Tag Archives: Gordon Lightfoot

Tuesday Tryouts: Ballads [Where the Money Is]

8:39 am — Atlanta

Hello everyone. I hope all is well after the weekend. My title is a little tongue-in-cheek but, when I told one of my colleagues, last year, that I was retiring to write poetry, he replied with great seriousness: “Write lyrics. That’s where the money is”. And, if you have a musical ear, the ballad is as close as you can get to lyrics.

Many of our favourite songs are ballads, especially in the folk and country genres. England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia and the United States, all have long histories of ballad writing both as poetry (Robert Burns and Walter de la Mare) and song (Gordon Lightfoot, Springsteen, The Beatles, today’s power rock ballads). If you watch American Idol, or any of the other competitions, you know many ballads are sung.

Ballads have a specified form, but from what I have seen with all the ballads I have read, it is a rare poet who follows the form strictly, so it is forgiving in nature. After all Rule Number One is break the rules.

Ballads started as narrative songs with a recurrent refrain. In literature they became narrative poems, often sentimental, tragic, comic, or historical, written in short stanzas, and full of sensory imagery. Think The Ballad of Casey Jones, or John and Yoko, or Davy Crockett.

The word comes from the Old French balade, a song accompanying a dance, from Late Latin ballāre, to dance.

A ballad is a composition written in metrical feet forming rhythmical lines. They are written in ballad stanzas or quatrains (four-line stanzas) of alternating lines of iambic (an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) tetrameter (eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (six syllables), known as ballad meter. Usually, only the second and fourth line of a quatrain are rhymed (in the scheme a, b, c, b).

That looks and sounds scarier than it is. The brackets make it seem complicated. What you want is a topic. Choose a folk hero, or sentimental topic, say the loss of something. You can look to history for subject matter. Then write a four line stanza. Lines 1 and three have eight syllables and lines 2 and 4 have six. The iambic means every second syllable is stressed, as in the word “announce,” or the line “I eat my peas and honey with a knife”. If you go through, you will note every second syllable is stressed. Iambic is our natural speech pattern, in English.

The good news is that you can have different line lengths, different rhyme schemes, no rhyme scheme, a different stress pattern, so long as there is a discernible rhythm to the stanzas when read.

Here is an excerpt from “Barbara Allen,” a traditional ballad:

In Scarlet Town, where I was born,
There was a fair maid dwellin’
Made every youth cry well-a-day
Her name was Barbara Allen.

All in the merry month of May
When green buds they were swellin’,
Young Jeremy Grove on his deathbed lay
For love of Barbara Allen.

And, an excerpt from one of the most famous of the literary ballads “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” by Oscar Wilde:

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

Note that Wilde decided he wanted six lines rather than quatrains, but if you read it you will feel its rhythm. Once you have the rhythm in your bones, and I suggest looking up ballad texts if the idea of writing one intrigues you, you will find it surprisingly easy to reproduce. Try at least for a quatrain or two on more than one topic, because, if you decide ballads are not for you, the quatrains can serve as a resource for when we tackle pantoums. But you might surprise yourself: ballads can be addictive because of their rhythmic quality.

Have fun with this and post your results on your blog, or here in the comments, even if it’s a lone quatrain, but you know you nailed the rhythm.

Thursday, I promised you a break from no no words, so will be sharing with you some sites worth taking a look at; Friday will be our usual roundup, back to its normal listing, now that April is done; and next Tuesday, perhaps another form, perhaps a small break and a general exercise. We shall see, dear readers.

Meanwhile, share this with anyone you feel would enjoy it, by clicking on the buttons below. Happy writing, everyone.


Posted by on 03/05/2011 in exercises, poetry, writing


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