ballad |’bælad| • n. a poem or song narrating a story in short stanzas. Traditional ballads are typically of unknown authorship, having been passed on orally from one generation to the next as part of the folk culture.
• a slow sentimental or romantic song
~ The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words
There is a rich tradition of ballads in American history. Many, especially those born out of the working experiences of slavery, the Industrial Revolution and the frontier, are homegrown. But, many are also the musical heritage of our immigrant population. Regardless of origin, for years, these songs and stories were the principle form of entertainment, as well as a way to capture community history and folk lore.
Early Americans of the colonial era brought ballads with them from the Old Country. Many of the songs collected in Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, originally published in 1965, by Jean Ritchie, are English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish. These were preserved in the Appalachian hills by generations of American communities while songs of Native American origin and newer American songs were added to the corpus.
The Library of Congress (LOC) was responsible for the preservation of many old American and immigrant songs before they were lost to history. (Some of which are available online in digital collections at this web address.) This is largely thanks to the efforts by the LOC staff and field teams, such as Alan Lomax (who wrote the original forward for the aforementioned Jean Ritchie book) and his brother who worked for the LOC’s Archive of American Folk Song in the early days of sound recordings during the first part of the 20th century. The LOC has retained personal notes and internal documents, such as this one, which shows some of the methodology used to help preserve this part of American History.
The Oxford English Dictionary (1971), aka the OED, defines ballad more broadly than the smaller Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words does, and shows the many evolutions the meaning of the word took:
*1. A song intended as an accompaniment to a dance; the tune to which the song is sung…
2. A light, simple song of any kind…
*3. A popular song; often spec. one celebrating or scurrilously attacking persons or institutions…
*4. A proverbial saying usually in the form of a couplet; a posy
5. A simple spirited poem in short stanzas, originally a “ballad” in sense 3. [above] in which some popular story is graphically narrated. (This sense is essentially modern: with Milton, Addison, and even Johnson, the idea of song was present.)…
*Archaic terms no longer used.
(One may also find “ballader” or “balladist” for one who composes ballads, as well as many verbs and descriptives which are derived from the word.)
In its earliest forms, ballad is also written as “ballade” (although this word is also used to describe a particular form of poetry, which is how Geoffrey Chaucer used the word), but was pronounced the same. The earliest written evidence of the word ballad in the context of a sentimental or romantic song is in 1498 (meaning 2. in the excerpt).
Many of these songs are preserved in the older song books of the Girl Scouts and other camping song books because the music is perfect for a campfire–sans TV, radio, internet or Ipod!–as many are sung in rounds and are often easy to accompany with a guitar or hand motions.
The stories that are preserved in the ballads are essential ingredients to our cultural past, ranging from the Early Modern era into our current era. It is, however, interesting to note that the older songs have often inspired future musicians, many of whom gave the songs new life stilled played, today.
Here are some examples:
The first two are from Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter. Born at the end of the 19th century, he has to be one of the first generation of recorded artists who made a living with his music: his worn southern voice and his 12-string guitar. He grew up in the deep South and spent some of his time as young man in Texas–including jail time. Most of the music he did not write himself! These were already embedded in his regional culture when he was “discovered” by LOC people including Lomax and his brother.
The song below is alternately know as “Black Girl” or “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?”
The song will be best known to modern audiences thanks to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s Unplugged concert:
Another famous song from Leadbelly’s repertoire is the “Midnight Special” which was a song from a state pen just south of Houston called Sugarland. While the song was around before Leadbelly and his stay in Sugarland, he does make the song his own, having sung it many ways before settling on his own version with some of his personal color embellishing the verses. The title of the song refers to a South Pacific train that left Houston just after eleven’o’clock in the evening, headed for San Antonio and beyond. Its lights flashed the cells and its whistle taunted the inmates.
I first encountered the song as it was done, rather well, I think, by Creedence Clearwater Revival–a band heavily influenced by traditional American music–that remains one of the best known, today. They used Leadbelly’s version of the song:
The Man in Black, Johnny Cash, also borrowed liberally from folk tradition, as did Led Zeppelin, and many of the musicians who contributed to the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? to name a few more and round out the selections.
Jean Ritchie includes the song “Hangman” in her book with the following description:
According to the notes on Child ballad number 95, in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, the earliest known versions of this song have a girl as the victim, the song having apparently originated as, “The Maid Freed from the Gallows.” It concerned a young woman who fell into the hands of corsairs, and each member of her family in turn refuses to pay ransom; then her lover comes and pays down the required fee. In our family variant as in most others from America and England, it is (more properly!) a man who is being hanged, for what reason the song does not say. Aside from this change and the omission of motive, the story line is the same, the true love showing up on cue “for to take you home so we can married be.”…
Led Zeppelin’s is likely based on an old English version, although they were also highly influenced by American Blues, as were many English artists (the Rolling stones and Eric Clapton leap to mind). The version, below, has lyrics:
Songs of the Wild West, published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, includes a song, “The Cowboy’s Lament,” more popularly know as “The Streets of Laredo,” about a dying cowboy found by the singer. Here, it’s sung by Cash:
Finally, I’ll finish up with some selections taken from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie soundtrack. The music was arguably as popular as the movie, given that a concert series followed the Coen brothers’ movie (a Deep South variation of Homer’s Odyssey with a less noble hero). While some of the songs are younger than some of these others, there inspiration was in the ballad tradition:
Hope this was fun!
NOTE: In addition to the dictionary sources and the song books already referenced, I used The Life and Legend of Leadbelly by Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell.