of an Irish-born young man in Australia).
The form is simple and regular. Although it has many variations, the ballad is usually formed by 4-line stanzas of 4-stress lines (although one of the lines may have 3 stresses, for variation). At the end of one or more stanzas, a refrain is usually repeated to give the audience the chance to sing together; the refrain often underlines an aspect of the plot.
The language is simple, mainly with short sentences and Anglo-Saxon words which reflect the folk origin of the genre. Repetition is vastly used, with a particular form called incremental repetition, a poetic device that can be defined as the repetition of a previous line or lines with slight changes. This has the purpose of adding variance, of underlining an element of the plot or of giving more relevance to a single detail. See The Unquiet Grave for a famous example of incremental repetition ([…] The fairest flower that groweth there / Is withered to a stalk. / And the stalk is withered dry, true love […]).
Click here to read The Unquiet Grave
Click here to read Geordie
Animated overview of the characteristics of the medieval ballad (online presentation)