What is a ballad?


Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about the ballad genre with help from scholars Gordon Hall Gerould, David Buchan, Roger deV. Renwick and others, helping you analyse a ballad, and discussing ways to bring ballads to your story craft.

I would add before going on that there are many ballad traditions in the world, each of them rich and nuanced. It would be impossible to write about them all here, so I don't intend to try. Instead, I'll be focusing on the ballads collected in Francis James Child's ten-volume work The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which are among the oldest in the English language. I would also point out that even this collection of narrative songs represents a complex tradition I can only summarize in a newsletter. So I'll be covering the basics and touching upon the role of memory in the composition and performance of these songs.

A Brief History of the Child Ballad

The Child ballads emerged in the late Middle Ages and were fully established as a song type before the sixteenth century. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the creation of new songs had begun to taper off, but the ones that already existed remained popular in English and Scottish oral tradition. These ballads are divided into four categories; magical and marvellous, romantic and tragic, historical and legendary, and humorous (Renwick 1996, 109). Given the age of the Child ballads, eighteenth century scholar Bishop Thomas Percy believed they might once have been chanted or sung to harp accompaniment (Percy 1870, ii). However, many early collectors took down the texts of ballads but neglected the airs, leaving us with only half of the material we need to understand them. Folklore scholar Gordon Hall Gerould indicates that airs written for these ballads after the fact were "sentimentalized and enfeebled," (Gerould 1957, 68) but we are fortunate that Child himself included in the final volume of his work the airs for nearly fifty of the ballads he collected (Child 1898). In the 1970s, Bertrand Harris Bronson revisited this effort, authoring The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Volumes I-IV, which are musical companions to Child's collection. His later abridged volume The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads incorporates key elements of the others and is listed in the bibliography below.

Folkloric Definition of the (Child?) Ballad

Gordon Hall Gerould defines the ballad as a narrative folksong that tells a story, is sung to a rounded melody, and is always passed from singer to learner by word-of-mouth. Gerould's definition takes into consideration the importance of oral tradition to ballads, since he follows it by arguing that while a poem might be written using the ballad format, it cannot be called a ballad until it has been re-shaped by verbal transmission over time (Gerould 1957, 3). However, the ballad is difficult to define even for scholars (Atkinson 2001, 13), and indeed Gerould's widely-cited definition contains hidden complexities.

First, verbal transmission happens differently in literate and non-literate societies. David Buchan addresses this in his discussion of Gerould's definition and later writes that in literate societies, a learner might write a singer's ballad down, commit it to memory by reading it several times, and later recall it more-or-less verbatim. However, a learner from a non-literate society does not follow the same path to ballad mastery. Instead, she focuses on the plot, primary characters, and scenes, drops those into a meter and rhyme scheme already associated with ballad singing, and peppers the result with stock phrases that have specific meanings to her audience, which is already accustomed to parsing ballads (Buchan 1972, chap. 6). In effect, this non-literate learner becomes a singer who composes on the fly while she's performing.

It's also a primary reason why Child noted so many versions of the ballads he collected, and this brings me to a second point. There are many types of ballads, but Gerould's definition only fits those that come out of communities where singers and their audiences have participated in the re-shaping process mentioned above. A ballad that travels from singer to learner by word-of-mouth changes. It has to, because the human memory is fallible. A ballad that travels from one community to another will also change as a singer adapts the material to suit her audience's knowledge of stock phrases in narrative songs. A ballad that makes both of these journeys over a hundred years may exist in ten different versions across ten different communities. So for Gerould, the singer, the audience, the manner of transmission, and the passage of time together inform the composition of these ballads, and this is why his definition presumes them.

Child Ballad Structure

This might be a good time to mention that at the end of the genre series of Folklore & Fiction newsletters, I'll be expanding and adapting the material into a book on folkloristics for writers. I mention this now because I'm including the more theoretical elements of ballad structure here and leaving a discussion of stock phrases, meter, and rhyme to the book.

Several scholars have written that the Child ballads are composed in the third person, lack emotional queues, and do not include the framing elements of exposition and denouement. Of course, Child 239: Lord Saltoun and Auchanachie breaks every one of these rules. It shifts between first and third person, it's deeply emotional, and I would argue that it does contain a frame. By way of exposition, Jeannie introduces her love Auchanachie in the first stanza. Jeannie's death in the twelfth stanza is the climactic moment of the narrative, but Auchanachie's death in the fifteenth stanza is the result of hers, making it a denouement. You might have a listen to Jackie Oates and Belinda O'Hooley's lovely rendition for context, but meanwhile, I would argue that dynamic narrative traditions are bound to slip out of our categories once in a while. The Child ballads are no exception.

David Buchan's work on the architecture of these ballads emphasizes the arrangement of stanzas, characters, and story arc. Stanza structure tends toward balance; the first half might propose a question the second half answers, or the two halves might present opposing sides of a conflict. Stanza structure might also be triadic, offering three repetitions of a key phrase in a half-stanza, three options for the identity of a lord in a single stanza, three steps along a quest described in three successive stanzas, and so on (Buchan 1972, chap. 9). Character structure is similar. Often, there are two primary characters linked by a secondary third character, who has a helping or complicating influence upon the others (Buchan 1972, chap. 10). Buchan makes a further distinction between dramatic ballads and narrative ballads. The first are shorter, feature fewer characters, are dialogue-rich, and progress along a straightforward arc from the story's initial dramatic tension to its climax. The second are longer, feature more characters, employ dialogue as a pacing tool, and are divided into three acts (Buchan 1972, chap. 10).

The Checklist

I've already limited this discussion quite a bit by discussing the Child ballads by themselves, glossing the music of the tradition, and leaving out elements of poetic structure. Again, much of that material will be covered when this newsletter edition grows up and becomes a book chapter, but I've endeavoured to provide you with several key components of the Child ballads here. They are:

  • Narrative Folksongs: Written to tell a story.
  • Sung to a Rounded Melody: Paired with a simple, repeating melody, easily remembered by the singer.
  • Part of an Oral Tradition: Passed in small communities from singers to learners by word-of-mouth and may have many variants.
  • Often Straightforward: Composed in the third person, lack emotional queues, and do not include the framing elements of exposition and denouement.
  • Structurally Balanced: Incorporate stanzas that ask and answer a question, propose two sides of a conflict, or group important concepts in threes.
  • Focused on Just a Few Characters: Contain two primary characters and perhaps a secondary character in most cases.
  • Short and Dramatic or Long and Paced: Either progress directly from dramatic tension to climax or feature more characters, employ dialogue as a pacing tool, and are divided into three acts.

Example of a Child Ballad

Ready to work? Great! Give the piece that follows a good read and a good listen, and using the checklist above, see what elements of the ballad you find in it. As an aside, my husband thinks I've corrupted a beloved ballad in the rendition I recorded for the supplemental podcast, but I think I gave it a sick beat. 

Child 81: Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard / Matty Groves

A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year. 
Lord Darnell's wife came into church, the gospel for to hear. 

And when the meeting it was done, she cast her eyes about, 
And there she saw little Matty Groves, walking in the crowd. 

“Come home with me, little Matty Groves, come home with me tonight. 
Come home with me, little Matty Groves, and sleep with me till light.” 

“Oh, I can't come home, I won't come home and sleep with you tonight, 
By the rings on your fingers I can tell you are Lord Darnell's wife.” 

“What if I am Lord Darnell's wife? Lord Darnell's not at home. 
For he is out in the far cornfields, bringing the yearlings home.” 

And a servant who was standing by and hearing what was said, 
He swore Lord Darnell he would know before the sun would set. 

And in his hurry to carry the news, he bent his breast and ran, 
And when he came to the broad mill stream, he took off his shoes and swam. 

Little Matty Groves, he lay down and took a little sleep. 
When he awoke, Lord Darnell he was standing at his feet. 

Saying “How do you like my feather bed? And how do you like my sheets? 
How do you like my lady who lies in your arms asleep?” 

“Oh, well I like your feather bed, and well I like your sheets. 
But better I like your lady gay who lies in my arms asleep.” 

“Well, get up, get up,” Lord Darnell cried, “get up as quick as you can! 
It'll never be said in fair England that I slew a naked man.” 

“Oh, I can't get up, I won't get up, I can't get up for my life. 
For you have two long beaten swords and I not a pocket-knife.” 

“Well it's true I have two beaten swords, and they cost me deep in the purse. 
But you will have the better of them and I will have the worse.” 

“And you will strike the very first blow, and strike it like a man. 
I will strike the very next blow, and I'll kill you if I can.” 

So Matty struck the very first blow, and he hurt Lord Darnell sore. 
Lord Darnell struck the very next blow, and Matty struck no more. 

And then Lord Darnell he took his wife and he sat her on his knee, 
Saying, “Who do you like the best of us, Matty Groves or me?” 

And then up spoke his own dear wife, never heard to speak so free. 
“I'd rather a kiss from dead Matty's lips than you and your finery.” 

Lord Darnell he jumped up and loudly he did bawl, 
He struck his wife right through the heart and pinned her against the wall. 

“A grave, a grave!” Lord Darnell cried, “to put these lovers in. 
But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin.”


How did you make out? Here's what I found.

To my eye, this piece is a narrative folksong because it's a song that tells the story of Matty Groves' liaison with Lord Darnell's wife and its consequences. It's sung to a rounded melody, which is easy to remember and repeats every two stanzas. There are many variants of Child 81, so it was almost certainly part of an oral tradition, and it's a good example of the straightforward way most Child ballad narratives are presented, having no exposition or denouement. It's structurally balanced because each pair of stanzas presents the first and second parts of an idea on two consecutive lines, and it tells the story of just a few characters; Matty Groves, Lord Darnell's wife, and Lord Darnell. Finally, it's short and dramatic, progressing directly from the onset of dramatic tension to the climax of the story and ending there.

How a Child Ballad Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Utilizing Existing Ballads

The Child ballads are popular sources for prose adaptation. For example, many of you will already be familiar with tales derived from Child 39: Tam Lin, which is the story of a maiden who travels through a forest inhabited by a shapeshifting mortal man captured by the Queen of Fairies. They make love, she becomes pregnant, and later she goes back to rescue him. I first heard Fairport Convention's rendition of the ballad some years ago but fell madly in love with Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer's rendition while researching this edition of the newsletter. You can have a listen to it here.

Jane Yolen has retold the story for children ages 6-12 in her 1990 book Tam Lin: An Old Ballad, and Susan Cooper has also retold it for children ages 5-9 in her 1991 book Tam Lin. A few years later, "Tam-Lin" makes an appearance in Charles Vess' 1995 graphic novel series Ballads and Sagas, which has since been reprinted. More recently, Sarah J. Maas' A Court of Thorns and Roses is a looser (and steamier) adaptation of the ballad I haven't read yet, but it's most certainly on my list.

Because these ballads are lush narratives packed with evocative imagery, they can be shaped into children's tales, painted into graphic novels, or developed into multi-novel series. And as both a folklorist and a writer, I would argue that they are unique in their resiliency to creative shaping and in their power to resonate with audiences. So read and listen to them, discover the ones that move you, and help them continue to move others. In an oblique sort of way, you join the lineage of learners and singers of the early ballads when you adapt them, and your audience sits in the place of their predecessors, appreciating the work in altogether new ways.

Creation of New Ballads

I wonder if a contemporary person could compose, perform, and transmit a new ballad of the style Francis James Child collected. I tend to agree with Gordon Hall Gerould that these pieces need to be shaped by generations of learners, singers, and communities not tied to the written word and invested in live performances, but perhaps this is the performance theorist in me thinking about the matter. However, the writer sees an opportunity to create fictional communities around the craft of fictional ballad composition. Insert a historical setting shifted to an alternate timeline, a bit of fantastical magic, or an intergalactic generation ship, and the seed of a novel emerges.

A smaller scale effort might situate a fictional ballad at the centre of a short story and write around it. A great example of this outside the Child collection comes from the television series Firefly, and since my coat is kind of a brownish colour (props to those of you who get that reference), I thought it would be fun to write about here. In the "Jaynestown" episode of the series, the most unscrupulous member of the Serenity's crew returns to the scene of a botched robbery to find that he has become an unwitting champion of the dispossessed and the subject of a ballad entitled "The Hero of Canton." The episode explores what it means to be a flawed human being in the presence of hero worshippers, and the ballad is its beating heart. I can't share the episode with you here and wouldn't share the ballad without it, so I'm assigning homework. Pop a bowl of popcorn, find "Jaynestown" on your favourite streaming service, and watch it.

A Closing Passage on the Child Ballad

The minstrels seem to have been the genuine successors of the ancient Bards, who under different names were admired and revered, from the earliest ages, among the people of Gaul, Britain, Ireland, and the North; and indeed, by almost all the first inhabitants of Europe, whether of Celtic or Gothic race, but by none more than by our own Teutonic ancestors, particularly by all the Danish tribes. Among these, they were distinguished by the name of Scalds, a word which denotes "smoothers and polishers of language." The origin of their art was attributed to Odin or Woden, the father of their gods; and the professors of it were held in the highest estimation. (Percy 1870, 9)

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with a discussion of the märchen, which you might know better by the name "fairy tale."


  • Atkinson, David. 2002. The English Traditional Ballad: Theory, Method, and Practice. 1st ed. Burlington: Routledge.
  • Bronson, Bertrand Harris. 1976. The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Buchan, David. 1972. The Ballad and the Folk. 1st ed. London, Boston: Routledge.
  • Carr, James Revell. 2007. ‘“An Harmlesse Dittie”: Ballad Music and Its Sources’. UCSB English Broadside Ballad Archive. 2007. https://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/page/ballad-music-sources.
  • Child, Francis James. 1898. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Vol. 10. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company.
  • Fairport Convention. 1969. Matty Groves. Universal Music Operations Limited. https://youtu.be/dtVkYMFueWs.
  • FolkAlleydotCom. 2013. Folk Alley Sessions: Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - ‘Tam Lin (Child 39)’https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c3yTEUnyYDA.
  • Gerould, Gordon Hall. 1957. The Ballad Of Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Grabiak, Marita. 2002. ‘Jaynestown’. Firefly. 20th Century Fox Television.
  • Jackie Oates and Belinda O’Hooley. 2010. Annachie Gordon. [Merlin] IDOL Distribution (on behalf of ECC Records). https://youtu.be/jYDiYGaTtBY.
  • Percy, Thomas. 1870. Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates.
  • Renwick, Roger deV. 1996. ‘Ballad’. In American Folklore: An Encyclopedia, edited by Jan Harold Brunvand, 1st ed., 108–21. New York: Garland Publishing Company.
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