The term ballad refers to a type of once-popular narrative in verse or song, which has since developed into a poetic genre. Originally the word just meant a "song", but its use has become restricted to a "song, or rhyme, that tells a story". The most famous ballads are those on Robin Hood and those on the conflicts of the England-Scotland border.
An undefined category of literature
There are exceptions to almost all of the terms used to define ballads, with the possible exception of "narrative".
Many of the ballads belong to an oral tradition, in particular the medieval ballads, both English and Scottish, and later the famous ones of the England-Scotland border country. Towards the end of the 18th century, various collectors, starting with Thomas Percy began to gather and publish them, giving them a fixed form which they had not previously had. To take an example of the changes that could be made, the ballad Jamie Telfer in the Fair Dodhead, has two versions. In one, the Eliotts refuse to come to the rescue of Jamie Telfer when he is raided, and the Scotts are covered in glory. In the other the Eliotts gain the glory, and it is the Scotts who look mean. No-one knows for sure which is the original, though the pro-Eliott one has the appearance of being the more primitive.
When Walter Scott published his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, taken from oral sources, one of his informants, James Hogg's mother, complained, "They were made for singin' and no for readin', but ye hae broken the charm now, an' they'll never be sung mair."
However, in England there were also the "broadside ballads", which were printed individually and were popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Until the advent of the literary ballad, most were anonymous; but, particularly with the broadsides, some authors are known. As "folk literature" they had no fixed form, and there is no "correct" version.
Probably most of the original ballads were sung or chanted; but this is uncertain.
Ballad characteristics and literary value
Ballads were normally narrated tales, of varying length, some long, set out in short, vigorous stanzas, most often of four or six lines each, the second and fourth lines rhyming. More elaborate forms might use internal rhyme. If not actually fitted to a tune, they were usually capable of being sung, the tune probably being the same to each stanza. There are frequent abrupt transitions and a lack of explanation. Direct speech is introduced without saying who the speaker is, this being evident from the context.
In the 16th century, Sir Philip Sidney, an exponent of courtly poetry, declared in his Apology for Poetry (not published till 1595 after his death): "I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet is it sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style." Since then, defenders of the ballad have never been lacking.
There can always be dispute as to whether the earliest or most "primitive" version of a ballad is the better, as being usually the more direct and less decorated, or whether ballads have been improved by being passed through several hands. The primitive versions often have some defect in the metre, which would presumably be ironed out in the performance, or might even enhance it as an interesting variation.
Collectors and publishers
An important collection of broadside ballads was assembled by Samuel Pepys in the later 17th century, but not published. Percy's collection, already mentioned, was primarily taken from a manuscript, and his critic, Joseph Ritson, also worked from written sources; but subsequent collectors, including Walter Scott, endeavoured to preserve oral versions. The American scholar F. J. Child is the best known of those aiming at a comprehensive collection.
The literary ballad
Many poets have used the ballad genre, particularly for comic verse, as in William Cowper's John Gilpin and W. S. Gilbert's Yarn of the Nancy Bell. Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads, in which the Rime of the Ancient Mariner was an outstanding example of the form, helped to establish it as serious literature. 20th century exponents have included W. H. Auden and George Mackay Brown.
- Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 1st ed 1765, 4th ed 1794
- The Ballad of Chevy Chase