The Popular Folk Ballad and Its Basic Ingredients

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  • Topic: Ballad, Child Ballads, Ballads
  • Pages : 17 (4797 words )
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  • Published : February 26, 2011
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A ballad, especially the popular ballad (or folk ballad) is rooted mainly in oral traditions which date back to the 18th and 19th century – for being more precise, the collection of ballads started at the 18th century when collectors like Child started to put ballads on paper - , while the oldest preserved written ballad, named 'Judas', has already been written at the 13th century. The German thinker, writer and translator Johann Gottfried von Herder started to classify German Volkslieder as spontaneous origin of the ballad as a product by the pure and unadulterated voice of the people. The telling of ballads was predominantly preserved to the mouths of unlettered people and not to professional minstrels. This tradition of 'uneducated' people telling oral narratives was denied by historians and literary critics (or writers like Shakespeare) for a long time until the author George Lyman Kittredge accepted balladry and stated: “Different members of the throng, one after another, may chant his verse, composed on the spur of the moment, and the sum of these various contributions makes a song. This is communal composition,

though each verse, taken by itself, is the work of an individual. A song made in this way is no man's property and has no individual author. The folk is its author.”[1]
With his impressive statement, Kittredge made a massive contribution to the acceptance of ballads and simultaneously scotched the emerging discussion about plagiarism in ballads.

Until the industrial revolution has spread over England and printed media became more and more popular, ballads were a popular means of communication. Especially the ballad 'Chevy Chase' was an enormous contribution to the boosting popularity. After having read 'Chevy Chase', the poet Joseph Addison stated: “ ordinary song or ballad, that is the delight of the common people, cannot fail to please all such readers as are not unqualified for the entertainment by their affectation or ignorance...”[2] This sentence clearly glorifies the (simplistic) beauty of ballads and caused an even more increasing popularity of the folk ballad.

As it is mentioned above, ballads have its seeds in the pure thoughts of the folk and balladeers were basically average citizens and not professional poets or littérateurs. As a consequence, the core structure of a ballad consisted of rather simplistic, catchy and repetitive (and sometimes predictable) 'commonplace verses' rather than a high level language. The narration actually had to be repetitive because balladeers had to stick to certain formulas and rely on pre-given conventions, while literary poets had way more freedom to be creative and innovative. Ballads were basically told in a poor working class background and the tradition of balladeering was not passed on by sophisticated musicians or poets, but from nurses and housekeeping women to their children. Men were not as omnipresent in ballad mongering as women were and if men were involved in balladeering, they used to be handicapped. Most men who sang ballads were blind and rather parroted them, while women were more creative in carrying ballads further to their children. The successful tradition of telling ballads was handed over from generation to generation because mothers told stories which were already passed on from their mothers and grandmothers, etc. The main aim of telling a ballad was to memorize the story behind it. In order to be as memorable – or at best unforgettable – as possible, ballads tend to have a common structure, common contents and a plethora of mnemonic devices in order to make a ballad memorable and to survive as a balladeer if they wanted to keep their listeners attracted to their tellings. I will focus on common elements more in detail as my paper progresses.

The etymology of the the term 'ballad' has its roots from the Latin word 'ballare' (=to dance) and the English language imported the term from the French...
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