The anonymous folk ballad (or popular ballad), was composed to be sung. It was passed along orally from singer to singer, from generation to generation, and from one region to another. During this progression a particular ballad would undergo many changes in both words and tune. The medieval or Elizabethan ballad that appears in print today is probably only one version of many variant forms.
Primarily based on an older legend or romance, this type of ballad is usually a short, simple song that tells a dramatic story through dialogue and action, briefly alluding to what has gone before and devoting little attention to depth of character, setting, or moral commentary. It uses simple language, an economy of words, dramatic contrasts, epithets, set phrases, and frequently a stock refrain. The familiar stanza form is four lines, with four or three stresses alternating and with the second and fourth lines rhyming. For example:
It was ín and abóut the Mártinmas tíme,
When the gréen léaves were a fálling,
That Sír John Gráeme, in the Wést Countrý,
Fell in lóve with Bárbara Állan
"Bonny Barbara Allan"
It was in the 18th cent. that the term ballad was used in England in its present sense. Scholarly interest in the folk ballad, first aroused by Bishop Percyy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), was significantly inspired by Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Francis Child's collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads (5 vol., 1882–98), marked the high point of 19th-century ballad scholarship.
More than 300 English and Scottish folk ballads, dating from the 12th to the 16th cent., are extant. Although the subject matter varies considerably, five major classes of the ballad can be distinguished—the historical, such as "Otterburn" and "The Bonny Earl o' Moray"; the romantic, such as "Barbara Allan" and "The Douglas Tragedy"; the supernatural, such as "The Wife of Usher's Well"; the nautical, such as "Henry Martin"; and the deeds of folk heroes, such as the Robin Hood cycle.
Ballads, however, cannot be confined to any one period or place; similar subject matter appears in the ballads of other peoples. Indigenous American ballads deal mainly with cowboys, folk heroes such as Casey Jones and Paul Bunyan, the mountain folk of Kentucky and Tennessee, the Southern black, and famous outlaws, such as Jesse James:
Jésse had a wífe to móurn for his lífe,
Three chíldren, théy were bráve;
But the dírty little cóward that shót Mister Hóward
Has láid Jesse Jámes in his gráve.
"Ballad of Jesse James"
During the mid-20th cent. in the United States there was a great resurgence of interest in folk music, particularly in ballads. Singers such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger included ballads like "Bonny Barbara Allan" and "Mary Hamilton" in their concert repertoires; composer-performers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan wrote their own ballads.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.