Love, lust, murder, thievery, incest, death, and betrayal are just some of the intriguing, beautiful, and sometimes disturbing topics of a traditional ballad. A traditional what? A ballad is "
a song that tells a story, or- to take the other point of view a story told in song. More formally
a short poem, adapted for singing, simple in plot and metrical s structure, divided into stanzas, and characterized by complete impersonality so far as the author or singer is concerned."(Kittredge, Zweig, 3) The songs tend to leave out details and go straight to the heart of the story, even though some ballads, like "The Outlaw Murray and "The Young Tamlane" go on for seventy-five and fifty-six stanzas, respectively. So what's the big deal about some songs that tell of broken hearts, star-crossed lovers and unmerciful murderers? These old, carefully preserved ballads can be said to be the building blocks of music of today and throughout the ages; a "backbone", if you will, that can be seen in the format and rhythms of lyrics and tones in some of today's most popular genres of music, such as rock, punk, and country while also having many ties to the genres historically. It is also possible that songs from this genre might be able to be classified as a type of ballad.
There are two main categories of these ballads. They are the border ballads, which are probably more commonly known and studied, and there are the broadside ballads. The broadside ballads were very very popular in the late 1500s and 1600s. They were, "songs with new lyrics put to popular tunes, transmitted by writing rather than orally, and primarily an urban phenomenon."(http://costume.dm.net/~drea/ballads/what.html) The border ballads, however, are thought to be of Scotch-Irish origin, and were found to be passed down orally from one generation in a family to the next. Since the people passing down these "living traditions" were not very well educated, if at all, the ballads tend to be repetitive for easier memorization. Also, each person sang each ballad differently, which resulted in many different versions of the same ballads, with some different words and slight differences in the tunes since each person's voice is different and over time some words are forgotten. Thirdly, as time went on some generations of each family did not embrace or care as much for the ballads as their elders did, which results in an understanding that a lot of ballads have been lost. This is where James Francis Child comes into play. Who? Well, unlike the famous Julia Child, he definitely was not a world-renowned cook. On the contrary, James Francis Child is the most known and popular name in the world of the ballads. After many, many years of hard work and a lot of research, Child was able to put together a very detailed collection of the ballads, entitled The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. This five-volume set of books holds "every traditional English or Scottish ballad Child was able to find." The volumes include 305 different groups of songs, and because of the many changes made from each person singing the ballads, some have "over a hundred variants." This collection of ballads is also referred to as the "Child Ballads", and has been held high above most other collections. The collection has the lyrics of all the songs, along with complex essays and traces the roots of every ballad.
There are five main characteristics of traditional ballads, which are the ballad tells some sort of story, it focuses on what is going on in the story with little attention to details, the metrical and sentence structures are simple and to the point, it is sung to a modal melody , and the ballad comes from oral traditions with an author unbeknownst to the reader or singer. The ballad usually tells a story in the first person point of view, and is unlike a normal story in that it mixes up the sequence...
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