Ballads

Updated: February 28, 2011

A ballad is a narrative song in which each stanza of text is sung to the same melody. Brought to the American colonies by the earliest British settlers, the ballad form has remained in oral tradition through the present day, particularly in rural parts of the southeastern United States.

A ballad is a narrative song in which each stanza of text is sung to the same melody. Brought to the American colonies by the earliest British settlers, the ballad form has remained in oral  tradition through the present day, particularly in rural parts of the southeastern United States. The two ballad repertoires most strongly identified with the Appalachian region—ballads of British origin (often referred to as Child ballads) and “native American” ballads—differ in their age, source, style, and means of dissemination.

The ballad form originated in Europe during the Middle Ages and was firmly established in the British Isles by the fifteenth century. By the early eighteenth century, the composition of new ballads in Great Britain had tapered off, but the British ballad tradition was transported to the New World by emigrants. Formal collection and study of the British ballad repertoire dates to the late nineteenth century, when Harvard scholar Francis James Child collected and categorized 305 ballads in a series of books, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882–98).

Conveying courtly stories that explore such common themes as love, bravery, treachery, the supernatural, and legendary events, the Child ballads are told through a highly economical form generally marked by four-line stanzas, with a metrical scheme that usually alternates eight and six syllables per line. Rhymes are frequently employed in these ballads, with the rhyming of the final accented syllable of the second and fourth lines being the most usual scheme. Internal and external refrains (lines that are repeated in each stanza) sometimes appear in ballads, as do other forms of repetition, such as repeated lines of text or incremental and parallel structures used to emphasize elements of the plot or to create formal symmetry.

Child ballads generally utilize a single opening stanza to introduce the setting and the principal characters. The story then unfolds rapidly to a point of confrontation, followed by a resolution presented through third-person narrative or dialogue. The language of the ballad features hyperbolic imagery and is marked by the use of stock phrases that reap- pear in numerous ballads, including formulaic beginnings (for example, “All in the merry month of May”), floating motifs (phrases that appear in numerous ballads, such as “the rose and the briar”), and epithets (“lily white hand”). Two stanzas drawn from “The Wife of Usher’s Well” (Child ballad #79), as sung by Kentucky musician Addie Graham, illustrate aspects of the balladic art:

There was a lady and a lady gay,

And children she had three.

She sent them away to an orphan’s home,

To learn their grammary.

They hadn’t been gone but a very short time,

Only three weeks to the day,

Till death swiftly came running along,

And stole my little babies away.

In Appalachia, Child ballads were traditionally per- formed by a solo singer without instrumental accompaniment, though in later years a fretted dulcimer, guitar, fiddle, or banjo was sometimes used to accompany the singing. Al- though the language of ballads is dramatic, the singing style in Appalachia tended to be objective and detached, allowing the story to tell itself without the influence of an emotional delivery. A stanza such as the following, from “The Brown Girl” (Child ballad #295) as sung by Virginia traditional singer Horton Barker, seems shocking in its violence, yet it would be sung without any particular dramatic emphasis:

He took the brown girl by the hand,

He led her through the hall,

And with a sword he cut her head off,

And kicked it against the wall.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Appalachia came to be viewed as a repository for a dying tradition, and collectors and folklorists traveled in the region searching for ballad singers and their repertoires. As a result, ballads that had been in circulation among Appalachian people through oral transmission were preserved in notation and published in various collections, including Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1917; revised 1932) and Bertrand Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (1959–72).

While maintaining the essential narrative nature of the Child ballads, “native American” ballads are distinguished by their more recent vintage (eighteenth to nineteenth century), their American origins, their subjective musical style, and often by their initial dissemination by means of broadsides, sheets of paper peddled on the street that were printed with the song lyrics but without the melody (printed alongside the lyrics would be the name of popular tunes to which the lyrics might be sung). Unlike the Child ballads, which had been brought from the Old World and which usually relate to unascertainable events with details blurred by time, native American ballads are topical, since they tend to be based either on specific events (such as tragic accidents, battles, and sensational murders) or on adventurous occupations (those of the lumberjack, cowboy, or sailor, for example). Befitting their American heritage, the subject matter of native American ballads is more democratic, reflecting on the lives of ordinary people rather than of lords and ladies.

Since a native American ballad often recalls actual events, the narrative contains more expository detail, while the language is specific rather than formulaic. For instance, “Mollie and Tenbrooks” refers to a late-nineteenth-century horse race held in Kentucky, and “Floyd Collins” relates the true story of a cave explorer who was trapped in Sand Cave near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, on January 30, 1925. The accuracy of the stories told within these two ballads can be verified by newspaper accounts. Several other ballads from Appalachia, such as “John Henry” and “Omie Wise,” exist in two or more variants, suggesting more than one interpretation of historic events.

Because of the close personal and temporal identification between the composer of a ballad and that ballad’s subject matter, the lyrics of native American ballads tend to be more personal, sentimental, and subjective than those of Child ballads. Frequently, native American ballads employ first-person narration and conclude with a moral.

Widely sung native American ballads in Appalachia include “Tom Dooley” and “Hills of Roane County.” A sub- genre of the native American ballad, the blues ballad, includes a number of narrative songs credited to African American sources. “John Henry,” “John Hardy,” and “House of the Rising Sun” have nonetheless long been equally popular among whites, within and outside the region.

During the twentieth century, balladry was precariously maintained in some communities in the Appalachian highlands by such singers as Jane Hicks Gentry (from Hot Springs, North Carolina), Texas Gladden (Salem, Virginia), Frank Proffitt Sr. (Watauga County, North Carolina), and Nimrod Workman (Martin County, Kentucky). Several folk revival–era singers—including Jean Ritchie (from Viper, Kentucky), Sheila Kay Adams (a native of Madison County, North Carolina), and Bobby McMillon (based in Lenoir, North Carolina)—are most responsible for the survival of the Appalachian ballad as a living art form. Additionally, the ballad tradition of telling a story in song continues to be an essential ingredient of country and bluegrass music. Many popular traditional ballads, whether performed within folk- revivalist circles (for example, “Darling Cora”) or in popular music circles all over the world (“House of the Rising Sun”), have reentered circulation or gained wider distribution following collection (and publication and/or recording) from Appalachian balladeers.

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MLA Style

"Ballads," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 23 Feb 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=31>

APA Style

"Ballads." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved February 23, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=31

Dellie Norton