On Saturday, I played a show down in Bisbee, AZ at The Quarry with The Upper Strata. I drove down a little early so I could explore the great town by visiting the shops and enjoying the scenery like I usually do whenever I visit. I stopped at a used bookstore and I found American Favorite Ballads put together by Pete Seeger so, naturally, I had to purchase it just to have in my collection. I usually don’t think about all the kinds of ballads but when I glanced at the contents of the book I realized how many types of ballads there actually are.
You can always break up ballads in to extremely specific categories and subcategories just like one could do with mystery novels for example but mostly I’ve found that ballads fit into one of these seven main themes below. Note: if you’re looking for 80s rock ballads or Classical piano ballads they’re not here. I focused on the ballad as it relates to folk music…
Event / Location Ballad
The earliest great American folk songwriter, Stephen Foster, was a master at writing these Event and Location ballads and documented much of what early American life looked and felt like. Songs like “Camptown Races” and “Swanee River” tell of a place a time and the things that happened there. These can be happy or sad and some can have a more narrative style but for the most part they aren’t as narrative as the hero/villain and murder ballads are.
“Camptown Races” is a happy ballad that doesn’t have much narrative style or growth of characters, instead it paints the picture and mood of a time and place.
Ballads with a war theme can also be included in this category because there is often little focus on narrative and more on nationalism and increasing moral of troops. “Hold the Fort” from Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads is a good example. With lines like “we battle onward, victory will come,” and “By our union we will triumph, over every foe,” you can see that it’s more focused on nationalism than the telling of a story but it still has a little bit of a tale to tell nonetheless.
Stories of love are some of the most popular stories in existence. Mainly because they are easy to relate to whether they are a story of a new love or of love lost. Most everyone has experienced this and people like to listen to songs of similar experiences.
One of my favorite love ballads is the old Scottish song, “Lass of Glenshee,” which tells the story of a king riding through the towns and seeing a lady herding sheep. Falls in love, asks her to marry him and she declines at first but ultimately cannot resist the king’s charm and they live happily ever after.
Others aren’t so lucky. “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?” tells the story of a man who tries to get a lady to fall in love with him by telling her he will take care of her in every way. She declines and rides away on the next train. Sad but, hey, that’s life. I modernized this song a year or so ago to support gay rights with “I Don’t Need No Man” which pretty much tells the same story but the lady rides away because she’s already in love with another woman.
The murder ballad is my all time favorite ballad because it is extremely dependent on narrative style. You can’t feel bad for the person getting killed or disgust over the murder if there is no character building within the song. Classic murder ballads like “Pretty Polly,” “Down By The Willow Garden,” and “The Banks of the Ohio” all tell stories and have some character building within the song itself whether just on the murderer or on both parties for longer songs.
I’ve incorporated this the murder ballad into a lot of my own material such as “Man in the Suit of Mirrors” and “That Steel Never Cold For Long.” I enjoy building characters and thinking about why people might be driven to such a point in their lives where they take someone else’s life and murder ballads of old and new contain these things.
Hard Trouble Ballad
This is another popular form of ballad because being on hard times or being poor is also a relatable thing for many people. Hard trouble ballads can have more or less of a narrative style. “Darlin’ Corey,” for example has a more narrative style telling the tale of a woman who has fallen on hard times and spends most of her time with alcohol. There’s a progression of her character in the song as well since she is perceived at one point as a strong female who knows how to shoot and pick a banjo to a weaker female who hangs out with gamblers and drunks.
Woody Guthrie’s “Ain’t Gonna Be Treated This a-Way” less narrative but still tells of current struggles from being poor and oppressed.
Hero / Villain Ballad
Like the murder ballads, the hero and villain ballads require narrative style in order to be effective. One of the most popular American ballads of all time is a hero ballad. Of course I’m talking about “John Henry.” A song about a hard working man who won’t let a machine beat him at his own job of driving steel. These sorts of ballads are common for the hard working low to middle class folks and also among some outlaws as well. “Pretty Boy Floyd” and “Jesse James” are two such examples of hero ballads of people who were considered outlaws in their time.
Ballads about villains or bad guys are a little less common than the hero ballad but they still exist. There’s sometimes a fine line between this and a murder ballad but essentially a villain ballad doesn’t focus on a murder or there is no murder at all within the ballad. I have a song called “One for my Romeo y Juliettas” (that I haven’t recorded yet but always play live) which is a villain ballad through and through since it tells the story of a mob boss or loan shark.
Imagine working in a field, on the rails, or in an assembly line and singing to pass the time. That’s exactly how many work ballads were made. People would sing songs of their work and dreams to keep their pace and their spirits high. Call and response is often used in these types of ballads meaning that a line would be sung by one person and then the line would be repeated or the next line would be sung by everyone else around.
“Pick a Bale of Cotton” is a good example of this. There is a lot of repetition in this song which makes it perfect for call and response.
There are other work ballads that are more narrative like “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” that doesn’t focus on call and response but more on what happens to people who decide to be lazy and not work as hard as others around them. A cautionary tale for youth probably.
Finally, the less common but always fun, paranormal ballads about ghosts, demons, the devil, gods, fae folk and son on. Another old Scottish ballad called, “Wife at Usher’s Well,” tells the story of a mother who is visited by the ghosts of her three children who all died at sea.
These ballads also usually have to be more narrative style since the story has to be set up in order for the listener to feel sadness, fear, or excitement once the paranormal aspects of the song are introduced. Probably the most popular example of a paranormal ballad nowadays is Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia” which of course tells the story of an epic fiddle duel with lucifer himself.
Of course you can break up ballad styles even more but these are the seven that I felt most could be boiled down to.