Some Thoughts About Ballads


Friends, I can’t seem to help myself. I’ve been mulling over some of the reasons that the old ballads are so meaningful for me and I just had to write some personal reflections. (I don’t know why some of the song lines appeared in boldface after I posted this here.)

Thinking about the ballads we listened to last week, I’ve been thinking about some of the characteristics of ballads that make them so exciting to me. I realized that what I love about ballads are the narrative strategies; the ballad clichés: ways that certain structures, phrases and lines are found in many different ballads; the poignancy (or is it the pathos) of the stories; and the beauty of the poetic expression.

Narrative strategies:

  1. The use of repetition. Certain phrases are be repeated sometimes over and over, sometimes just once or twice in a ballad. In Lord Randall (and some of the other older ballads the ones with low “child ballad” listings), the story is carried by repeating the same lines over and over, with slight changes to build suspense and carry the story. In other ballads like The House Carpenter or Matty Groves, repetition is used only in a couple of places.
  2. this is usually combined with the use of dialog to tell the story. The ballad does not say who is speaking, and we have to infer it from the context.

Examples: Lord Randall:

Where have you been Lord Randall my son?

Where have you been my bonnie young man?

I’ve been hunting mother, I’ve been hunting mother.

Mother make my bed soon, for I’m sick at the heart

And fain would I lie down.

And so it goes … the questions and answers repeat, the conversation becomes sadder and sadder and more and more revealing as we go on.

Example: The “three questions” is a common structure used in many ballads. In House Carpenter:

Are you weeping for your silver and your gold?

Are you weeping for your store?

Or are you weeping for your house carpenter,

Whose face you’ll never see any more?

No I’m not weeping for my silver and my gold

And I’m not weeping for my store.

But I am weeping for my darling little babe,

Whose face I’ll never see any more.

The exact same structure appears twice in Matty Groves:

Lord Daniel arrives at the bed:

How well do you like my pillow, sir?

How well do you like my sheets?

How well do you like my gay lady

Who lies in your arms asleep?

Very well do I like your pillow, he answered

Much better do I like your sheets,

Much better do I like your gay lady

Who lies in my arms asleep.

The “three questions” structure reappears a few verses later after Lord Daniel has killed Matty Groves. Except in most versions the questions are missing—just the lady’s answer is given.

He took his lady by her lily white hand

And he sat her upon his knee,

Tell me which one do you love best,

Little Matty Groves or me?

Very well do I like your rosy cheeks,

Much better do I like your chin,

Much better do I like little Matty Groves

Than you and all your kin.

The ballad clichés; words and phrases that recur from ballad to ballad

Lily white hand, rosy cheeks, milk white steed (or bonny bonny black), wee pen knife, etc. etc.

In House Carpenter we have these phrases that occur in many different ballads:

They had not been sailing but about two weeks,

I’m sure it was not three …

and later,

They had not been sailing but about three weeks,

I’m sure it was not four …

For some reason, these clichés are not boring to me. Rather, I find them charming and when I hear a ballad, I listen for them, waiting to see where they will appear.

The poignancy or pathos:

Somehow these situations that are so pathetically dire and so melodramatic are very meaningful to me. Maybe its because my life is so humdrum by comparison, maybe its for the same reasons we go to the movies.

The poetic expression:

Simple, but to me elegant and incomparable. Literary poets or song writers cannot match it. In my humble opinion.

Some of my favorite lines are in Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender:

Oh Father, oh Father come riddle to me,

Come riddle it all as one

And tell me whether to marry fair Ellen

Or bring the Brown Girl home

The Brown Girl she has house and land,

Fair Ellender, she has none

So here I charge you with the blessing

Go bring the Brown Girl home

Later, against her mother’s advice, Fair Ellender decides to go to Lord Thomas’ wedding. Here’s how she gets there:

She turned around all dressed in white,

Her sisters dressed in green

And every town that they rode through,

They took her to be some Queen.

She rode and she rode til she come to the hall,

She pulled at the bell and it rang

And no one so ready as Lord Thomas himself,

To rise and bid her in.

And taking her by her lily white hand,

And leading her through the hall.

Saying, Fifty gay ladies are here today,

But this is the flower of all.


Is this your bride Lord Thomas, she cried

She looks so wonderful brown

You could have had as fair a lady

As ever the sun shone on.

Soon, after the Brown Girl in a fit of jealousy, stabs Fair Ellender with her wee pen knife, Lord Thomas notices something amiss.

Oh what is the matter, Fair Ellen? he says,

You look so pale and wan.

You used to have as fine a color

As ever the Sun shone on.

Oh are you blind Lord Thomas? she cried

Or is it you cannot see?

Can’t you see my own heart’s blood

Come a-trickling down by my knee.

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