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Ballad (from Lat. ballare: ‘to dance’)free

  • James Porter,
  • Jeremy Barlow,
  • Graham Johnson,
  • Eric Sams
  •  and Nicholas Temperley

Term used for a short popular or traditional song that normally frames a narrative element. Scholars of the term’s history and origin take it to signify a relatively concise composition known throughout Europe since the late Middle Ages, spreading later to the New World, notably the Americas: it combines narrative, dramatic dialogue and lyrical passages in strophic form sung to a rounded tune, and often includes a recurrent refrain. Performance is predominantly by solo singers, though choral and dance elements are known in some cultures. Originally the word referred to dance-songs such as the French carole, but by the 14th century it had lost that connotation in English and had become a distinctive song type with a narrative core. The word has sometimes been used, mistakenly, as a translation for the medieval French forme fixe ballade (see Ballade), and for the 18th- and 19th-century German ballade (see §II below); the latter was partly influenced by the narrative folksong tradition of Britain and Scandinavia (see also Ballade for instrumental pieces bearing this often confused title, and Epics for a discussion of longer narrative song forms).

The ‘ballad opera’, a satirical form of theatrical entertainment based on spoken dialogue and popular tunes of the day, was fashionable for several decades during the early to mid-18th century. Literary ballads which imitated the traditional ballad marked a significant phase of influence during the Romantic period. In the 19th century ‘ballad’ came to denote a sentimental song cultivated by the middle classes in Britain and North America, while in 20th-century popular culture it has come to refer to a slow, personalized love song or one, such as the ‘blues ballad’ in North America, in which the narrative element is slender and subordinated to a lyrical mood.

I. Folk and popular balladry

1. Concepts.

A range of disciplines has studied the oral-traditional or folk ballad (by far the most common object of scholarly attention under the term): area studies, comparative literature, folkloristics, oral theory, critical theory, musicology and semiotics. Each of these perspectives has to some extent imposed its own interpretation on the genre that, as a type of song with diverse origins and purpose, has seemed of interest and relevance to their field. Scholars of literature, for example, have sought comparisons between the traditional, orally transmitted ballad and literary creation, or have traced its influence on individual poems (such as, in the English-speaking world, the pastiches by Coleridge, Keats, Wilde or Wordsworth). Folklorists have scrutinized balladry for distinctive patterns of thought and communal practice, oral theorists for formulas and semantic structures, critical theorists for a mirror of social unrest and specialists in semiotics for submerged cultural markers. Folk-music scholars have dissected ballad tunes to understand the nature of popular song creation, or have studied traditional singers to gauge the role of memory, oral transmission, innovation and context in the performance and communication of ballads. Since 1965, ballad study has been coordinated by the International Ballad Commission, a working group of the Société internationale d’ethnologie et de folklore; the group holds annual meetings and publishes the proceedings (see Bibliography).

To a large extent the early focus on the genre was literary or philological, following in the wake of the 19th-century compilations of traditional ballad texts: scholars such as the American, Francis James Child (1882–98) and the Dane, Svend Grundtvig (1853–1920), were much preoccupied with identifying English and Scottish or Danish ballads by plot type and ordering them in terms of chronology and diffusion. These older ballads, with their multiple variants of text and tune, have few characters and concentrate on a single incident; cast in stanzas with or without a refrain, they are sung to a repeated melody that corresponds to the strophic structure. The narrative mood is generally stoic and impersonal; the plot may be tragic, romantic, otherworldly, heroic or humorous, while in ballads and broadsides from the 17th century on the tone often becomes personal, partisan or polemical. The plots are occasionally based on historical events, though the incidents portrayed are frequently unverifiable. The tune, which raises and intensifies the communicative level of the song, also influences the poetics of the line and stanza, as Bronson (1977) has shown, while the refrain, when present, suggests links to dance and, even in modern times, to audience participation.

In 18th-century Europe, when the urban broadside example came into its own by casting sensational events of the day in ballad stanzas, scholars began to adopt a new conception of the ballad. Although broadsheets and street literature had been features of urban life since the 16th century, their emergence along with the growing antiquarian enthusiasm for rural custom had begun to influence scholarly notions of the ballad’s social purpose. The idea of ‘the ballad’ as an unusual genre in the English-speaking world crystallized in writings of this period, and stylistic reworking by editors and enthusiasts such as Bishop Thomas Percy marked an important development:the writer William Shenstone, for example, advised Percy at the time to reserve the term ‘ballad’ for narrative songs. This enthusiasm was followed, in northern Europe, by compilations in the early 19th century such as those of Sir Walter Scott (1802–3) and William Motherwell (1827) to the later ones of Grundtvig and Child. These editors focused primarily on the ballad poetry, and this perspective dominated until the turn of the 20th century when it was qualified by an attention, in England and North America, to tunes and singers by such as Cecil Sharp, Phillips Barry and Percy Grainger. After World War II ballad study shifted again to examine social function, context, oral composition and performance as well as individual singers, with field studies complementing library research. In one sense this last phase marked a reaction against the idealism with which ballad study was often invested: Child, for example, had been strongly influenced by the idea of the ‘popular’ as conceived by Herder in the late 18th century and of ‘folk poetry’ as defined by the brothers Grimm in the 19th, but by the end of the century Child, with some hindsight, saw the ballad evolving from a communal past into a more individualistic genre.

Theories of balladry thus depend to some extent on the editor’s conception of the society that produced them. Bishop Percy’s wholesale revisions of his manuscript sources in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) or Scott’s re-workings of ballads are familiar examples of ‘adaptation’. The society from which they were culled was often seen, mistakenly, as rural and homogeneous; ballads did emerge from such a background, shaped from an original composition by multiple singings; but they were also the creative result of urban poetasters cobbling together older and newer verse material (usually with the tag ‘to the tune of …’) in saleables ‘black-letter’ (c1550–c1700) or, later, ‘white-letter’ broadsheets that had woodcut illustrations and contained news of the day. This material found its way back into rural districts through singers, broadsides and chapbooks, in turn influencing these communities. To singers, though, these ballads were nothing more than the ‘old songs’ preferred by their community; the term ‘ballad’, when it signified anything, usually meant a commercial ballad sheet (or ‘ballet’).

After two centuries of dispute over authorship and style, scholars today are less inclined to speculate on the origin or evolution of ballads or to tackle larger comparative studies such as those made before World War II. From a musical point of view, the singing of ballads is a feature of the genre with its own cross-cultural analogues and issues: at the turn of the 20th century folk-music editors such as Cecil Sharp devoted much time and effort in pointing to melodic links between British ballad tunes and their counterparts in North America. Although in recent times useful finding-list catalogues have been compiled, some scholars have gone further and attempted to classify ballads by verse type, plot or theme, both within demarcated traditions and cross-culturally; the complex nature of the ballad, however, as it evolves in living tradition has been an important qualifying feature. The caution towards creating ideal forms that are divorced from a lived reality has inclined students, rather, to elucidate topics that arise in the course of strophic narrative songs, whether these are termed ‘ballads’ or not by the people who sing them. Social mobility and emigration in the modern world, moreover, have brought into focus song cultures, displaced from their original homeland, that use ballads and songs as a significant marker of identity. Latterly, a scholarly attention to memory, communication, production and reception has enriched the understanding of ballads as a performative genre. The idea of ‘ballad performance’ in newer contexts, such as that of the post-World War II Folk Revival, has broadened the concept of the form and its uses still further, assuring it of cultural vitality in the contemporary world (see also Folk music).

2. Origin and subject matter.

  • James Porter

The term ‘ballad’ has been used in the European literary tradition to refer to the popular or traditional song type that appeared from around the end of the 13th century and was at its height during the 16th and 17th centuries, when ballad singers plied their trade in cities and around village fairs. The form originated in the later Middle Ages, when epic and heroic songs served as entertainment, and appears to have flourished initially in conjunction with the rise of a merchant class and the decline of feudalism. Shorter narrative songs were also extant during the feudal period, but the appearance of the ballad as a genre seems to have been closely associated with the fashion for the French Carole, both courtly and popular, a dance that flourished from the mid-12th century to the mid-14th. The ballad’s connection with dance is suggested by the Latin root ballare, and some traditions even today manifest a close association between dance and narrative song, as in the Faeroes or parts of Spain.

The traditional ballad probably emerged as a narrative genre with a dramatic plot from France and the Low Countries at about the same time, spreading in different directions and taking on local characteristics as it evolved. The earliest surviving manuscript version of an English-language ballad is that of Judas(Child no.23), which dates from before 1300. There are analogues and parallels to many of the ballad plots in sagas, romances, lays and wonder tales, but the parallels are not always close or exact. The ‘singing bone’ motif, for example, whereby a physical relic of the deceased (such as a bone flute or harp strings made from hair) finally identifies the murderer, is one that has generated both tales and songs throughout Europe. Strophic songs probably fulfilled many functions, but became a primary vehicle for celebrating lapidary events such as bloody battles, legendary exploits, family confrontations and tragic love affairs, usually among the aristocracy or yeoman class. With the growth of cities after 1500 the street singer, ballad seller and broadside printer gradually replaced the minstrel composer that had entertained at both court and in lowly tavern during the late medieval period.

By 1827 William Motherwell crystallized the features that mark out the ‘classic’ traditional ballad – impersonality of narrative, incremental repetition and recurrence of commonplaces such as ‘lily-white hand’, ‘gay gold ring’ and so on. His observations influenced Grundtvig who, in turn, corresponded with Child on the subject matter of traditional ballads and how they might be arranged in an authoritative compilation that would ‘close the account’ of a genre they considered to be exhausted. In his English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98), Child eventually selected and published 305 ballads, taken mainly from earlier 18th- and 19th-century collections rather than from broadsides, ordered by plot type and printed with multiple variants in chronological sequence. His head-note to each ballad type (e.g. Edward, Child no.13) traces the origins and evolution of the song across cultural boundaries. Bronson followed this general scheme in his compendium of ballad airs (1959–72), but ordered the tunes by melodic type. Earlier, Child had gradually arrived at an awareness of the importance of the tunes, and included a short appendix of these in his compilation.

Much debate has surrounded the Child corpus, and it was later attacked for his criteria of selectiveness and exclusion. Nevertheless, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads is still regarded as a central representation of older English-language ballad subject matter: apocryphal legends (Judas, St Stephen and Herod, The Cherry-Tree Carol, The Carnal and the Crane, Dives and Lazarus, The Maid and the Palmer), miracles (Brown Robyn’s Confession, Sir Hugh), outlaw exploits (Robin Hood, Adam Bell, Rob Roy), folk history (Queen Eleanor’s Confession, The Battle of Otterburn, The Battle of Harlaw, The Death of Queen Jane, Mary Hamilton), the feuds of Scottish clans (Edom o Gordon, The Bonny Earl of Murray, The Bonnie House of Airlie, The Death of Parcy Reed, The Baron of Brackley), border raids (Dick o the Cow, Jock o the Side), encounters at sea (Patrick Spens, John Dory, The Sweet Trinity, Henry Martin, Captain Ward and the Rainbow) and humorous domestic strife (Our Goodman, The Wife Wrapped in Wether’s Skin, Get Up and Bar the Door). Love, death and sexual relationships predominate in these ballad stories, with a few exceptions such as Child Waters, which ends happily. Ballad plots deal frequently with elopement, bride-stealing, adultery and incest but never with homosexual love. Loyalty to a partner often transcends suffering and death, and the symbolic ‘rose and briar’ motif uniting the lovers in their grave (well known in the Middle Ages) appears in a number of ballads. Riddles, spells and the supernatural are common in the ballad narrative, and humans consort with otherworldly beings (Thomas Rhymer, Tam Lin, Hind Etin, Clerk Colvill, The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, The Queen of Elfland’s Nourice) or revenants (Sweet William’s Ghost, The Unquiet Grave, Clerk Saunders, The Grey Cock, The Wife of Usher’s Well). In these encounters, which tend to be more frequent in northern Europe than elsewhere, the ballad imagination is at its most evocative.

In the broadside ballads and later urban tradition subject matter edges toward the political, satirical and personal. A long tradition, from the 17th century, of composing socially critical ballads exists in Britain and Ireland, and singers were frequently arrested for singing rebel songs. With emigration in the mid-19th century the Irish tradition found its way to the United States with ballads like Molly Bawn, in which the heroine, who transforms herself into a swan each evening, is mistakenly shot by her hunter-lover; these supernatural elements tend to be rationalized in North American variants. The ‘come-all-ye’ type of ballad grew in prominence around this time. Broadsides proliferated in the United States and were at their height between about 1840 and 1880, and these extended the range of topics to include sensational crime (Naomi Wise, Fuller and Warren, Pearl Bryan, Frankie and Johnny), criminals’ farewells (Tom Dooley, Charles Guiteau), historical events (Brave Wolfe, Paul Jones, The Chesapeake and the Shannon), disasters (The Avondale Mine Disaster, Casey Jones, The Wreck of the Old 97, The Ballet of the Boll Weevil, The Titanic), heroes and outlaws (Brennan on the Moor, Captain Kidd, The Wild Colonial Boy, Sam Bass, Jesse James, John Henry, John Hardy) and cowboy topics (The Streets of Laredo, Joe Bowers, The Arkansas Traveller, The Dying Stockman). The Australian ballad tradition likewise tells of personal hardship through sentencing to transportation or outlawry (Jim Jones, Van Diemen’s Land, The Convict Maid, Botany Bay, The Death of Ned Kelly).

3. International aspects.

  • James Porter

The ballad of tradition has been known by different names outside the English-speaking world, such as the Scandinavian vise and the Hispanic romance (ballad) or romancero (balladry). In Gaelic-speaking regions of Britain and Ireland the equivalent narrative song tradition was the laoidh (‘lay’), which usually celebrated the exploits of the legendary Fianna (Fenian warriors) and their leader, Fionn Mac Cumhaill (see Bard and Ossian). Examples of Fenian lays, which lack the refrain common in other native song genres and did not accompany dance, have been recorded in recent times, mainly from Hebridean singers. With the plantation of Ireland, British ballads found their way there and a number of texts were translated into Gaelic equivalents (e.g. An Tighearna Randal). At another, broader remove, it has been suggested that Irish vision poetry (the aisling) influenced North American balladry, in part as a result of the huge emigration from Ireland to the United States in the mid-19th century. In contrast to the relatedness of ballad themes and texts, ballad tunes tend to be much more localized, although Wiora (1952) has pointed to some common European melodic structures he believes are genetically related.

The ballad corpus in France and Germany is markedly lyrical, with links to the pastourelle and the Romanze respectively. The Danish ballad tradition, which flourished in the later Middle Ages and was written down from the 16th century, often parallels British balladry in subject matter. Northern European ballads in general tend to share elements such as supernatural lovers, whereas central European traditions such as that in Hungary rarely deal with magical practices or such topics as shape-shifting. Several scholars (e.g. Liestøl, Nygard, Vargyas) have nevertheless posited generic and thematic links not only among British, Scandinavian and French balladry but also between Hungarian and French ballads, and suggested a further connection between Hungarian ballads, for example, and Siberian heroic epic. The roots of some ballad traditions thus lie far beyond Western Europe. And while ballads and epics are formed on quite different structural principles, clear thematic borrowing in many ballad traditions is evident, especially in the Balkans and Spain.

Some ballad plots are widespread: the Low Countries ballad of Heer Halewijn, thought by some to derive ultimately from the tale of Judith and Holofernes, is known in English-language tradition as Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight (Child no.4) and in Hungary, for example, as Anna Molnár; and the Scottish ballad of Clerk Colvill (Child no.42), which recounts the hero’s luckless encounter with a mermaid, is rather rare in English-language tradition but the basic story appears in other countries under the titles Elveskud, Riddar Olaf, Seigneur Nann, Le roi renaud or La muerte occultada (‘Death concealed’). The last of these shows an unusual side of the Spanish romance tradition, which normally contains few fantastic elements and deals with concrete events with relatively little supernatural interference. Its main concerns are historical or quasi-historical: conflicts between Moors and Christians, for example, or the legendary exploits of warriors such as El Cid. Whether these analogous plots and motifs are direct borrowings or independent compositions has been the object of much research; while some paths of diffusion can be traced, scholars are now concerned less with the historical and geographical origins of ballads and more with their content, function and meaning.

Throughout the Mediterranean countries the division between elaborative epic style and concentrated ballad is normally well defined: the ballad flourishes mainly in northern Italy, for example, while in the south the cantastorie tradition, parallel to epic singing in the Balkans, expands details of dress, armoury or battles and embellishes these into whole episodes. The dispersal of the Sephardim has resulted in a rich Judeo-Hispanic ballad tradition now found in widely separated areas of the diaspora. In Eastern Europe, the subject matter of Slavonic ballad traditions combines fantastic and realistic elements. Pan-Slavonic themes sometimes emerge, such as the ballad of the bird-daughter: a mother marries off her daughter but she returns as a bird to tell of her misfortune in marriage. As in other east and south-east European traditions, the ballads of Russia and Ukraine should be distinguished from epic songs (bilini,dumy) on the one hand and historical songs on the other. In the subject matter of these ballads, as throughout the Slavic world, the individual is pitted against severe social constraints: the maltreated wife never kills her abusive spouse, for example, and matricide would be an impossible act of revenge. The fundamental conflict, as in most balladry, lies in the individual’s choice between conforming to social norms or protesting and thereby suffering. The Ukrainian ballad tradition, like several European counterparts in the New World, has found change and renewal among Ukrainian emigrants in Canada.

The Spanish and Portuguese romance has similarly found its way through outposts such as the Azores or the Canary Islands to Latin America and as far as south-east Asia. The ballad of Hispanic tradition known as El raptor pordiosero (‘The begging abductor’), for instance, has become O Cego (‘The blind man’) in Brazil through Portuguese versions. A knock on the door provokes the question ‘Who is there?’; the knocker replies that he is a blind man, whereupon the unidentified speaker tells a woman to fetch him bread and wine, which the blind man refuses; all he wants is for the woman to show him the way, whereupon he reveals to her that he is not blind, and has disguised himself in order to abduct and marry her. Ballads with such themes spread widely and stimulated newer types of narrative song, occasionally under different names: the indita in New Mexico, for example, the corrido in Mexico, and the korido in the Philippines, which was transmitted from Spain and Mexico during the colonial period (1521–1898). The corridor, found in both Mexico and the USA, was a productive form for social and historical commentary in the 20th century. The indita (‘little Indian girl’ or ‘song’) of the later 19th century is a narrative song on historical, burlesque or even spiritual topics.

4. Narrative form and style.

  • James Porter

The older traditional ballads are marked by an essential distillation of plot, character and action or dialogue. Often no more than two people are involved, although a third or others may impinge fatefully on their relationship. Apart from battles or conflict between males the focus is usually on a man and a woman, with dialogue leading to decisive action. As a rule the story is not elaborated through explicit motivation or the description of personae or objects; rather, the singing pushes the story along relentlessly, leaping or lingering, sketching the story line economically and using the device of incremental repetition as, for example, in Lady Maisry (Child no.65B): ‘The first horse that he rode upon, He was a raven black … The next horse that he rode upon/He was a bonny brown … The next horse that he rode upon/He as the milk was white …’ and so on. The action and dialogue between them bring the ballad drama to a climax. Some ballads consist entirely of dialogue, such as Edward, Lord Randal and The Maid Freed from the Gallows. The impersonality of the narration is offset, to some extent, by the refrains, which underscore not only the archaisms of the form but its participatory nature.

Individual ballad plots are sometimes obliquely related, as in the case of Edward (Child no.13), The Twa Brothers (Child no.49) and Lizzie Wan (Child no.51), though this is rare. Characters are broadly imagined and without complexity. Often they engage each other through confrontation, accusation or challenge of some kind. They are deftly sketched to establish their place in the drama, and any motive is discernible only by means of their speech or actions. They are normally described in commonplaces, such as ‘fair lady’, ‘bonny bride’, ‘lady gay’ or ‘false truelove’, and their attributes are likewise couched in stereotyped phrases: ‘lilywhite breast’, ‘yellow hair’, ‘gay gold ring’, ‘a broad letter’. These commonplaces are not simply fillers, however, since they help to establish the mood and pace of the drama and to stabilize the rhythm and emphasis of the verse line. The verse patterns, usually iambic or trochaic, are also decisively influenced by the shape and rhythm of the tune.

Hispanic ballads are sung in 16-syllable assonant lines divided into hemistichs and Slavonic ballads draw on the decasyllabic line, while ‘ballad’ or ‘common’ metre in English-language tradition consists of a quatrain of alternating four-stress and three-stress lines (, the second and fourth having end-rhymes. The stanza may be extended to five, six or eight lines, but it is unusual to find fewer than four lines. The stanza with four-stress lines throughout is also unusual since, in singing, the three-stress lines are lengthened by holding the final syllable as long as a fourth stress so that, melodically, at least, all ballad stanzas consist of four-beat lines. Each line corresponds to a distinct musical phrase. A ballad stanza usually comprises a single unit of meaning, thereby matching a complete statement of the tune. This self-contained structure is important, for syntax and melody combine to discourage the natural emphasis of the words when they are spoken rather than sung. Singing obliterates the accent and subordinates the nominal and adjectival to a broader, more universal telling of the ballad story. A profound ambiguity in the relationship of narrative direction and the singing of the ballad text thus results from the structural tension that emerges in performance.

5. Tunes.

  • James Porter

Ballad ballare: ‘to dance’ I. Folk and popular balladry 5. Tunes.: Ex.1 Lord Lovel (Child no.75), from D. Scarborough: A Song Catcher in the Southern Mountains (New York, 1937)

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Traditional ballads are usually sung solo, though instruments (e.g. fiddle, harp, guitar, banjo or dulcimer) have also been used to accompany singers. The ballad tune, with just one or two notes to a syllable, helps to shape the versification though not the mood of the ballad text. The tune’s character, in fact, is sometimes at variance with the tragic tone as in, for example, the lilting 6/8 rhythm and major mode of Lord Lovel (Child no.75; ex.1); this ballad has given rise to parodies in the USA where Abraham Lincoln takes the place of Lovel and is mocked for his military reverses. In general, though, the tune has a key role to play in the overall rhythm and style of the sung ballad. The main cadence points are at the end of the second and fourth lines, where the normal rhyme of the ballad stanza occurs, and these cadences often (though not always) correspond to a melodic shift from the tonic to the fifth above, as in an English tune for Barbara Allen (Child no.84;ex.2), the most widely sung of the British ballads. Some tunes of modal cast, however, are content to repeat the first two phrases, sometimes slightly modified, as in a Scottish tune version for The Lass of Roch Royal (Child no.76; ex.3).

The most common phrasal four-line pattern in British ballad tunes is ABCD, a non-recurrent form that provides not only the greatest variety of phrase but also the widest space between repetitions. This type accounts for almost half of the 3450 tunes analyzed by Bronson (1969, p.153). Its closest rival, ABCDE, is not nearly as frequent. In a long ballad the scheme ABAB doubles not only the number of repetitions but also their frequency when sung. ABCA, on the other hand, returns to the opening phrase in cyclical fashion. The ‘come-all-ye’ type of tune, ABBA, juxtaposes inner as well as outer identities. Of tunes with a repeated phrase the pattern ABAC is the most often found. Refrains (e.g. ‘savoury, sage, rosemary and thyme’, ‘down a down, hey down’) force narrative to give way to melody; refrains can consist of a fifth repetitive line, a burden between stanzas, or intercalated lines within the stanza.

Because of the skill needed to notate music, ballad melodies have been taken down relatively recently; no tune for a Child ballad exists before the 17th century, and a large proportion of notated melodies, whether recorded by phonograph or magnetic tape or transcribed from performance, date from the beginning of the 20th century. Like the editors of texts, ‘improving’ musical editors have sometimes, like William Christie (1881), tampered with tunes. But ballad tunes are often sturdy enough to have survived in outline for centuries. Some tunes fall into what some have called ‘tune families’ – that is, groups of tunes that are structurally analogous (e.g. the Dives and Lazarus family; see Bayard, 1950; Jackson, 1952; Bronson, 1969). These tunes are ‘related’ only in the sense of having a comparable tonal structure and not necessarily through direct transmission or borrowing. Although the overall shape of the tune is retained in variant realization, such relationships are based on melodic rather than rhythmic identity.

The modality of ballad tunes is a striking feature of their character since they often rely on structures from before the advent of common-practice harmony in the 17th century. Pentatonic and hexatonic modes are as frequent as heptatonic; the Appalachian and Scottish ballad tunes show a preference for the ‘gapped’ (pentatonic or hexatonic) forms, while English tradition inclines to the heptatonic forms with a sharp or flattened third and a flattened leading note (Bronson, 1969, pp.155–6). Metre can be two- or three-beat types: in England and Scotland 4/4 predominates, with 6/8 much more common in England, perhaps as a fitting counterpart for iambic metre. But the singer does not always stick rigidly to an isometric formula, and tunes can fall into patterns such as 5/4, or even irregular barring such as 3/2, 9/4, 3/2, 5/4, 4/4. The range of the tunes is usually an octave, but can sometimes extend to a 12th.

6. Singers and contexts.

  • James Porter

Ballad singers have been the object of both scorn and admiration since at least the 17th century, when the diarist Samuel Pepys ‘in perfect pleasure’ heard Mrs Knipp sing ‘her little Scotch song of “Barbary Allen”’. Later, James Hogg’s mother berated Sir Walter Scott for printing, in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–3), the texts of ballads that she stressed were intended to be sung. Antiquarians had already shown interest in singers such as Anna Brown (1747–1810), a minister’s wife from Aberdeen who from 1783 compiled traditional ballads, some of them with variant texts. The interpretation of these texts has been a matter of controversy, but it seems likely that Mrs Brown did not improvise variants each time she sang them but in fact had learned different versions of the same ballad from her mother and her aunt. Evidence of textual improvisation (as opposed to re-creation) is extremely rare, although examples of ballad tunes sung with free melodic variation have been found: Henry Larcombe, described by Sharp, and the Irish traveller John Reilly (c1926–69) both sang in this way.

The central issue of ballad singing and repertory was broached in Motherwell’s key study (1827) of Agnes Lyle, a weaver’s daughter from Kilbarchan in Ayrshire. While Mrs Brown preferred ballads of magic and romance, Agnes Lyle chose to sing tragic ballads with which she felt a strong sympathy (e.g. Sheath and Knife, Child no.16), and would sometimes weep while singing them. It can thus be difficult to separate a singer’s choice of repertory or singing of particular ballad stories from their lived experience. In general, women have cultivated ballad singing to a greater degree than men because of their domestic situation. Ballads can thus overlap with other genres such as work songs, lullabies or laments; in Hungary, for example, women sang ballads in the context of collective weaving and spinning (see Lament and Lullaby. Ballads have also been a means for women to highlight their often subjugated role in society.

As a result of changes in the 20th century brought about mainly by technological developments, ballad singers and the ballad genre in the modern world have again become a focus of interest. The advent of the phonograph in the late 19th century and of the magnetic tape recorder after World War II allowed scholars such as Percy Grainger to record the flowing graces and decorations in ballad singing: Grainger’s transcriptions of English singers (1908) capture the nuances of recorded performance. Since 1950, the performance of ballads has increasingly occurred in the context of folk clubs and folk festivals. ‘Source singers’ who learned their art in a traditional domestic context such as Jean Ritchie (USA), Jeannie Robertson (Scotland), or the Copper family (England) have attracted scholarly study. The exposure of such source singers to public attention in arenas larger than the domestic one in which the songs were learned has at times resulted in changes to melody (often expansive), text (sometimes contracted), and other ways of adapting ballad style to modern taste and communication such as instrumental accompaniment, increased volume of sound, and the schooling of younger singers not part of the singers’ original family network. New ballads continue to be composed and old ones to be reworked. The publication of ballad collections and of sound recordings made by outstanding singers since World War II has led to a fresh appreciation not only of the ballad form but also of the ballad singer’s art.

7. Broadside ballads.

  • James Porter and Jeremy Barlow

The ‘broadside ballad’ originated in the 16th century and was so called in England because the texts were customarily printed and circulated on large folio sheets called broadsheets or broadsides. The broadsheet, as a means of conveying news publicly, was also familiar on the continent, as the Flugblatt in Germany, skillingtryck (shilling print) in Sweden, marktlied in the Low Countries and pliego suelto in Hispanic countries. Some ballads were published in pamphlets of two or more leaves; these later became known as ‘chapbooks’. The European street singer (Bänkelsänger in Germany) would set up a stall to sell broadsheets relating sensational events, sentimental relationships or other contemporary matters.

Except for a few years in the 1680s, music was hardly ever printed on a broadside along with a text; sometimes when it was, it was only a decorative pretence, like the notes sprinkled on some Christmas cards, without musical significance. At best, the printed notation served to jog the purchaser’s memory, enabling him to select from a body of tunes known principally through the oral tradition. Tunes would be adapted from popular usage of the day, or re-modelled to fit newer verses. Ballad singers might have as many as 100 different melodies in their repertory. Familiar tunes could be harnessed for a ballad text by a broadside printer or a street singer; the evidence suggests, too, that the broadside ballad writer may have had a specific tune in mind as he framed his stanza pattern. Many of those tunes have survived only through this tradition or in notated broadsheets or instrumental music (as airs on which sets of variations were written, for example). Others were included in tutors and in such contemporary sources as Playford’s The English Dancing Master (1651; subsequent editions in the late 17th and early 18th centuries as The Dancing Master) and A Choice Collection of 180 Loyal Songs (1685). Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy (1699–1700), an anthology by Thomas D’Urfey that grew to six volumes in its final edition (1719–20), contains the words and music to about 1000 songs, many of them also printed as broadsides. Some of the tunes are by identifiable composers, while others are of earlier, anonymous and traditional. These tunes existed in England and parts of the USA in an oral tradition on which the authors of new topical broadside texts could draw. Other broadside tunes came from abroad, for instance Chi passa, The Spanish Pavan and Farinel’s Ground.

Around the end of the 17th century the broadside ballad began to face competition in Britain from the single-sheet song, which contained an air engraved with a bass line, a version of the tune in a key suitable for recorder or flute, and a reduced song text. As a result, reprints of ballads no longer included directions of the tune, and new pieces did not specify a tune to which they should be sung. Since the late 18th century such ballads have been an important, if often unrecognized, element in American popular music. Although there is a quite sizeable literature on the broadside as a printed literary form, close connecting musical documentation is mostly lacking.

See also Popular music, §I.


Collections, compilations, reference works
  • T. D’Urfey, ed.: Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy (London, 1719–20/R)
  • A. Ramsay: The Tea-Table Miscellany (London, 1724–7, many other edns)
  • W. Thomson: Orpheus Caledonius (London, 1725, 2/1733/R)
  • T. Percy: Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (London, 1765, many other edns)
  • D. Herd, ed.: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads (Edinburgh, 1769, 2/1776/R)
  • J. Ritson: A Select Collection of English Songs with their Original Airs (London, 1783, 2/1813)
  • J. Johnson: The Scots Musical Museum (Edinburgh, 1787–1803, rev. 3/1853/R by W. Stenhouse and D. Laing)
  • W. Scott: Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Edinburgh, 1802–3; edn with tunes, 1833)
  • R. Jamieson: Popular Ballads and Songs: from Tradition, Manuscripts and Scarce Editions (Edinburgh, 1806)
  • E.G. Geijer and A.A. Afzelius, eds.: Svenska folkvisor [Swedish folksongs] (Stockholm, 1814–17, 3/1957–60)
  • G.R. Kinloch: Ancient Scottish Ballads, Recovered from Tradition (London, 1827/R)
  • W. Motherwell: Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern (Glasgow, 1827/R)
  • P. Buchan: Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1828/R)
  • S. Grundtvig and A. Olrik: Danmarks gamle folkeviser (Copenhagen, 1853–1920; completed by H.G. Nielsen, K.-I. Hildeman, E. Dal, I. Piø, T. Knudsen, S. Nielsen and N. Schiørring, 1920–76/R)
  • W. Christie: Traditional Ballad Airs (Edinburgh, 1876–81)
  • J.C. Bruce and J. Stokoe: Northumbrian Minstrelsy (Newcastle, 1882/R)
  • F.J. Child: English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Cambridge, MA, 1882–98)
  • C. Nigra: Canti popolari del Piemonte (Turin, 1888, 2/1957/R)
  • F. Kidson, ed.: Traditional Tunes: a Collection of Ballad Airs (Oxford, 1891/R)
  • L. Erk and F.M. Böhme: Deutscher Liederhort (Leipzig, 1893/R)
  • C.J. Sharp and others, eds.: Songs of the West (London, 1905/R)
  • T. Braga: Romanceiro geral portuguez (Lisbon, 2/1906–9/R)
  • J.H. Davies: A Bibliography of Welsh Ballads Printed in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1909–11)
  • J.A. Lomax: Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads (New York, 1916)
  • J.H. Combs: Folk-Songs du Midi des Etats-Unis (Paris, 1925; Eng. trans., 1967)
  • G. Greig and J.B. Duncan: Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs, ed. A. Keith (Aberdeen, 1925)
  • G. Korson: Songs and Ballads of the Anthracite Miners (New York, 1927)
  • P. Barry, F.H. Eckstorm and M.W. Smyth, eds.: British Ballads from Maine (New Haven, CT, 1929) [musical transcrs. by G. Herzog]
  • A.K. Davis: Traditional Ballads of Virginia (Cambridge, MA, 1929)
  • C.J. Sharp and M. Karpeles, eds.: English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (London, 1932/R, 2/1952/R)
  • J. Meier and others: Deutsche Volkslieder, mit ihren Melodien (Berlin, 1935–96)
  • D. Castañeda: El corrido mexicano: su técnica literaria y musical (Mexico City, 1943)
  • G. Korson: Pennsylvania Songs and Legends (Philadelphia, 1949/R)
  • T.P. Coffin: The British Traditional Ballad in North America (Philadelphia, 1950, enlarged 3/1977)
  • G.M. Laws: Native American Balladry (Philadelphia, 1950/R)
  • J. Canteloube: Anthologie des chants populaires français, groupés et présentés par pays ou provinces (Paris, 1951)
  • H.M. Belden and A.P. Hudson, eds.: Folk Ballads from North Carolina, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, 2 (Durham, NC, 1952)
  • I. Csanádi and L. Vargyas, eds.: Röpülj páva röpülj: magyar népballadák és balladás dalok [Fly peacock fly: Hungarian ballads and ballad tunes] (Budapest, 1954)
  • A.B. Friedman, ed.: The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World (New York, 1956/R)
  • G.M. Laws: American Balladry from British Broadsides (Philadelphia, 1957)
  • J.P. Schinhan, ed.: The Music of the Ballads, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, 4 (Durham, NC, 1957)
  • N.I. White and others, eds.: The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, 4: The Music of the Ballads (Durham, NC, 1957)
  • J. Künzig: Ehe sie verklingen … Alte deutsche Volksweisen vom Böhmerwald bis zur Wolga (Freiberg, 1958)
  • B.H. Bronson: The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads with their Texts according to the Extant Records of Great Britain and America (Princeton, NJ, 1959–72)
  • A.K. Davis: More Traditional Ballads of Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC, 1960)
  • M. Barbeau: Le rossignol y chante (Ottawa, 1962)
  • M.E. Simmons: A Bibliography of the Romance and Related Forms in Spanish America (Bloomington, IN, 1963)
  • G.M. Laws: Native American Balladry (Philadelphia, 1964)
  • G.-D. Zimmerman: Irish Political Street Ballads and Rebel Songs, 1780–1900 (Geneva, 1966)
  • A.I. Amzulescu, ed.: Balade populare româneşti (Bucharest, 1967)
  • E. Seemann, D. Stromback and B.R. Jonsson, eds.: European Folk Ballads (Copenhagen, 1967)
  • Z. Kumer and others: Annual Bibliography of Folk Ballad Research (Ljubljana, 1970–90)
  • R.W. Brednich and W. Suppan: Gottscheer Volkslieder, 1 (Mainz, 1969)
  • Jahresbibliographie der Volksballadenforschung (Ljubjana, 1970–90)
  • E. Seeman: ‘Die europäische Volksballade’, Handbuch des Volksliedes, ed. R.W. Brednich and others (Munich, 1973), 37–54
  • J. Jagamas and J. Faragó: Romániai magyar népdalok [Hungarian folksongs from Romania] (Bucharest, 1974)
  • M. Karpeles, ed.: The Crystal Spring: English Folk Songs Collected by Cecil Sharp (London, 1975)
  • E.B. Lyle, ed.: Andrew Crawfurd’s Collection of Ballads and Songs (Edinburgh, 1, 1975, 2, 1996)
  • R.L. Wright, ed.: Irish Emigrant Ballads and Songs (Bowling Green, OH, 1975)
  • P. Kennedy, ed.: Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland (London, 1976)
  • P. Shuldham-Shaw and others, eds.: The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection (Aberdeen and Edinburgh, 1976–99)
  • B.H. Bronson: The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads (Princeton, NJ, 1977)
  • T.P. Coffin: The British Traditional Ballad in North America (Philadelphia, 1950, enlarged, 3/1977)
  • C. Laforte: Le Catalogue de la chanson folklorique française (Quebec, 1977–83)
  • E. MacColl and P. Seeger, eds.: Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland (London and Knoxville, TN, 1977)
  • E. Cray: Bawdy Ballads (London, 1978)
  • S.G. Armistead: ‘A Critical Bibliography of the Hispanic Ballad in Oral Tradition (1971–9)’, El romancero hoy: historia, comparatismo, bibliografia critica, ed. S.G. Armistead, A.S. Romeralo, D. Catalán (Madrid, 1979), 199–310
  • R. Palmer, ed.: Everyman’s Book of British Ballads (London, 1980/R)
  • A.S. Romeralo, S.G. Armistead, and S.H. Petersen, eds.: Bibliografia del romancero oral (Madrid, 1980–)
  • H. Shields: Shamrock, Rose, and Thistle: Folk Singing in North Derry (Belfast, 1981)
  • W.G. Day, ed.: The Pepys Ballads (Cambridge, 1987)
  • D. Catalán, ed.: Pan-Hispanic Ballad Catalogue: General Theory and Methodology (Madrid, 1988)
  • W.E. Richmond, ed.: Ballad Scholarship: an Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1989)
  • G. Huntington, ed.: Sam Henry’s Songs of the People (Athens, GA 1990)
  • G. Legman: ‘Erotic Folksongs and Ballads: An International Bibliography’, Journal of American Folklore, 103 (1990), 417–501
  • N. Cohen: Traditional Anglo-American Folk Music: an Annotated Discography of Published Sound Recordings (New York, 1994)
  • M. da Costa Fontes: Portuguese and Brazilian Balladry: a Thematic and Bibliographic Index (Madison, 1997)
  • J.P. Moulden: Printed Ballad of Ireland [electronic resource]: a Guide to the Popular Printing of Songs in Ireland, 1760–1920 (Portrush, 2006)
Studies: British, North American
  • W. Chappell: Popular Music of the Olden Time (London, 1855–9/R as The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time, rev. 2/1893/R by H.E. Wooldridge as Old English Popular Music)
  • F.B. Gummere: The Popular Ballad (Cambridge, MA, 1907/R)
  • C.J. Sharp: English Folk-Song: some Conclusions (London, 1907, rev. 4/1965 by M. Karpeles)
  • P. Grainger: ‘Collecting with the Phonograph’, JFFS, 3 (1908), 147–242
  • P. Grainger: ‘The Impress of Personality in Traditional Singing’, JFSS, 3 (1908), 163–6
  • W.P. Ker: ‘On the History of the Ballads 1100–1500’, Proceedings of the British Academy Pamphlet, no.4 (December, 1909)
  • L. Pound: Poetic Origins and the Ballad (New York, 1921/R)
  • L.C. Wimberly: Folklore in the English and Scottish Ballads (Chicago, 1928)
  • A.G. Gilchrist: ‘A Note on the “Herb” and Other Refrains of Certain British Ballads’, JFFS, 8 (1930), 237–50
  • A. Taylor: ‘Edward’ and ‘Sven i Rosengård’: a Study in the Dissemination of a Ballad (Chicago, 1931)
  • G.H. Gerould: The Ballad of Tradition (Oxford, 1932/R)
  • R.S. Lamson: English Broadside Ballad Tunes, 1550–1700 (diss., Harvard U., 1935)
  • A.J. Walker: Popular Songs and Broadsides in the English Drama 1559–1642 (Cambridge, MA, 1935)
  • P. Barry: ‘On the Psychopathology of Ballad-Singing’, Bulletin of the Folk-Song Society of the Northeast, 11 (1936), 16–18
  • J.W. Hendren: A Study of Ballad Rhythm, with Special Reference to Ballad Music (Princeton, NJ, 1936/R)
  • W.J. Entwistle: European Balladry (Oxford, 1939/R)
  • R. Harvey: ‘The Unquiet Grave’, JEFDSS, 4 (1941), 49–66
  • S.P. Bayard: ‘Prolegomena to a Study of the Principal Melodic Families of British-American Folk Song’, Journal of American Folklore, 63 (1950), 1–44
  • M.J.C. Hodgart: The Ballads (London, 1950, 2/1962)
  • G.P. Jackson, ed.: Another Sheaf of White Spirituals (Gainesville, FL, 1952/R)
  • A. Paredes: ‘With His Pistol in His Hand’: a Border Ballad and its Hero (Austin, 1958)
  • D.K. Wilgus: Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1959/R)
  • A.B. Friedman: The Ballad Revival: Studies in the Influence of Popular on Sophisticated Poetry (Chicago, 1961)
  • J.H. Jones: ‘Commonplace and Memorization in the Oral Tradition of the English and Scottish Ballads’, Journal of American Folklore, 74 (1961), 97–112
  • MacE. Leach and T.P. Coffin: The Critics & the Ballad (Carbondale, IL, 1961) [incl. P. Barry: ‘The Part of the Folk Singer in the Making of Folk Balladry’, 59–76]
  • G.M. Laws: Anglo-Irish Balladry in North America (Philadelphia, 1962)
  • L. Shepard: The Broadside Ballad: a Study in Origins and Meaning (London, 1962)
  • C.M. Simpson: The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (New Brunswick, NJ, 1966)
  • A.L. Lloyd: Folk Song in England (London and New York, 1967)
  • J.B. Toelken: ‘An Oral Canon for the Child Ballads: Construction and Application’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, 4 (1967), 75–101
  • J.Q. Wolf: ‘Folk Singers and the Re-Creation of Folksong’, Western Folklore, 26 (1967), 101–11
  • J.M. Ward: ‘Apropos the British Broadside Ballad and Its Music’, JAMS, 20 (1967), 28–86
  • R.D. Abrahams and G. Foss: Anglo-American Folksong Style (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1968)
  • D.C. Fowler: A Literary History of the Popular Ballad (Durham, NC, 1968)
  • M. Kolinski: ‘“Barbara Allen”: Tonal versus Melodic Structure’, EthM, 12 (1968), 208–18; 13 (1969), 1–73
  • D.K. Wilgus and L. Montell: ‘Clure and Joe Williams: Legend and Blues Ballad’, Journal of American Folklore, 81 (1968), 295–315
  • B.H. Bronson: The Ballad as Song (Berkeley, 1969)
  • H. Glassie, E.D. Ives and J.F. Szwed: Folksongs and their Makers (Bowling Green, OH, 1970)
  • A. Munro: ‘Lizzie Higgins and the Oral Transmission of Ten Child Ballads’, Scottish Studies, 14 (1970), 155–88
  • A. Riddle: A Singer and Her Songs, ed. R.D. Abrahams (Baton Rouge, LA, 1970)
  • A.E. Green: ‘“McCaffery”: a Study in the Variation and Function of a Ballad’, Lore and Language, 1 (1970–71), no.3, 4–9; no.4, 3–12; no.5, 6–11
  • D. Buchan: The Ballad and the Folk (London, 1972)
  • N. Cazden: ‘A Simplified Mode Classification for Traditional Anglo-American Song Tunes’, YIFMC, 3 (1972), 45–78
  • H. Shields: ‘Old British Ballads in Ireland’, Folk Life, 10 (1972), 68–103
  • R.G. Alvey: ‘Phillips Barry and Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, 10 (1973), 67–95
  • A.B. Cohen: Poor Pearl! Poor Girl! The Murdered-Girl Stereotype in Ballad and Newspaper (Austin, 1973)
  • E. Long: ‘Ballad Singers, Ballad Makers, and Ballad Etiology’, Western Folklore, 32 (1973), 225–36
  • J. Maguire: Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday, ed. R. Morton (London, 1973)
  • A.D. Shapiro: The Tune-Family Concept in British-American Folksong Scholarship (diss., Harvard U., 1975)
  • S. Smith: A Study of Lizzie Higgins as a Transitional Figure in the Oral Tradition of Northeast Scotland (diss., U. of Edinburgh, 1975)
  • A. Bruford: ‘The Grey Selkie’, Ballad Studies, ed. E.B. Lyle (Cambridge, 1976), 41–65
  • G. Foss: ‘A Methodology for the Description and Classification of Anglo-American Traditional Tunes’, Journal of the Folklore Institute, 41 (1976), 102–26
  • A. Gardner-Medwin: ‘Miss Reburn’s Ballads: a Nineteenth Century Repertoire from Ireland’, Ballad Studies, ed. E.B. Lyle (Cambridge, 1976), 93–116
  • A. Munro: ‘“Abbotsford Collection of Border Ballads”: Sophia Scott’s Manuscript Book with Airs’, Scottish Studies, 20 (1976), 91–108
  • J. Porter: ‘Jeannie Robertson’s “My Son David”: a Conceptual Performance Model’, Journal of American Folklore, 89 (1976), 7–26
  • H.O. Nygard: ‘Mrs Brown’s Recollected Ballads’, Ballad and Ballad Research: Seattle 1977, 68–87
  • C. Seeger: ‘Versions and Variants of “Barbara Allen”’, Studies in Musicology 1935–1975 (Berkeley, 1977), 273–320
  • T.G. and A.L. Burton: Some Ballad Folks (Johnson City, 1978)
  • F.G. Andersen and T. Pettitt: ‘Mrs Brown of Falkland: a Singer of Tales?’, Journal of American Folklore, 92 (1979), 1–24
  • M. Murphy: ‘The Ballad Singer and the Role of the Seditious Ballad in Nineteenth Century Ireland: Dublin Castle’s View’, Ulster Folklife, 25 (1979), 79–102
  • R. Palmer: A Ballad History of England (London, 1979)
  • R. Wehse: Schwanklied und Flugblatt in Grossbritannien (Frankfurt, 1979)
  • G. Dunn: The Fellowship of Song: Popular Singing Traditions in East Suffolk (London, 1980)
  • H. Powers: ‘Mode [IV]: Modal Scales and Folksong Melodies’, Grove6
  • L. Doucette and C. Quigley: ‘The Child Ballad in Canada: a Survey’, Canadian Folk Music Journal, 9 (1981), 3–19
  • D. Harker: ‘Francis James Child and the “Ballad Consensus”’, Folk Music Journal, 4 (1981), 146–64
  • D.K. Wilgus: ‘Andrew Jenkins, Folk Composer: an Overview’, Lore and Language, 3 (1981), 109–28
  • W.H.A. Williams: ‘The Broadside Ballad and Vernacular Culture’, Irish Folk Music Studies: Eigse Cheol Tire, 3 (1981), 45–60
  • N. Würzbach: Die englische Strassenballade 1550–1660 (Munich, 1981; Eng. trans., 1990, as The Rise of the English Street Ballad)
  • G. Boyes: ‘Performance and Context: an Examination of the Effects of the English Folksong Revival on Song Repertoire and Style’, The Ballad Today: Sheffield 1982, 43–52
  • K.S. Goldstein: ‘The Impact of Recording Technology on the British Folksong Revival’, Folk Music and Modern Sound, ed. W. Ferris and M.L. Hart (Jackson, MS, 1982), 3–13
  • A. Bennett: ‘Sources of Popular Song in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain: Problems and Methods of Research’, Popular Music, 2 (1983), 63–89
  • A.B. Friedman: ‘The Oral-Formulaic Theory of Balladry: a Re-Rebuttal’, The Ballad Image: Essays Presented to Bertrand Harris Bronson, ed. J. Porter (Los Angeles, 1983), 215–40
  • J. Porter, ed.: The Ballad Image: Essays Presented to Bertrand Harris Bronson (Los Angeles, 1983)
  • J.R. Cowdery: ‘Rethinking the Concept of Tune Family’, EthM, 28 (1984), 495–504
  • M. Pickering: ‘Popular Song at Juniper Hill’, Folk Music Journal, 4 (1984), 481–503
  • F.G. Andersen: Commonplace and Creativity: the Role of Formulaic Diction in Anglo-Scottish Traditional Balladry (Odense, 1985)
  • F.G. Andersen and T. Pettitt: ‘“The Murder of Maria Marten”: The Birth of a Ballad?’ Narrative Folksong: New Directions: Essays in Appreciation of W.Edson Richmond, ed. C.L. Edwards and K.E.B. Manley (Boulder, CO, 1985), 134–78
  • A. Bruford: ‘The Singing of Fenian and Similar Lays in Scotland’, Ballad Research: Dublin 1985, 55–70
  • D. Harker: Fakesong: the Manufacture of British ‘Folksong’ 1700 to the Present Day (Philadelphia, 1985)
  • T. Munnelly: ‘Narrative Songs in West Clare’, Ballad Research, ed. H. Shields (Dublin, 1985), 35–48
  • D.K. Wilgus: ‘The “Aisling” and the Cowboy: some Unnoticed Influences of Irish Vision Poetry on Anglo-American Balladry’, Western Folklore, 44 (1985), 255–300
  • D.K. Wilgus and E.R. Long: ‘The Blues Ballad and the Genesis of Style in Traditional Narrative Song’, Narrative Folksong: New Directions: Essays in Appreciation of W. Edson Richmond, ed. C.L. Edwards and K.E.B. Manley (Boulder, CO, 1985), 435–82
  • L.J. Williamson: Narrative Singing Among the Scots Travellers: a Study of Strophic Variation in Ballad Performance (diss., U. of Edinburgh, 1985)
  • M. Sorce Keller: ‘Life of a Traditional Ballad in Oral Tradition and Choral Practice’, EthM, 30 (1986), 449–69
  • E. MacColl and P. Seeger: Till Doomsday in the Afternoon: the Folklore of Scots Travellers, the Stewarts of Blairgowrie (Manchester, 1986)
  • J. Porter: ‘Ballad Explanations, Ballad Reality, and the Singer’s Epistemics’, Western Folklore, 45 (1986), 110–25
  • D.K. Wilgus and B. Toelken: The Ballad and the Scholars: Approaches to Ballad Study (Los Angeles, 1986)
  • M.J. Bell: ‘“No Borders to the Ballad Maker’s Art”: Francis James Child and the Politics of the People’, Western Folklore, 47 (1988), 285–307
  • D. Dugaw: Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650–1850 (Cambridge, 1989, 2/1996)
  • W.B. McCarthy: The Ballad Matrix: Personality, Milieu, and the Oral Tradition (Bloomington, IA, 1990)
  • H. Shields: ‘The History of “The Lass of Aughrim”’, Musicology in Ireland, ed. G. Gillen and H. White (Blackrock, 1990), 58–73
  • C.C. Livingston: British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth-Century: a Catalogue of the Extant Sheets and an Essay (London and New York, 1991)
  • W.B. McCarthy: ‘The Americanization of Scottish Ballads: Counterevidence from the Southwest of Scotland’, The Ballad and Oral Literature, ed. J. Harris (Boston, 1991), 97–108
  • Ballads and Boundaries: Los Angeles 1993 [incl. S. Douglas: ‘Ballad Singing and Boundaries’, 289–95; T. Mitsui: ‘How was “Judas” Sung?’, 241–50]
  • G. Boyes: The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology and the English Folk Revival (Manchester, 1993)
  • G. Porter: ‘Airs and Graces: Interpretation Based on the Musical Record’, ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore, 49 (1993), 205–14
  • S. Rieuwerts: ‘Field-Collecting of English and Scottish Ballads: a Researcher’s Point of View’, ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore, 49 (1993), 237–46
  • H. Shields: Narrative Singing in Ireland: Lays, Ballads, Come-All-Yes and Other Songs (Dublin, 1993)
  • S. Smith: ‘The Categorization and Performance Aesthetics of Narrative Song among Scottish Folk Revival Singers’, ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore, 49 (1993), 225–36
  • H. Shields: ‘The Words and Music of Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Irish Fieldwork’, Visions & Identities: Tórshavn 1994, 131–8
  • J.M.P. Donatelli: ‘“To Hear with Eyes”: Orality, Print Culture, and the Textuality of Ballads’, Ballads and Boundaries, ed. J. Porter (Los Angeles, 1995), 347–57
  • D. Dugaw, ed.: The Anglo-American Ballad: a Folklore Casebook (New York, 1995)
  • J. Porter and H. Gower: Jeannie Robertson: Emergent Singer, Transformative Voice (Knoxville, TN, 1995)
  • F. Armstrong: ‘On Singing Child Ballads’, Ballads into Books: the Legacies of Francis James Child, ed. T. Cheesman and S. Rieuwerts (Berne, 1997), 249–58
  • J.C. Bishop: ‘“The Most Valuable Collection of Child Ballads with Tunes Ever Published”: the Unfinished Works of James Madison Carpenter’, Ballads into Books: the Legacies of Francis James Child, ed. T. Cheesman and S. Rieuwerts (Berne, 1997), 81–94
  • J. Moreira: ‘Genre and Balladry’, Ballads into Books, the Legacies of Francis James Child, ed. T. Cheesman and S. Rieuwerts (Berne, 1997), 95–109
  • D. Dugaw: ‘The Politics of Culture: John Gay and Popular Ballads’, Ballads into Books: the Legacies of Francis James Child, ed. T. Cheesman and S. Rieuwerts (Berne, 1997), 189–98
  • B.N. Smith: Jane Hicks Gentry: a Singer Among Singers (Lexington, KY, 1998)
  • P. Kinney: ‘Welsh Ballad Tunes’, Ballads in Wales, ed. M.-A. Constantine (London, 1999), 19–24
  • C.J. Bearman: ‘Who Were the Folk? The Demography of Cecil Sharp’s Somerset Folk Singers’, Historical Journal, 43 (2000), 751–75
  • J. Porter: ‘Ballads, Fieldwork, Meaning’, Bridging the Cultural Divide, ed. S. Rieuwerts and H. Stein (2000), 355–74
  • E.W. James: ‘Painting the World Green: Dafydd Iwan and the Welsh Protest Ballad’, FMJ, 8/5 (2005), 594–618
  • M.S. Atkins: Beggar’s ‘children’: How John Gay Changed the Course of England’s Musical Theatre (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2006)
  • J. Porter: Genre, Conflict, Presence: Traditional Ballads in a Modernizing World (Trier, 2009)
Studies: European, New World, comparative
  • A. Duran: Romancero general (Madrid, 1849–51, 2/1854)
  • G. Doncieux and J. Tiersot: Le romancéro populaire de la France (Paris, 1904)
  • R. Menéndez Pidal: Poesía popular y poesía tradicional en la léteratura española (Oxford, 1922)
  • S.B. Hustvedt: Ballad Books and Ballad Men: Raids and Rescues in Britain, America and the Scandinavian North Since 1800 (Cambridge, MA, 1930/R)
  • A. Taylor: ‘“Edward” and “Sven i Rosengård”: a Study in the Dissemination of a Ballad (Chicago, 1931)
  • W. Danckert: Das europäische Volkslied (Berlin, 1939, 2/1970)
  • V.T. Mendoza: El romance español y el corrido mexicano (Mexico City, 1939, 2/1997)
  • C. Brailoiu: Sur une ballade roumaine (Geneva, 1946)
  • K. Liestøl: Scottish and Norwegian Ballads (Oslo, 1946)
  • P.G. Brewster: The Two Sisters (Helsinki, 1953)
  • R. Menéndez Pidal: Romancero hispánico (Madrid, 1953, 2/1968)
  • E. Comisel: ‘The Rumanian Popular Ballad’, Studia Memoriae Bélae Bartók Sacra, ed. B. Rajeczky and L. Vargyas (Budapest, 1956, 3/1958), 31–54
  • H.O. Nygard: The Ballad of ‘Heer Halewijn’: its Forms and Variations in Western Europe (Knoxville, 1958)
  • P.V. Lintur: Narodnye ballady Zakarpattja i ix zapadnoslavjanskie svjazi [The Carpathian-Ukrainian folk ballad corpus and West Slavic tradition] (Kiev, 1963)
  • A. Amzulescu: Balade populare romanesti (Bucharest, 1964)
  • E. Gerson-Kiwi: ‘On the Musical Sources of the Judaeo-Hispanic “Romance”’, MQ, 50 (1964), 31–43
  • L. Vargyas: ‘Rapports internationaux de la ballade populaire hongroise’, Littérature hongroise, littérature europeénne: Budapest 1964, 69–104
  • B.N. Putilov: Slavjanskaja istoriceskaja ballada [The Slavic historical ballad] (Leningrad, 1965)
  • I.I. Zemtsovsky: ‘Ballads’, Sovetskaya muzyka, 4 (1966), 89–95
  • N. Leader: Hungarian Classical Ballads and their Folklore (Cambridge, 1967)
  • L. Vargyas: Researches into the Mediaeval History of Folk Ballad (Budapest, 1967)
  • P. Bénichou: Romancero judeo-español de Marruecos (Madrid, 1968)
  • R.W. Bredich: ‘Der Plan eines europäischen Balladentypenindex’, Zbornik XII. Kongresa Jugoslovanskih Folkloristov, Celje, 1965, ed. Z. Kumer (Ljubljana, 1968), 363–72
  • T. Knudsen: ‘On the Nature of Ballad Tunes’, DFS Information, 67 (Danish Folklore Archives, 1968), 1–15
  • R. Barros and M. Dannemann: El romancero chileno (Santiago, 1970)
  • M. Kosová: ‘Katálog evrópskych balád’, Slovenský národopis, 18 (1970), 647–61
  • H.A. Nud′ha: Ukrajins′ka balada (Z teoriji ta istoriji žanru) [The Ukrainian ballad (theory and history of the genre)] (Kyjov, 1970)
  • I.J. Katz: Judeo-Spanish Traditional Ballads from Jerusalem: an Ethnomusicological Study (Brooklyn, NY, 1972–5)
  • L. Röhrich: ‘Rätsellied’, Handbuch des Volksliedes, ed. R.W. Brednich, L. Rohrich and W. Suppan, 1 (Munich, 1973), 101–56
  • W.H. Anders: Balladensänger und mundliche Komposition: Untersuchungen zur englischen Traditionsballade (Munich, 1974)
  • R.B. Klymasz and J. Porter: ‘Traditional Ukrainian Balladry in Canada’, Western Folklore, 33 (1974), 89–132
  • L. Vargyas: Magyar népballada es Europa [Hungarian ballads and the European ballad tradition] (Budapest, 1976; Eng. trans., 1983)
  • Ballads and Ballad Research: Seattle 1977
  • J. Faragó: Balladák földjén [Transylvanian ballads] (Bucharest, 1977)
  • I. Piø: ‘On Reading Orally Performed Ballads: the Medieval Ballads of Denmark’, Oral Tradition, Literary Tradition: a Symposium, ed. H. Bekker-Nielsen and others (Odense, 1977), 69–82
  • S.G. Armistead and I.J. Katz: ‘The New Edition of “Danmarks gamle Folkeviser”’, YIFMC, 9 (1978), 89–95
  • R. Benmayor: ‘A Greek tragoúdi in the Repertoire of a Judeo-Spanish Ballad Singer’, Hispanic Review, 46 (1978), 475–9
  • R. Benmayor: Romances judeo-españoles de Oriente (Madrid, 1979)
  • I.J. Katz: ‘The Musical Legacy of the Judeo-Spanish “Romancero”’, Hispania Judaica, ed. J.M. Sola-Solé, S.G. Armistead and J.H. Silverman, 2 (Barcelona, 1980–84), 45–58
  • Aspects of the European Broadside Ballad: Belgium 1981
  • J. Etzion: ‘The Polyphonic Ballad in 16th-Century Vihuela Publications’, MD, 35 (1981), 179–97
  • Z. Kumer: ‘Singers’ Repertories as a Consequence of their Biographies’, Lore and Language, 3 (1981), 49–54
  • F.G. Andersen, O. Holzapfel and T. Pettitt, eds.: The Ballad as Narrative: Studies in the Ballad Traditions of England, Scotland, Germany and Denmark (Odense, 1982)
  • C. Jaremko: ‘Baltic Ballads of the “Singing Bone”: Prototype and Oicotype’, The Ballad Today: Sheffield 1982, 66–71
  • L. Vargyas: Magyar Népballada És Európa (Budapest, 1983; Eng. trans. as Hungarian Ballads and the European Ballad Tradition, 1983)
  • The Concept of Tradition in Ballad Research: Odense 1984
  • C. Merill-Mirsky: Judeo-Spanish Song from the Island of Rhodes: a Musical Tradition in Los Angeles (diss., UCLA, 1984)
  • A. Doornbosch: ‘Twentieth-Century “Halewijn” Recordings in the Netherlands: a Matter of Survival and Persistence’, Ballad Research: Dublin 1985, 287–97
  • D.G. Engle: A Catalogue and Edition of German Folk Ballads: the Test of Thematic Classification System on 187 Narrative Folksong Types (diss., UCLA, 1985)
  • R. Pedersen and F.G. Andersen, eds.: The Concept of Tradition in Ballad Research: a Symposium (Odense, 1985)
  • S.G. Armistead and J.H. Silverman: Judeo-Spanish Ballads from Oral Tradition (Berkeley, 1986) [musical transcriptions, commentary by I.J. Katz]
  • D. Loucatos: ‘Emprunts aux ballades ordinaries pendant les lamentations sur les morts en Grece’, Tod und Jenseits im europäischen Volkslied, ed. W. Puchner (Jannina, 1986), 35–48
  • D. Schubarth: ‘Arten des spanischen und galizischen Erzähllieds und ihr Verhältnis zu anderen volksliterarischen Gattungen’, Ballad Research: Dublin 1985, 253–71
  • H. Shields: ‘A quand une édition critique de la chanson narrative française? Ballad Research: Dublin 1985, 241–50
  • R.D. Abrahams: ‘Child Ballads in the West Indies: Familiar Fabulations, Creole Performances’, Journal of Folklore Research, 24 (1987), 107–34
  • A.J. Cruz: ‘Genre Transformations and the Question of Gender: “La bella malmaridada” as Ballad and Play’, Ballads and Other Genres, ed. Z. Rajkovic (Zagreb, 1988), 69–79
  • J. Etzion and S. Weich-Shahak: ‘The Spanish and the Sephardic Romances: Musical Links’, EthM, 32 (1988), 1–37
  • D. Colbert: The Birth of the Ballad: the Scandinavian Medieval Genre (Stockholm, 1989)
  • C. Laforte, ed.: Ballades et chansons folkloriques (Quebec, 1989)
  • J. Seeger: ‘The Living Ballad in Brazil: Two Performances’, Hispanic Balladry Today, ed. R.H. Webber (New York, 1989), 175–217
  • A. Valenciano: ‘Survival of the Traditional “Romancero”: Field Expeditions’, Hispanic Balladry Today, ed. R.H. Webber (New York, 1989), 26–52
  • R.H. Webber, ed.: Hispanic Balladry Today (New York, 1989)
  • M. Herrera-Sobek: The Mexican Corrido: a Feminist Analysis (Bloomington, IN, 1990/R)
  • J. Seeger: Count Claros: Study of a Ballad Tradition (New York, 1990)
  • D.G. Engle: ‘An Integrated System of Ballad Classification’, Gender and Print Culture: New Perspectives on International Ballad Studies, ed. M. Herrera-Sobek (London, 1991), 147–64
  • J. Harris, ed.: The Ballad and Oral Literature (Cambridge, MA, 1991)
  • G. Nagy: ‘Song and Dance: Reflections on a Comparison of Faroese Ballad with Greek Choral Lyric’, The Ballad and Oral Literature, ed. J. Harris (Cambridge, MA, 1991), 214–32
  • A. Caufriez: ‘The Ballad in Northeast Portugal’, Ballads and Boundaries: Los Angeles 1993, 251–64
  • J. Cohen: ‘Romancing the “Romance”: Perceptions (and Boundaries) of the Judeo-Spanish Ballad’, Ballads and Boundaries: Los Angeles 1993, 209–17
  • A.-M. Häggmann: ‘Ballad Singing in an Ostrobothnian Village’, ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore, 49 (1993), 215–23
  • J. Seeger: ‘Just How Bounded Is the Ballad? Two Brazilian Examples’, Ballads and Boundaries (Los Angeles, 1993), 265–75
  • T. Cheesman: ‘Bänkelsang: Seeing, Hearing, Telling and Singing in the German Ballad Picture Show’, Lore and Language, 12 (1994), 41–57
  • J. Seeger: ‘Genre and the Ballad’, Journal of Folklore Research, 31 (1994), 151–76
  • T. Magrini: ‘Ballad and Gender: Reconsidering Narrative Singing in Northern Italy’, Ethnomusicology Online (16 September 1995)
  • M. da Costa Fontes: O romanceiro portugês e brasileiro: indice temático e bibliográfico (Madison, WI, 1997) [incl. mus. exx. and commentary by I.J. Katz]
  • T. Cheeseman, and S. Rieuwerts, eds.: Ballads into Books: the Legacies of Francis James Child (Bern, 1999)
  • S. Rieuwerts and H. Stein, eds.: Bridging the Cultural Divide: Our Common Ballad Heritage (Hildesheim, 2000)
  • S. Almási: ‘Interethnische Beziehungen in den Melodien der Siebenbürgischen Balladen’, Bridging the Cultural Divide: Our Common Ballad Heritage, 17–27
  • A. Giurchescu: ‘Between Traditional and Modernity: The Current Role of Ballads for Vlachs Settled in Denmark’, Bridging the Cultural Divide: Our Common Ballad Heritage, 115–22
  • M. Samokovlieva: ‘Uber eine Klassifikation der bulgarischen Balladenmelodien’, Bridging the Cultural Divide: Our Common Ballad Heritage, 403–10
  • N. Constantinescu, ed.: Ballads at the Turn of the Century (Bucharest, 2001)
  • B. Boock: ‘Zwischen Emanzipation und Romantik: Balladen im Repertoire von Frauen aus der deutschen Folk-Szene’, Acta Ethnograpica Hungarica, 47/1–2 (Budapest, 2002), 189–97
  • M. Burden: ‘The Significance of Traditional Afrikaans Ballads in Contemporary Society’, Acta Ethnographica Hungarica, 47, (2002), 225–35
  • V. Cantaluppi: ‘Dissemination and Styles of Performance of the “Cecilia” Ballad in the Comparative Italian Folk and Traditional Music’, SMH, 44 (2003), 105–17
  • T.A. McKean, ed.: The Flowering Thorn: International Ballad Studies (Logan, UT, 2003)
  • P.E. Bennett and R.F. Green, eds.: The Singer and the Scribe: European Ballad Traditions and European Ballad Cultures (Amsterdam, 2004)
  • I. Peere and S. Top, eds.: Ballads and Diversity: Perspectives on Gender, Ethos, Power and Play (Trier, 2004)
  • R. de V. Renwick and S. Rieuwerts, eds.: Ballad Mediations: Folksongs Recovered, Represented, and Reimagined (Trier, 2006)
  • J. Porter: Genre, Conflict, Presence: Traditional Ballads in a Modernizing World (Trier, 2009)
  • P. Fumerton, A. Guerrini and K. McAbee, eds.: Ballads and Broadsides: Britain, 1500–1800 (Farnham, 2010)

II. The 19th- and 20th-century art form

1. German song.

  • Graham Johnson and Eric Sams

Like the lied, the ballad in German song in its most sophisticated form was the result of changes and developments in literature. The poetic form goes back to the tradition of Bänkelsang, in which narrative ditties with primitive accompaniment were performed in public places from a wooden bench as a makeshift podium. The public could buy and take home with them crudely printed versions of the rhymed tales of crime or catastrophe. This vulgar tradition played little or no part in the lofty writings of the Enlightenment, but by the middle of the 18th century poets like Johann Gleim, Ludwig Hölty, the brothers Christian and Friedrich von Stollberg, and G.A. Bürger adopted a popular ballad-like tone in some of their poetry as an alternative to the dry literary conventions of the time. Usually ballad texts were secular or legendary (on national or supernatural themes); their tone was often tragic, and they tended to idealize primitive life and feeling.

English poetry and the English ballad tradition also played an important part in the development of the German ballad. Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), which received immediate critical attention in Germany, came to the notice of J.G. Herder in 1771. By 1779 he had published two volumes of Stimmen der Völker, which included 24 translations from Percy as well as Goethe’s Der Fischer and Heidenröslein. Schubert later made famous settings of both these poems. Other ballads from the collection which were given musical immortality were Herr Oluf (Loewe) and Edward (Loewe, Schubert and Brahms). Herder’s work was also to influence Bettina and Clemens Brentano, whose Des Knaben Wunderhorn was a treasure-trove of ballad material for a later generation of composers. Also of great importance was the influence of one of the greatest British literary controversies of the 18th century. The poeticized prose of ‘Ossian’ (James Macpherson), often ostensibly translated from Gaelic epic, and published between 1760 and 1765, was similarly disseminated in Germany. The two strains, traditional and literary, blended in the indigenous art ballads of Goethe and Schiller, which are elevated in style and verse form, moral or didactic in tone and have subjects freely derived from classical, oriental or medieval legends.

Although both J.F. Reichardt and C.F. Zelter of the so-called Second Berlin School were to compose extended cantatas for voice and piano, by far the most industrious and influential of ballad composers before Schubert was J.R. Zumsteeg of Stuttgart, who had been a schoolfriend of Schiller. His first published ballad was a setting of Bürger’s Des Pfarrers Tochter von Taubenhain (1791), issued by Breitkopf & Härtel; a setting of the celebrated ballad Lenore followed in 1798. The publisher, no doubt conscious of the fact that Zumsteeg had captured an aspect of the Zeitgeist and cornered the market, encouraged the composer to explore the medium further: seven volumes of Kleine Balladen und Lieder (1800–05) consolidated a reputation which remained unassailable until the 1830s. Zumsteeg’s achievement was to find a means of freely alternating between recitative and melody so as to heighten the dramatic narrative (often with cunning tempo and key changes) at the same time as giving the conception a sweep and unity that kept the listener’s attention over a relatively long time span. The piano writing was imaginative and often gripping by the standards of the contemporary accompanied song. Even more adventurous piano writing was to be found in the work of the Bohemian Václav Tomášek, an important ballad composer who set a number of the Goethe poems later immortalized by Schubert’s music; but his Lenore (1805), with its 210-bar piano introduction (which can almost stand alone as a piano piece), is his most impressive achievement in the field of the ballad.

Schubert’s friend Josef von Spaun related in his memoirs of the composer (1858) that Schubert had ‘wanted to modernize Zumsteeg’s song form, which appealed very much to him’ and that the young Schubert could ‘revel in these songs for days on end’. Like an apprentice painter who copies the work of a master, Schubert re-composed a number of Zumsteeg ballads (the first was Hagars Klage, 1811), clearly with the older man’s music in front of him. Such details as tonality, prosody and even general melodic shape are often similar, but the hand of genius showed itself at every turn, and Schubert out-composed his model to such an extent that the unjust effect of his well-meant homage was to consign Zumsteeg to a footnote in song history. Not that the ballads of Schubert have been sufficiently understood and valued for the remarkable works they often are; while it is true, for example, that the longest of them, Adelwold und Emma (1815), suffers from an intolerable text (and consequent musical weak patches), there are many highly imaginative and moving moments in these works. They show that the true nature of Schubert’s dramatic gift depended on a scenario with lightning changes of location and dramatic ellipses to be found only in the (as yet uninvented) realm of cinema, or the (as yet undeveloped) lied. The freedom of the best of these ballads suggests Brahms’s later image of Schubert as a young god playing with thunderbolts on Mount Olympus. They show how frustrating Schubert must have found it to labour within the conventions of opera; his mind is quicksilver, and when constrained by the discipline of the unities and the proscenium it becomes sluggish. This also suggests that the narrator of a ballad fulfils the same function as a film camera: impartial, ubiquitous, wide-ranging and responsible for the picture as a whole, unlike the personally involved lieder narrator, whose emotions are filtered and focussed in quite another way. It seems that in composing ballads Schubert enjoyed playing the somewhat distanced role of camera operator (also responsible for lighting, costumes and crowd scenes) as opposed to leading man, as in his own lieder productions (where the poet is of course co-director). In whatever style, Schubert is at his best with texts of high quality; in this case it is the Schiller settings that produce much of abiding interest – Der Taucher (1812), Die Bürgschaft (1815), Klage der Ceres (1815–1816) and Ritter Toggenburg (1816). Einstein (in Schubert, 1951, pp.49–51) was the first to notice that ‘the sheer boldness’ of the harmonic progressions in Der Taucher were far in advance of [Schubert’s] time. There is nothing like them until we reach the Wagner of Tristan and the Ring’. The linking of Schubert’s name with Wagner’s in this context seems all the more tenable in view of the fact that the ballads were mostly published as part of the Nachlass between 1830 and 1850, just at the time when Wagner was forming his mature style. He was himself a ballad composer, both in song (a French setting of Heine’s Die Grenadiere, 1840) and in opera (e.g. Senta’s ballad in Der fliegende Holländer), and time and again can be heard in Schubert’s music a prophecy of the Wagnerian narrative line – always on the point of flowering into melody, but rarely doing so in the interests of dramatic continuity. This is neither recitative nor aria, but arioso, poised between the two, which carries the story forward to its next highpoint and creates a genuine sense of tension and release. In this sense, the Wagner operas, some of them based in part on ancient ballad poetry, are perhaps the greatest manifestations of the German ballad tradition. If we hear in Wolf’s songs many of Wagner’s procedures without the longueurs, the same is surprisingly true of Schubert’s ballad writing (as well as a work like the oratorio Lazarus), which sometimes sounds at least 50 years ahead of its time. It is also certain that Schubert could never have written a late masterpiece like the Heine setting Der Doppelgänger (1828) without his many hours of ballad apprenticeship earlier in his career, much less earlier works in quasi-ballad style like the through-composed songs Erlkönig (1815) and Der Zwerg (1822/3).

Also influenced by Zumsteeg was Carl Loewe, who consciously modelled his work on that of the older master. Loewe, one of the very few composers to sing to a professional standard, remains the German ballad composer pur sang. Highly educated (he was a Goethe scholar and gifted astronomer), he was less fertile than Schubert by far in terms of musical invention, but was brimming with energy of a simpler, almost more physical kind. That he both sang and played the piano seems an apt combination of talents for this greatest of all-round balladeers. He achieved a highly workable synthesis of Zumsteeg’s two styles – either simply strophic and repetitive, or more complex scene- and mood-painting with recitative and arioso sections; this avoids overemphasis whether of verbal repetition or musical depiction. The story is related in direct melody and graphically, if naively, illustrated on the keyboard often with effective use of the higher register. (Despite a certain forthright quality, the piano writing is among the most demanding in the song repertory.) Loewe used what he learnt from Zumsteeg not only to set the poets known to the older composer (Goethe, Herder), but also for the next two generations of ballad poets, Ludwig Uhland, Friedrich Rückert and August von Platen, and their successors, Ferdinand Freiligrath and Theodor Fontane. Most of Loewe’s work was published between 1821 and 1868; it is a measure of both the power of his winning formula as a composer, and his limitations as an artist, that there is little sign of change or development in his work during the 50 or so years of his creative life (see also Song cycle, §3).

After Loewe the term ‘ballad’ seems to be far more loosely defined. Because Schubert had absorbed the ballad into the bloodstream of his lieder output, taking what he needed from it to create a hybrid form, later song composers felt able to regard as ballads a number of their lieder that would not have been counted so by singers of Loewe’s generation. For example, Schumann composed four sets of Romanzen und Balladen without making it clear which songs he considered ballads, and which romances (Brahms later used the same title with similar ambiguity). Of course works like Schumann’s Die Löwenbraut op.31 no.1 and Belsatzar op.57 have many of the characteristics of the true ballad; one is a fantastical animal tale, and the other an elaboration of a biblical story, both familiar areas for ballad poetry. But Schumann, as well as Brahms in songs like Verrat op.105 no.5, seems to have lost that element of objectivity and camera-like observation, the ‘erzählender Ton’ (narrative tone) that is at the heart of the true ballad. Instead the listener is invited to share in the composer’s reaction as if the latter were hearing the ballad for the first time, rather than presenting it as a story he already knows well. In terms of the resulting quality of the music, this may well be having the best of both worlds, but it represented the death of the real ballad tradition; indeed, Schilling (Encyklopädie) dates the demise of the form as early as 1835.

Those extended and complex narrative songs of Hugo Wolf which it might be tempting to call ballads (Der Feuerreiter, Die Geister am Mummelsee, both Mörike, and Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt, Goethe) show an encyclopedic knowledge of song history and styles; they bow to the shade of the composer’s predecessors – Loewe particularly, to whom Wolf listened with ‘höchster Begeisterung’ (greatest enthusiasm) – with a conscious sense of amused and ironic reverence. Loewe had included in Walpurgisnacht (1821) a quotation from Spohr’s Faust; in similar fashion, Wolf, in Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt (1888), quotes from the music of Karl Goldmark and Adalbert von Goldschmidt in a much less genial spirit of allusion and cross-cultural nodding and winking. One of the dangers of the ballad, with its historical connotations and connections with the ultra-German tradition of the Minnesinger, was that it should come to suggest a type of music-making that was somehow pan-Germanic because free of neurotic or introverted feeling, music-making to exclude foreigners and those from other backgrounds. Something of this revivalist spirit pervades the ballads of the now largely forgotten Martin Plüddemann, whose work was centred in Graz and who attempted to re-establish the hegemony of the ballad in the 1880s and 90s. This mirrored the rise of a new wave of patriotic ballad poetry in the 1890s which was not of the highest quality. Of more lasting significance were the two large ballads for (respectively) baritone and bass, and orchestra (Herr Oluf, 1891, and Die Heinzelmännchen) of Pfitzner. These looked back to Schumann’s cantatas on ballad texts by Uhland and Geibel (Des Sängers Fluch and Vom Pagen und der Königstochter, both 1852). For better or worse the genre had become orchestral and remained so in the last 19th-century examples (see Ballade). As a hopeful antidote to the ‘entartete Musik’ reviled by the Third Reich, there were continuing echoes of an aggressive unification of bad music and poetry to bring the grand old form of the ballad into disrepute; in the 1930s ballad singing was considered by the Nazi regime to be a manly and culturally sound occupation for German baritones (tenors seemed excused largely because Loewe’s tessituras favour the lower voices). The critic H.J. Moser at the time was confident of a renascence of German ballad composition which did not come about. But ballad evenings, particularly featuring the works of Loewe, were regularly to be found as a part of music-making in Germany at the end of the 20th century.

2. The English sentimental ballad.

  • Nicholas Temperley

Towards the end of the 18th century English composers began to characterize certain songs (whether published separately or as parts of operas) as ‘ballads’: they were generally strophic and narrative, like folk ballads, and were inclined to be nostalgic. One of the earliest so named, ‘I was, d’ye see, a waterman’, was from Charles Dibdin’s The Waterman (1774). Ballads of this type were a feature of English opera for over a century and can still be traced in Sullivan’s Savoy operas. Their form is often stereotyped: each stanza has an introduction giving the first few bars of the main tune, and the tune is then sung, returning near the end of the stanza after an episode in a related key. A ballad was often the most popular number in an opera and was composed with a view to subsequent sale for domestic use; hence the derogatory terms ‘(music-)shop ballad’ and ‘drawing-room ballad’ came into use. Sometimes ballads were inserted into operas with which they had no connection, as when Mme Vestris introduced C.E. Horn’s ballad ‘I’ve been roaming’ into an English adaptation of Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden in 1828.

In the Victorian period the word began to be used far more loosely to describe almost any kind of sentimental popular song, and a great commercial development of the ballad took place in Britain and the USA. Publishers paid large sums, not to the author or composer of the song (who usually received only a small fee) but to the well-known performer who agreed to sing it at every public appearance for a specified period (hence the term ‘royalty ballad’). The singer’s name dwarfed the composer’s on the garish title-page. The ‘ballad concert’ became a common form of entertainment: the first was given by Mme Sainton-Dolby on 3 January 1867. The popularity of the ballad stretched far into the 20th century, and the BBC in its early years broadcast ballad concerts. There were many ballads whose sales went into millions, but none perhaps equalled the popularity of ‘Home, Sweet Home’, composed by Bishop for his opera Clari (1823) and publicized by Jenny Lind from 1850 onwards. Many of Stephen Foster’s songs belong to the ballad genre.

Since World War II, the word ‘ballad’ has been used to refer to pop songs with sentimental or narrative texts and (usually) a slow tempo.

3. The ballad in opera.

In opera the interpolation of a ballad recounting events that have taken place beyond the action on stage was sometimes used as a means of clarifying the plot. The dramatic impetus afforded by this device drew an enthusiastic response from 19th-century librettists, who used it increasingly as a means of broadening their palette. Unlike the purely narrative romance as developed by Rousseau, the operatic ballad often contains an element of the supernatural – a sea monster in Nélusko’s ‘Adamastor, roi des vagues profondes’ (L’Africaine), a faery in Mercutio’s Queen Mab ballad (Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette). The significance of its melodramatic content for the development of German romantic opera has not yet been fully charted, but it seems likely to owe much to what Manicke (preface to EDM, xlv, 1970) has called the ‘demonic spectre’ of Bürger’s Lenore. The best-known opera ballad is Senta’s in Der fliegende Holländer, in which Wagner claimed to have encapsulated unconsciously the thematic germ of the whole opera. Other notable examples are Raimbaut’s ballad (Robert le diable), Finn’s ballad (Ruslan and Lyudmila), Mrs Page’s ‘Vom Jäger Herne’ (Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor) and Varlaam’s ballad (Boris Godunov).


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Journal of the Folk-Song Society
Musical Quarterly
Journal of the American Musicological Society
Musica disciplina
Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society
Studia musicologica Academiae scientiarum hungaricae
Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians