Writing Your Own Ballad

A ballad is a narrative poem. It tells a dramatic story - often about love and betrayal and death. But it can also be humorous (as in 'Get Up and Bar the Door"), focusing on common human foibles.

Consider "Lord Randall"

"Oh where ha'e ye been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh where ha'e ye been, my handsome young man?"
"I ha'e been to the wild wood: mother, make my be soon,
For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

"Where gat ye your dinner, Lord Randall my son?
Where gat ye your dinner, my handsome young man?"
"I dined wi' my true love: mother, make my be soon,
For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

"What gat ye to your dinnner, Lord Randall my son?
What gat ye to your dinner, my handsome young man?"
"I gat eels boiled in broo; mother, make my be soon,
For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

"What became of your bloodhounds, Lord Randall my son?
What became of your bloodhounds, my handsome young man?"
"O they swelled and they died: mother, make my be soon,
For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

"O I fear ye are poisoned, Lord Randall my son!
O I fear ye are poisoned , my handsome young man!"
"O yes, I am poisoned: mother, make my be soon,
For I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down."

You might notice that ballads:

1) focus on a single crucial episode or situation;

2) are dramatic; they do not tell, they show through dialogue and other dramatic devices;

3) are impersonal; the singer does not judge the characters.

Traditional English ballad form includes:

  • four line stanzas
  • lines 1 and 3 have four beats
  • lines 2 and 4 have three beats and rhyme

YOUR BALLAD

  • Imagine a serious or humorous moment.
  • Decide who your characters will be and which will speak first.
  • Be careful not to over-tell your tale.
  • Use dialogue to move your story forward.
  • Compose at least six stanzas.

As Reed Bye notes in The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms:

Whether oral or written, the best ballads have precise and startling "images" that sometimes arise and take the reader/hearer directly into the story ... [note Lord Randall's "eels boiled in broo" and his dying bloodhounds] ... Through such images we feel the situation and troubles of the ballad characters as if they were our own.

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