Ballad Writing: Ballad Poems

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Ballad Poems: Ballad Writing

Ballad Form in Detail


Meter is the rhythm of a ballad. It describes where the emphasis is placed--what words are emphasized, and what words aren't. Almost all ballads have verses consisting of four or six lines, and use one of two basic Meters: 4-3-4-3 or 4-4-4-4. Here's an example of the 4-3-4-3 meter. Try speaking the verse out loud:

Haud your tongue, ye auld fac'd knight,
Some ill death may ye dee!
er my bairn on whom I will,
I'll father nane on thee.

There are four emphasized words in the first and third lines, and three emphasized words in the second and fourth lines--in short, 4-3-4-3.

Here's an example of the 4-4-4-4 meter, where all lines have four emphasized words:

I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie on the sea
and when I'm far and far frae land
my home it is in Sule Skerry.

If you look back through the examples shown in the previous sections, you'll see that most of them fall into one of the above meters. If you can't figure out what meter a ballad is in, try speaking it out loud and listening to the rhythm of your speech.

An important thing to note about ballads, however, is that few of them have absolutely perfect meter in all of the verses. Almost every ballad has a verse with one syllable more or less. In Kempowyne, which falls roughly under the 4-4-4-4 meter, a number of lines contain one or two syllables more or less than they should.

Perfect meter  isn't essential; what is important is that the meter work with the music. Many ballads which sound rather awkward when they're spoken sound beautiful when set to their proper tunes; the rhythm of the words compliments the movement of the tune so that you don't notice any "imperfections" in the meter.

Older ballads tend more towards the 4-4-4-4 meter, while more of the later period ones have the 4-3-4-3 meter.


Most ballads use one of three different types of rhyme: abac, aabb, or abcb.


The first type of rhyme, abac, is found in ballads that include a chorus in the verse: the first and third lines of each verse rhyme, while the second and fourth lines, the chorus, are the same in every verse. Here's an example:

She went down below the thorn
Fine Flowers in the Valley
And there has she her sweet babe born
And the green leaves they grow rarely

She's ta'en out her little penknife
Fine flowers in the valley
And there she's twinned her sweet babe of it's life
And the green leaves they grow rarely

Many of the older ballads include this chorus, or "burden", in each verse, like the example above contains. One of the very oldest ballads, King Orfeo, dated to the late 1400s, uses this type of rhyme. 


In the second type, aabb, the first and second lines rhyme with eachother, as do the third and the fourth lines. For example:

As I was walking al alane
I saw twa corbies makin' mane
the tane untae the tither did say
where shall we gang and dine the day?

It's possible that this type of ballad evolved from the first: the burden was dropped, and two verses compressed into one. Hind Horn is another example of this type of rhyme structure.


The third type of rhyme, abcb, is the most common type of rhyme found in Child's ballads. In this rhyme scheme, only the second and fourth lines rhyme:

Her breath was strang, her hair was lang
And twisted twice about the tree
And with a swing she came about
"Come to Craigy's sea and kiss with me"

This type of rhyme is the easiest; there's only one pair of matching words to worry about per verse rather than two, which gives you more freedom in writing the verse content.

Ballad makers weren't picky about their rhymes. Less than perfect rhyme combinations such as again/ten, blame/nane, mair/before, king/nane, wrong/won, and pap/that abound in ballads. In fact, a ballad with perfect rhymes is automatically suspect; as balladry was originally an oral tradition, and dialects varied widely, the words didn't necessarily sound like their written-down version. A singer could make even the most unlikly of rhymes work well.

In addition, many ballads rhyme a word with itself:

And while your body it is on
Drawn shall your blood never be
But if you touch me tail or fin
I swear my brand your death will be


Repetition can be found in all ballads, in one form or another.

The oldest type of repetition is the repetition of entire verses, with only slight changes made to each one. Many of the earliest extant ballads use this type of repetition, lending weight to Hodgart's theory that ballads evolved from choral dance songs (check out The Ballads by MJC Hodgart for more on this theory.)

The Maid on the Gallows is the most mind-numbingly repetitious one to be found; Babylon and Lord Randal also use this type of repetition (to much better effect). Even in later ballads that aren't composed entirely of repeated verses, one can often find examples of this in miniature:

O still my bairn, nourice,
O still him wi' the pap!
He winna still, lady, for this nor for that.

O still my bairn, nourice,
Oh still him wi' the bell!
He winna stil, lady,
till ye come down yoursel.

This type of repetition is a good way of building tension within a ballad as you build toward a climax, although it can become tiresome if overused.

Another common type of repetition used in ballads is "question/answer" repetition. The two verses cited above are a good example of this. This type of repetition is found in a great number of ballads; indeed, some, like "The Maid on the Gallows", consist of nothing else. The ballad Edward uses this question and answer routine to great effect, and their are a great many ballads that contain at least one example of this.

Burdens, or choruses used in each verse, are a third common type of repetition used in ballads. With burdens, the first and third lines of a verse rhyme, while the second and fourth line are the same for all verses:

There were twa sisters sat in a bow'r
Binnorie, O Binnorie

There cam a knight to be their wooer.
By the bonnie mill-dams of Binnorie.

He courted the eldest wi' glove and ring
Binnorie, O Binnorie

But he lo'ed the youngest aboon a'thing.
By the bonnie mill-dams of Binnorie.

As a rule, of thumb, the older the ballad, the more repetition is involved. Many ballads use more than one type of repetition.


As many of the ballads we have today were taken down from Scottish singers, a great number of them are in scottish dialect. This dialect can be rather overwhelmingly strong (>Edward) or can be so slight as to seem nonexistent (Lord Randal), depending on the singer and the transcriber of the song.

Many words are English, spelled as the Scots would pronounce them: "wae" instead of "woe", "doon" instead of "down", "ane" for "one", "mair", "ta'en" and "ye" for "more", "taken" and "you". This is one of the easier ways to "balladize" a song, though care should be taken not to overdo it; speaking ballads out loud and listening to recordings (preferably by Scottish performers, if you can find them) is a good way to get the sound down.

There are also a good number of peculiarly Scottish words to be found in ballads, border ballads especially. "Bairn", "dule", "ken", and "bonnie" are four of the better known ones; there are many others. Unless you're quite familiar with them, it's best not to overload a ballad with them. It can end up sounding awkward (and make it harder for a modern audience to understand.) Again, the best way to get the hang of using Scottish words is to read and listen to the ballads and learn how they're used.

Most transcribers of ballads would readily agree with Andrew Jackson's famous statement: "It's a poor man who can think of only one way to spell a word." Spelling in ballads is iffy at best; words were, for the most part, written down the way they sounded. Sometimes the same word appears in two or even three different spellings. As ballads are meant to sung rather than read, spelling isn't of great importance; if you're going for the "look" of a period ballad, however, perfect spelling is a giveaway of modern origin.

The same goes for grammar, which is sacrificed freely for the sake of meter, rhyme and verse form:

I got it not by sea, nor got it by land
Nor got I it on a dead man's hand
But I got it at my wooing gay
And I'll gie't you on your wedding day


Most of the ballads that have survived to the present day can be divided into verses of four lines. This number can vary--sometimes a 6 or 8 line verse is inserted into the ballad (Tam Lin).

As mentioned above, the science of ballad writing was not an exact one. One old scottish woman interviewed around the turn of the 20th century said that as long as the content remained the same, small words and phrases could be changed with impunity.

As balladry was originally an oral tradition, the use of traditional motifs and phrases was heavily relied upon to "flesh out" a ballad story. In a process that has often been compared to Homer's poetic technique and that of other classical poets, the singer had a number of stock phrases--"grassy green", "milk-white steed", "massy gold", "maiden fair", "and an angry man was he," "silk so fine", to name but a few--to use when singing a ballad. If he or she forgot the exact wording of a certain line and it didn't include any action important to the ballad, a stock phrase could easily be slipped in. This process was seen at work by collectors of ballads in Scotland at the end of the last century; two people might give them the same ballad with slight differences; the gist and content were roughly the same, and much of the different material consisted of stock phrases.

A curious thing to note about some ballads--especially the later ones-- is that much of the essential action occurs in the non-rhyming lines, which makes on the spot improvisation easier. Though this is by no means a universal occurrence, it happens often enough to be noticeable if you look.

Ballads contain a lot of dialogue. Action is often described in the first person: "As I was walking all alane..."; "Oh where have ye been, my dearest dear"; "Quhy dois your brand sae drip wi' bluid", etc. Even in ballads told from a more impersonal third person point of view, dialogue is always included, usually between the two main characters. As mentioned above in the section on Repetition, one character and the other can speak in alternate verses, or one character will say something in the first two lines of a verse and the other reply in the second two lines. This standard alternation can also be a mnemonic aid. Lord Randal and Edward are composed completely of alternating dialogue, and it can also be found in the Demon Lover, Tam Lin, Lamkin, Cruel Mother, Binnorie, and countless other ballads, as can the extensive use of pairs: pairs of matching verses, an occurrence which happens twice, etc.

Another mnemonic aid is the pervasive use of threes in ballads. In Kempowyne, the main character has to win three kisses from Dove Isabel. In Edward, the mother asks her son three times why his sword is so bloody, and after Edward states his intention to go into exile, she asks him what he intends to (1.) Do with his property, (2.) Leave to his children and wife, and (3.) Leave to his mother. In Babylon, three sisters are given a life or death choice, and their fate is described in 3 verses apiece. Lord Wearie is gone three months in Lamkin, and The Wife of Usher's Well is visited by her three sons. Little Sir Hugh's mother calls three times before her son replies. Such examples are endless.

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