The Development of Ballads Essay
The Development of Ballads
Ballads have been in evidence since the seventh century and have been popular ever since. They travelled around the globe as people emigrated, picking up stories of historical significance on the way. Their main purpose is to entertain, being sung or recited, often accompanied by music. Their distinctive poetic form told appealing tales of heroism, hardship and adventure often in dramatic terms. They were also a means of spreading news, to a largely illiterate population in an easily understood narrative way. Ballads follow a distinctive recipe, elements of which can be seen in all ballads.
They use quatrains, which are four line stanzas. An example of this can be seen in the ballad, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’: “The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew, The furrow follow’d free We were the first that ever burst Into that silent sea” In this verse you can see a regular ‘A B C B’ rhyming scheme, which means that lines two and four rhyme with a bouncy rhythm. Ballads told simple stories to entertain audiences such as in ‘The Twa Corbies’ where two ravens having a conversation. The ballads would build up to a climax where the main event of the story would happen.
In the ballad ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ we read lines like: “Drinking the blood red wine” And “When the sky grew dark, the wind blew loud, And angry grew the sea” This automatically suggests to the reader that there is a going to be a murder as it is setting the scene for one. It was vital that the balladeer maintained the interest of his audience by using dramatic yet simple imagery. He had to paint the scene in words to engage the imagination of the audience. The symbolic use of colour is used to create atmosphere. Red often symbolises blood or royalty, for example, the ballad ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ reads:
“Drinking the blood red wine” which creates tension and a thick atmosphere. White symbolises good so black obviously symbolises evil. In ‘Johnie Armstrong’ it reads “Goodly steeds were all milky white” this tells us that all Johnie Armstrong’s men rode white horses which helps to portray him and his men as the ‘good guys’. The audience would have recognised the inference of what the colours meant. Ballads told tales with simple themes, for example ‘Johnie Armstrong’ tells a Robin Hood style story of an “honest outlaw” who is betrayed by a “treacherous Scottish king”.
Other themes explored in ballads capture lives of adventure and hardship. Keeping things simple was important, as most of the listeners would have been peasants living in small communities often impoverished and with little way of escaping hard lives. Hearing tales of larger than life characters at least temporally diverted them from their own circumstances. Sometimes audience participation was encouraged for example in the ‘Twa Corbies’ where the narrative breaks from third person to first person: “The tane unto the tither did say, ‘Whar sall we gang and dine the day?
I imagine the scenario either where two or three balladeers working together took roles within a spoken or sung ballad or where one balladeer hopped between storyteller and actor. In either the audience may have been invited to supply lines making the ballads more of a lively improvised story. This would have been great fun moving the action from performer to the audience and back again. The characters depicted were bold but shallow leaving the audience with a two dimensional representation which told of what the characters did but not of how they felt.
There was little attempt to flesh out any subtleties of characterisation. Action and events moved the story line not any depth in the characters. In the beginning of the border ballad ‘Johnie Armstrong’ he is described as being a “bold outlaw”. We are told that he came from Westmerland, on the Scottish border. He came from poverty, “had neither land or rent coming in” and alot about what he possessed in terms of men, horses and weapon, but not much about him as a man. The ballad of ‘Johnie Armstrong’ is a good example of a border ballad.
A border ballad focused on the conflict between the Scottish and the English. The ballad is clearly written from an English viewpoint, describing Johnie as proud, brave and heroic. The words “faire Westmerland” are the first indication that this is written from an English perspective. The band own white horses (white symbolising good) and are described as being “a goodly sight for to see”. On the other hand, the Scottish king is portrayed as being deceitful and double crossing tricking Johnie and his men to their deaths. Another type of ballad is the broadside ballad.
These were an early form of newspaper recording local events and news told in narrative form. What distinguished them was the fact that for the first time they were fixed in print and sold at fairs for a penny, becoming the earliest written ballads. Two examples of these are ‘Mary Cummings’ and ‘Charlotte Dymand’, these poem were not really in the right period but in the right style. The ballad of Mary Cummings is the story of a crime of passion. It a sensational tale of love, abandonment, revenge and violent murder eventually finishing with the hanging of an unrepented jilted bride.
It depicts a tragic heroine with the themes of love and death dramatically portrayed. The language is graphic: “The mother slithered to the ground, The father’s eyes went white” We are given the picture of the hopeful girl in her bridal gown on a spring morning that becomes the murderess cursing the groom and his parents. The line “the pain in Mary’s Mind” gives a clue that she is becoming deranged. The images are all of things fading: “The sun that glittered down”, “the sun slid out of sight”. The audience would have been able to grasp the cruel irony that the bridal gown is to become the shroud of death.
Instead of a husband she is to meet “the dark lover” i. e. devil; she has renounced her religion. The whole ballad evokes a sense of the eagerness for marriage being replaced by an eagerness for death. As people travelled from place to place they took the basic ballad recipe with them as well as the ballads. Ballads can be found all over the word: ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is a traditional Scottish ballad; ‘Young Hunting’ is an eighteenth centaury ballad, perhaps with earlier Danish parallels and ‘Ballad of Sixty-Five’ is a traditional Jamaican ballad.
This proves that ballads have travelled all over the globe, appealing to worldwide audiences for many centauries. The Ballad of Sixty-Five tells a story of historical significance to many Jamaicans; a group of slaves in Jamaica march to their governor’s house demanding there right and are eventually hanged to make a public spectacle. It had the opposite reaction making other slaves believe that they could stand up for themselves: “Paul Boyle died but his spirit talked, Anywhere in Jamaica that freedom walks. ” The poem has examples of patois, which is native Jamaican dialect.
“You can wuk like a mule but de crop still bad” It also has an ‘A A B B’ rhyming scheme to it and a Calypso rhythum, which shows how the basic ballad recipe can be varied as it travelled. Ballads are an ancient form of communication; they have been around for centauries keeping almost the same recipe throughout. They told tales of historical importance as well as stories just to entertain. They have been popular ever since they begun and although they are not still in there original form we can see element derived from ballads in modern day song.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 7 July 2017
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