BALLADS. A ballad is a short narrative set to song. A folk ballad is generally short and simple, telling a dramatic story using dialogue and action. American folk ballads tend to rhyme and to be divided into stanzas. The ballad is an enduring musical form and often the first type of song children hear, since many lullabies are ballads. The earliest known American ballads are based on European models, some of which date to the late Middle Ages. American ballads often glorify cowboys, lumberjacks, and other working-class people as opposed to European ballads, which tend to focus on the highborn. (A recent example is singer Elton John's tribute, written upon the death of Princess Diana, "Candle in the Wind 1997.")
Many American ballads are also based on news events. There are numerous versions of "Stackalee" (or "Stagolee"), which tells about an actual murder said to have taken place in St. Louis in 1895. While all the versions tell the story somewhat differently, they have in common that "Stagalee, he was a bad man," a theme that runs through many ballads, especially those innovated in prisons, bars, and work camps. This tradition was revived in 1973 when singer-songwriter Jim Croce had a hit song with "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown." More recent ballads have used historical events to promote patriotic fervor. In
1966, during the Vietnam War, Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler had a top forty radio success with "Ballad of the Green Berets," and almost immediately after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, country singer Alan Jackson's song, "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," went to the top of the country music charts.
Ballads often skip expository material and focus on a particular moment in time, such as the dying words of a young cowboy in "The Streets of Laredo," or in more recent times, the moment at which a woman walks down the street in Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" (1964).
The first collection of ballads published in America was compiled by Francis James Child in a five-volume work, English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1883–1898). Most early American ballads are variations on the 305 types defined by Child. The early American "Fatal Flower Garden" is based on a ballad identified by Child as "Sir Hugh." The original song, which tells of a gruesome child murder, dates as far back as 1255. Few early ballads have a definitive version because they were often sung by unlettered people who did not write them down. In their important 1934 work, American Ballads and Folk Songs, John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax provide twenty-five different categories of songs, many with alternative versions of a particular ballad. Their categories include "Working on the Railroad," "Songs from Southern Chain Gangs," "Negro Bad Men," "Cowboy Songs," "The Miner," "War and Soldiers," "White Spirituals," and "Negro Spirituals." In the first edition of the Dictionary of American History (1976), John A. Lomax wrote that American ballads tend to follow the pattern of the come-all-ye's and are peopled with working-class characters. Undoubtedly the most popular of indigenous types are the occupational ballads, the bad-man ballad, the murder ballad, and the vulgar or bawdy ballad. As the English loved Robin Hood because he took from the rich to give to the poor, so the American folksinger has commemorated Jesse James. Probably more than anyone else, the Lomaxes are responsible for recording America's folk heritage, including one of the greatest repositories of its ballads, Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly. They wrote that among the ballads they recorded, beginning in 1932, were many that were too bawdy for print; thus their books often contain sanitized versions of the original work.
The singer Pete Seeger has also been a proponent of recording and singing American ballads in order to keep the songs alive. The son of a musicologist, Seeger wrote his own songs ("Turn, Turn, Turn") and popularized those of other artists (for example, Leadbelly's "Good-night Irene").
While Seeger and the Lomaxes collected primarily folk ballads, the form has endured in nearly every category of American music including rock, pop, rhythm and blues, jazz, religious, and perhaps especially, country and western. Pop ballads have been sung by artists as diverse as Bob Dylan ("The Times They Are A'changin") and Billy Joel ("Piano Man"). Ray Charles combined blues music with country in his influential ballads (including "I Can't Stop Loving You"). The list of country and western ballads is enormous and some of the titles are an entertainment in themselves.
Poets, including the twentieth-century Anglo-American W. H. Auden, also wrote poems in a ballad form ("If I Could Tell You," "O Where are You Going"). Some of these works were published as broadsides rather than as music.
———. Folk Song U.S.A. New York: New American Library, 1947.
Seeger, Pete. American Favorite Ballads: Tunes and Songs As Sung by Pete Seeger. Edited by Irwin Silber and Ethel Raim. New York: Oak Publications, 1961.
Smith, Harry, ed. Anthology of American Folk Music. Smithsonian Folkways compact disks (6).
See alsoMusic: Country and Western, Early American, Folk Revival .
J. A. Cannon