Centuries-old in practice, the composition of ballads began in the European folk tradition, in many cases accompanied by musical instruments. Ballads were not originally transcribed, but rather preserved orally for generations, passed along through recitation. Their subject matter dealt with religious themes, love, tragedy, domestic crimes, and sometimes even political propaganda.
A typical ballad is a plot-driven song, with one or more characters hurriedly unfurling events leading to a dramatic conclusion. At best, a ballad does not tell the reader what’s happening, but rather shows the reader what’s happening, describing each crucial moment in the trail of events. To convey that sense of emotional urgency, the ballad is often constructed in quatrain stanzas, each line containing as few as three or four stresses and rhyming either the second and fourth lines, or all alternating lines.
Ballads began to make their way into print in fifteenth-century England. During the Renaissance, making and selling ballad broadsides became a popular practice, though these songs rarely earned the respect of artists because their authors, called “pot poets,” often dwelled among the lower classes.
However, the form evolved into a writer’s sport. Nineteenth-century poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth wrote numerous ballads. Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the tale of a cursed sailor aboard a storm-tossed ship, is one of the English language’s most revered ballads. It begins:
It is an ancient mariner
And he stoppeth one of three.
–“By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stoppest thou me?
The bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
Mayst hear the merry din.”
He holds him with his skinny hand,
“There was a ship,” quoth he.
“Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!”
Eftsoons his hand dropped he.
He holds him with his glittering eye–
The wedding-guest stood still,
And listens like a three-years’ child:
The mariner hath his will.
Other balladeers, including Thomas Percy and, later, W. B. Yeats, contributed to the English tradition. In America, the ballad evolved into folk songs such as “Casey Jones,” the cowboy favorite “Streets of Laredo,” and “John Henry.”