The Ballads

What is a Traditional Ballad?

CeilidhA ballad is a song that tells a story. A traditional ballad is a ballad whose origin is unknown and which has been passed on orally over time.

We know about ballads because (mostly literate) people have collected them from (often pre-literate) people and published them. It is from these collections that the singers of the folk revival (e.g. Joan Baez, Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl, Hedy West) learned and disseminated such familiar ballads as “The Gypsy Rover”, “The Golden Vanity”, “Henry Martin”, “Barbara Allen”, “The Cherry Tree Carol” and “Lord Randal”.

Ballads have been passed on over time and place: ballads such as “The Unquiet Grave” can be found from Scotland to Newfoundland. The melodies and texts may vary greatly but the story is always recognizable. It is, in fact, the story that defines a ballad. “The Dæmon Lover” (often known as “The House Carpenter”), for example, is sung very differently in Scotland and Virginia but the story is the same.

The seminal collection of traditional ballads is Francis James Child’s five-volume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Francis James Child was a Harvard professor whose work on the ballads grew out of his study of early English poets such as Spenser and Chaucer.

Published from 1884 to 1898, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads is a collection of 305 traditional ballads, which Child collated from printed sources from Britain and North America. Each ballad is numbered (e.g. “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” is Child 4), appears in all its known versions and is preceded by a headnote, which discusses sources, variations, related ballads from other countries and tales with similar plots.

clip of a fiddlerBertrand Bronson, an American music scholar, did for the tunes what Child had done for the texts: he gathered together all the variant tunes he could find and published them in a now rare and extensive collection titled The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads.

The Child Ballads at the University of Hawaii, based on files of Cathy Lynn Preston and formatted by David Stampe.

A “Working” KWIC Concordance to Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898) by Cathy Lynn Preston, University of Colorado.

Lamkin, “The Terror of Countless Nurseries” by Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat outlines one approach to the study of balladry.

Types of Ballad Stories

One can categorize Child’s 305 ballads in many ways: we have divided them into five categories: kinship, historical, Christian, Robin Hood and humorous ballads.


By far the largest number of traditional ballads has to do with kinship and of these, ballads about love and marriage predominate. “The Twa Sisters”, for example, deals with the “proper” order of marriage. Traditionally the older sister gets married first, but in this ballad the suitor falls in love with the younger one: the older sister kills her.

The connection between romantic love and marriage is quite modern. Marriages were often arranged by the family and had to do with economic and class considerations as much as with mutual attraction. The consequence of loving someone of whom the family did not approve comes up in a number of ballads.

The person you marry may not be the person you love. Many ballads deal with this issue. Some include pre- or extra-marital affairs, often punishable by death (e.g. “Matty Groves”, “The Cruel Brother”). Others contain a promise of love, a marriage to someone else followed by either a quest and a happy ending (e.g.“Hind Horn”, “Lord Bateman”) or by death and destruction (e.g. “The Brown Girl”).

The alienation and fear experienced by a bride when she leaves the comfort and familiarity of her home to live with her husband’s family comes up in several ballads. Other ballads deal with incest (e.g.“Sheath and Knife”, “Lizie Wan”) or with grief over the death of a loved one (e.g. “The Unquiet Grave”, “Lady Margaret”).

Historical Ballads

The largest group of ballads having to do with historical events is what is known as the Scottish Border Ballads. These are concerned with the conflicts and mutual raiding that took place predominately in southeastern Scotland between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. These ballads do not always portray real historical events, or portray them accurately.

Christian Ballads

There are only a handful of ballads whose stories relate to Christian tradition or are drawn from the Bible. The best known of these is “The Cherry Tree Carol”. Others are drawn from the Apocrypha.

Robin Hood Ballads

Everything we “know” about Robin Hood comes from traditional ballads about him. They were once sung widely (Child prints fifty or so), but the musical record is sparse: only a very few tunes have ever been collected.

Humorous Ballads

The handful of humorous ballads in Child’s collection differ in both content and style with the other ballads he includes. “Seven Nights Drunk” and “The Wee Cooper of Fife” are two of the best-known.

Ballad Work in the Lower Mainland

clip of a ballad singerMembers of the Vancouver Folk Song Society occasionally run a Ballad Group for those interested in learning, singing and talking about ballads. Ballad Workshops are often held at the Society’s Retreats. Ballad Group members Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat have made a series of tapes of ballad performances, each tape featuring one of the Child ballads. This collection now covers 143 ballads: they also have a significant collection of ballad books. Since the early 1990’s, Jon and Rika have given workshops at the Northwest Regional Folklife Festival, held each May in Seattle, and also at local universities.