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ballad, in literature and music, short, narrative poem or song usually relating a single, dramatic event. Two forms of the ballad are often distinguished—the folk ballad, dating from about the 12th cent., and the literary ballad, dating from the late 18th cent.

The Folk Ballad

The anonymous folk ballad (or popular ballad), was composed to be sung. It was passed along orally from singer to singer, from generation to generation, and from one region to another. During this progression a particular ballad would undergo many changes in both words and tune. The medieval or Elizabethan ballad that appears in print today is probably only one version of many variant forms.

Primarily based on an older legend or romance, this type of ballad is usually a short, simple song that tells a dramatic story through dialogue and action, briefly alluding to what has gone before and devoting little attention to depth of character, setting, or moral commentary. It uses simple language, an economy of words, dramatic contrasts, epithets, set phrases, and frequently a stock refrain. The familiar stanza form is four lines, with four or three stresses alternating and with the second and fourth lines rhyming. For example:
It was ín and abóut the Mártinmas tíme,
  When the gréen léaves were a fálling,
That Sír John Gráeme, in the Wést Countrý,
  Fell in lóve with Bárbara Állan
“Bonny Barbara Allan”

It was in the 18th cent. that the term ballad was used in England in its present sense. Scholarly interest in the folk ballad, first aroused by Bishop Percyy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), was significantly inspired by Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Francis Child's collection, English and Scottish Popular Ballads (5 vol., 1882–98), marked the high point of 19th-century ballad scholarship.

More than 300 English and Scottish folk ballads, dating from the 12th to the 16th cent., are extant. Although the subject matter varies considerably, five major classes of the ballad can be distinguished—the historical, such as “Otterburn” and “The Bonny Earl o' Moray”; the romantic, such as “Barbara Allan” and “The Douglas Tragedy”; the supernatural, such as “The Wife of Usher's Well”; the nautical, such as “Henry Martin”; and the deeds of folk heroes, such as the Robin Hood cycle.

Ballads, however, cannot be confined to any one period or place; similar subject matter appears in the ballads of other peoples. Indigenous American ballads deal mainly with cowboys, folk heroes such as Casey Jones and Paul Bunyan, the mountain folk of Kentucky and Tennessee, the Southern black, and famous outlaws, such as Jesse James:
Jésse had a wífe to móurn for his lífe,
  Three chíldren, théy were bráve;
But the dírty little cóward that shót Mister Hóward
  Has láid Jesse Jámes in his gráve.
“Ballad of Jesse James”

During the mid-20th cent. in the United States there was a great resurgence of interest in folk music, particularly in ballads. Singers such as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger included ballads like “Bonny Barbara Allan” and “Mary Hamilton” in their concert repertoires; composer-performers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan wrote their own ballads.

The Literary Ballad

The literary ballad is a narrative poem created by a poet in imitation of the old anonymous folk ballad. Usually the literary ballad is more elaborate and complex; the poet may retain only some of the devices and conventions of the older verse narrative. Literary ballads were quite popular in England during the 19th cent. Examples of the form are found in Keats's “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” Coleridge's “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Oscar Wilde's “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” In music a ballad refers to a simple, often sentimental, song, not usually a folk song.


See D. C. Fowler, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad (1968); B. H. Bronson, The Ballad as Song (1969); J. Kinsley, ed., The Oxford Book of Ballads (1982); A. B. Friedman, ed., The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World (1982).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the designation for several quite different poetic and musical genres; originally, the name the Romanic peoples of the Middle Ages gave to a lyrical round dance song that always had a refrain. By the 13th century the modified ballad had become a popular genre of French and Italian professional poetry, especially that of the troubadours and trouvéres. The classical French ballad of the 14th and 15th centuries is a plotless lyrical poem in canonical form: three stanzas written with internal rhyme (ababbcbc), a “dedication” (an address to whomever the ballad is dedicated), and a refrain (the repetition of the last line of each stanza and of the “dedication”). An example of a ballad is F. Villon’s “On Women of Days Gone By.” In medieval England a ballad was a song with a plot, dramatic content, and a refrain sung by a chorus; ballads were usually based on a historic, legendary, or fictitious theme—for example, the series of ballads about Robin Hood. A ballad similar to the English and Scottish folk ballad became a favorite literary genre of sentimen-talism, romanticism, and neoromanticism (R. Burns, S. Coleridge, W. Blake, and R. Kipling in England and G. Bürger, F. Schiller, and H. Heine in Germany). In Russian poetry ballads were introduced by V. A. Zhukovskii. Ballads were written by A. S. Pushkin (“Song About Oleg the Wise” and “The Bridegroom”), M. Iu. Lermontov (“The Airborne Ship”), and A. K. Tolstoy (mostly on themes from Russian history). The Soviet poets N. S. Tikhonov and E. G. Bagritskii wrote ballads with heroic themes. In Soviet poetry, ballads with plot, dramatic content, and lyrico-epic “tonality” predominate (A. A. Surkov, P. G. Tychina, E. Charents, and others).

The flowering of the vocal ballad (mainly for solo singing to the accompaniment of a piano) stemmed from the revival of the ballad in professional poetry during the second half of the 18th century. The ballad is represented in the romantic music of Germany and Austria in the works of F. Schubert, R. Schumann, J. Brahms, and H. Wolf. The first Russian ballads originated in romantic poetry (A. A. Pleshcheev’s “Svet-lana,” with words by V. A. Zhukovskii, and the ballads of A. N. Verstovskii, A. E. Varlamov, and M. I. Glinka). The ballad genre was first used by A. P. Borodin, M. P. Mussorgsky, and N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov.

The instrumental ballad is a genre characteristic of romantic music. It combines epic narrative with dramatic development, and lyrical excitement with vivid picturesqueness (ballads for piano by F. Liszt, J. Brahms, E. Grieg, and especially F. Chopin; ballads and polonaise by H. Vieux-temps for violin and piano and ballads for piano and orchestra by G. Fauré).

In contemporary music there are different kinds of vocal and instrumental ballads. Contributions to the development of vocal ballads were made in ballads written to the lyrics of B. Brecht by H. Eisler. In Soviet music the ballad genre often receives heroic or heroic-epic treatment (“The Ballad of the Hero” from Iu. A. Shaporin’s symphony-cantata On the Kulikovo Field, S. S. Prokofiev’s “Ballad of the Boy Who Wanted to Remain Unknown,” and A. Babadzhanian’s “Heroic Ballad” for piano and orchestra).


Zhirmunskii, V. M. “Angliiskaia narodnaia bailada.” Severnye zapiski, 1916, no. 10.
Russkaia bailada. Introduction by N. P. Andreev. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Pankratova, V. Bailada. Moscow, 1963.
Entwistle, J. European Balladry. Oxford, 1939.
Northcote, S. The Ballad in Music. Oxford, 1944.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. a narrative song with a recurrent refrain
2. a narrative poem in short stanzas of popular origin, originally sung to a repeated tune
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
References in classic literature ?
The great idea of the Robin Hood ballads is the victory of the poor and oppressed over the rich and powerful, the triumph of the lawless over the law-givers.
The Robin Hood ballads are full of humor; they are full, too, of English outdoor life, of hunting and fighting.
A ballad is much shorter than a romance, and therefore much more easily learned and remembered.
Of quite another style is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.
There are many versions of this ballad, but I give you here one of the shortest and perhaps the most beautiful.
On which occasion, as the ballad that was made about it describes: 'Beside that cottage door, Mr Boffin, A girl was on her knees; She held aloft a snowy scarf, Sir, Which (my eldest brother noticed) fluttered in the breeze.
not only without the slightest appearance of irony, or even any particular accentuation, but with so even and unbroken an appearance of seriousness that assuredly anyone might have supposed that these initials were the original ones written in the ballad. The thing made an uncomfortable impression upon the prince.
Ballads of the North, Medieval to Modern: Essays Inspired by Larry Syndergaard
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Writing in 1949 to William Montgomerie, a scholar of Scottish ballads, Graham sought a critical account of Robert Burns's "technical self-consciousness," and said that "reading Burns makes me quite certain that after my wandering Willie-ing I'll be back to stay in Scotland" (NF, 98-99).
"The Book of Ballads & Sagas" is award-winning compendium of English and Scottish fairy tales and folklore that Titan Comics has brought back into print for a new generation of appreciative readers a sumptuous collection of verse that is beautifully illustrated by Vess and featuring adaptations of the ballad stories by Neil Gaiman (who was Vess' collaborator on the hugely successful Stardust) along with a host of famous fantasy writers.
Gesturing toward the historical reawakening Michael Field dramatizes in The Tragic Mary, an awakening only possible through the closeness they share with Mary Stuart, the fictional ballads that the queen sings re-create nostalgic reveries that allow a transference of expressive emotion.