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Collection The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America

Traditional Ballads


Traditional ballads are narrative folksongs - simply put, they are folksongs that tell stories. They tell all kinds of stories, including histories, legends, fairy tales, animal fables, jokes, and tales of outlaws and star-crossed lovers. ("Ballad" is a term also used in the recording industry for slow, romantic songs, but these should not be confused with traditional or folk ballads.) Many traditional ballads came to North America with settlers from Europe. Others were composed in North America and tell stories or relate ideas that tell us about the attitudes and experiences of our nation as it developed.

Some older ballads derive from songs composed by traveling minstrels who made their living through song in the houses of noblemen. Minstrels composed narrative songs describing love stories, historical battles and events, legends, and journeys to far off lands. As these songs were intended as entertainment, they had meters and melodies appropriate for dancing and were often sung with musical accompaniment. Early ballads, which in English date to before 1600, may also be derived from other medieval sources, including metrical romances, folk tales, and apocryphal gospels about the life of Jesus. Some early ballads from this tradition traveled to North America with the first European settlers. Margaret MacArthur, a folklorist and singer, performed some examples of the earliest known ballads brought to North America in her concert at the Library of Congress in 2005.

"King John and the Bishop of Canterbury," tells a story about King John of England, who ruled from 1199 until 1216. Similarly, "The Death of Queen Jane," sung for the Library's Archive of Folk Song by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1949, recounts the story of the birth of King Edward VI of England, and the death in childbirth of his mother, Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII. Such historical ballads are often assumed to have been composed not long after the events they describe, although usually this is difficult to prove. "Mr. Frog," a folktale ballad about a frog who marries a mouse, which was sung for the Library of Congress by Pearl Nye, derives from a ballad that was first mentioned in 1548, and for which a full text survives from 1611.

The earliest ballads were often composed for the entertainment of the wealthy, but as printing became available, they were spread through printed lyrics, inexpensively published on one side of a piece of paper. Such a sheet was called a broadside or song sheet. Song sheets contained both lyric songs and ballads and were often sold by street vendors at cheap prices. Typically, such sheets contained only the words to the song, with no musical notation. Sometimes, the name of the intended melody was given, and the buyer was assumed to know the tune already. Vendors were frequently also singers who could demonstrate the proper melody to a buyer. Finally, purchasers of broadsides were also free to compose their own tunes, or to fit the song to any existing melody. In this way, the same ballad text often entered the oral tradition with many different tunes attached. The most common singing style was a cappella, perhaps because ordinary people had limited access to musical instruments.

By the late nineteenth century, scholars had begun studying the ballad tradition, both in Britain and America. Harvard Scholar Francis James Child collected early ballads from manuscript sources, and attempted to identify the earliest versions. His collection and documentation's final form was published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. In this influential book, published in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898, Child created a system of numbers for the ballads he collected, which some scholars still use today as an indexing tool. For more on this, see the essay, "Francis James Child and The English and Scottish Popular Ballads."

Detail from Battle of Lake Erie. Percy Moran, 1911. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC4-6893. Ballads that describe historic events, such as "Perry's Victory," can give us insights into how they were viewed or debated by people at the time.

Ballads and Epics

The oldest narrative songs were epics, poems about historical events and legends, some of which are ancient. Epics are typically too long to remember word-for-word, and therefore are composed in performance through a process that involves inserting verbal formulas into a traditional structural framework. They are often chanted, and many of them take days to perform. They are commonly sung without instrumentation or with a simple accompaniment such as a stringed instrument. John Soininen, in this field recording from 1939, provides an excerpt from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala, "Vaka vanha Vainamoinen." Another example is an excerpt from the Croatian Epic of Kosovo, sung in Serbo-Croatian by Peter Boro, who accompanies himself on a stringed instrument called a gusle. The melodies in these songs are very simple, as the focus for the listener was intended to be on the telling of the tale, while the chanting and rhymed lines help the singer to remember the verses.

Unlike epics, ballads are typically remembered word-for-word and sung to fully developed melodies. They became distinct from epics and acquired the features we recognize today during the Middle Ages. The word "ballad" is derived from a Latin root meaning "dance," which has led to the theory that early ballads were used for dancing. Some support for this theory comes from the fact that ballads are sung for dancing in some parts of Europe today, but how old and widespread a tradition this is has never been established with certainty.

Detail from Broadside of Revolutionary War period: Tea Destroyed by Indians. ca. 1773. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-53319 "Broadsides" or "song sheets" such as this were an inexpensive way to market the lyrics to songs, used extensively in the Americas beginning in the Colonial period. This example celebrates the Boston Tea Party.

Broadside Ballads

Alongside the older traditional ballads they helped to spread, printing companies also composed new ballads, frequently employing poets for this purpose. In addition to providing entertainment, such new ballads became a means of spreading news, gossip, and political commentary of the day. Ballads composed for the cheap print market are seen by scholars as a separate class of ballads from the earlier ballad tradition, and are usually referred to as "broadside ballads." The subject matter of these ballads often concerns the lives of common people. They can be reminiscent of stories in the tabloid press today, intending to persuade, shock, or amaze with tales of murders, disasters, and extraordinary events. A broadside ballad frequently known as "The Wild and Wicked Youth" in Britain and Ireland, which tells the story of a young man who becomes a thief to support his wife, and who is caught and executed for his crime, became a widespread folksong in the United States under the title "The Roving Boy." It was sung for the Library of Congress by Justus Begley of Hazard, Kentucky, in 1937.

European Ballads in America

Ballads as sung in North America, while preserving many qualities of the songs as they were sung in Britain and Ireland, also introduced changes through the process of transmission from one singer to another. In some cases the British ballads were made more American as the singers recalled them. For example, Mary Sullivan sings a ballad known in England as "Young Beichan," or "Lord Bateman," which she learned as "Lloyd Bateman" Since the United States does not recognize aristocratic titles, she calls the protagonist a "gentleman" rather than a Lord. In early English versions of this ballad, the young protagonist sets sail from England for the Middle East, where he is captured and held captive for ransom. In Sullivan's version, Bateman sets sail for Turkey from the coast of Georgia in the United States. The version of "The Farmer's Curst Wife" performed by Asa Davis of Vermont strongly reflects the singer's Irish background. A more American-sounding version, with the alternate title "Reason Why That Women Is Wiser Than Men," sung by Lum Wilson "Bill" Jackson of California, shows that the ballad became more thoroughly American in some locations.

Ballads from many countries and languages have arrived in North America with immigrants. Listen to the Finnish murder ballad "Velisurmaaja" sung by John Soininen and notice the melodic qualities that are absent from the example performed by the same singer from the epic, the Kalevala, mentioned above. An outlaw ballad, "Utott-kopott oreg csarda" (The Old Tavern), sung by Mary Gaidos of California, demonstrates the style of ballad brought to the United States by immigrants from Hungary. Welsh coal miners brought the ballad "The Miner's Doom," which was then picked up and sung by many American coal miners, including Daniel Walsh of Pennsylvania, who sang this version.

Eastern European ballads often show a relationship with the epic tradition. For example, old Russian ballads such as "Alaskan Promyshlenniki," performed by John Panamarkoff, is chanted, like an epic, rather than sung. The recording is an excerpt from a long ballad about settlers traveling to Alaska in 1808. "Mogatz Mirza," an Armenian outlaw ballad sung by Ruben J. Baboyan in California in 1939, still uses a simple melody, but allows the singer more opportunities to show off his voice and give emotional expression to the story than in the Russian example.

Some ballads traveled from country to country, translated along the way by polyglot singers. "Six ans sur mer" (Six Years at Sea), sung by Elita, Mary, and Ella Hoffpauir of New Iberia, Louisiana, is a ballad with a widespread international distribution. It is known in Britain, Spain, Scandinavia, and other areas, but is best known in France, where the Hoffpauirs' version surely originated. It concerns a ship lost at sea, in which the sailors are forced to draw lots to see which of them will be eaten; after the decision is made but before it is implemented, they are rescued.

Native American Ballads

Ballads composed in the United States and passed along in tradition tell stories and legends on many topics. While retaining recognizable European roots, they developed in ways that reflect the regional differences in songs of the United States. One of the earliest known ballads composed in the American colonies is "Springfield Mountain," a song about the death by snakebite of Timothy Merrick in Wilbraham, Massachusetts in 1761. The tale was particularly tragic because Merrick was very young, and also because he was to be married the following day. Two versions of this ballad were written down in the nineteenth century, and an account of the events leading to Merrick's death was published in 1914. 1 Detailed information such as this is unusual for songs in oral tradition and helps historians to date the beginnings of what are called "native" American ballads, that is, those composed in North America. As often happens when songs are transmitted orally, this tragic ballad changed and became more lyric, as in this example called "Young Johnny," sung by Winifred Bundy in 1941.

As colonial printers set up their shops in the 1700s, sheets containing song lyrics were printed and marketed in North America. These included British and Irish ballads along with ballads composed in North America. During the American Revolutionary War, ballads about battles and heroes were used to build support among the colonists. An example is a song sheet with the ballad "Britania's Disgrace," and a lyric song, "Lamentation of Lady Washington." [2] "Britania's Disgrace" is a song about the battles to secure strategic ports in New York and New Jersey. Though undated by the publisher, the lyrics of the ballad relate events that took place between 1775 and 1777. 3

Such historical ballads also entered oral tradition, where they were passed on by word of mouth until modern times. "The Bombardment of Bristol," here sung by Sam Hinton, tells of the bombing of Bristol, Rhode Island by a British ship during the American Revolution in 1775. (Bristol was bombed again in 1778.) Though of unknown age, the ballad has a style consistent with it being from the era of the war. Though the town was severely damaged, the song seems to make light of the event. This reflected a "Yankee" attitude of the time that often portrayed the British forces as inept, though Britain was one of the great military powers of the age. Similarly, the U.S. Navy's early victories in the War of 1812 were cast as a humiliating defeat for England by American ballad-writers, as Pearl Nye's version of "Perry's Victory" makes clear. Perhaps it was songs like this that helped American soldiers face the coming battles.

Some ballads seem to have been composed to promote a particular point of view about an historical event. For example, "Custer's Last Charge," sung by Warde Ford, is about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, which was a conflict between the United States Army Seventh Cavalry Regiment and a much larger confederation of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho. The song depicts Commander George Armstrong Custer and the 267 men who died with him as a martyrs and heroes. Because Custer used poor judgment in planning his attack, and because the American Indian tribes were defending lands that they had been given by the United States by treaty, historians today do not view Custer's actions as heroic. But the ballad preserves the attitude of a particular era, which painted the American Indians as the enemy regardless of their treaty rights, a situation worth reflecting upon.

"The Cumberland's Crew," sung by Pearl Nye, and "The Iron Merrimac," sung by Judge Learned Hand, are examples of ballads that offer a biased perspective on historical events. Both concern the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862, during the Civil War. (Hampton Roads is a strategic shipping lane at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, off the shore of Virginia.) "The Cumberland's Crew" tells of conflict between the sloop USS Cumberland and the ironclad Confederate ship CSS Virginia, which had been constructed out of the hull of a raised Union ship, the USS Merrimack (also spelled "Merrimac"). The wooden USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by the ironclad in a devastating show of the power of this new type of warship. But rather than focusing on the defeat, the ballad extols the heroism and patriotism of the sailors in the USS Cumberland. The second day of the battle pitched two ironclads against each other for the first time in history, as the Union's USS Monitor arrived and took on the CSS Virginia (remembered both in song and in news reports of the day as "the Merrimack"). Although this battle of the ironclads is generally regarded as a draw by historians, the ballad "Iron Merrimac," promotes the view of the Union proponents that the battle was a Union victory.

French-American and Spanish-American Ballads

Ballads in the French and Spanish languages, both brought from abroad and composed in America, have a long history in the United States, since large portions of the country were settled by French and Spanish colonists before they became part of the United States or experienced significant Anglophone influence. Marce Lacouture, David Greely, and Kristi Guillory performed French songs of Louisiana at a concert at the Library of Congress in 2010. They learned the second song they perform, "Belle," from a 1934 Library of Congress field recording, of a singer known only as Mr. Bornu. It is a ballad composed in Louisiana, about a man who travels from Louisiana to Texas only to learn his sweetheart has fallen ill back home. He returns to Louisiana and sells his horse Henry to pay for her treatment. (The song occurs at 7:45 of the webcast.) "Isabeau s'y promène," sung by Lacouture and Greely (at 25:00 of the webcast), is a North American version of an old French ballad about a sailor who drowns trying to retrieve a gold ring lost by the girl he is courting. This version is one that Lacouture learned from a ballad singer in New Orleans, Louisiana. The classically trained Canadian singer Eva Gauthier made a commercial recording of the same ballad as an art song, demonstrating that French songs are distributed throughout North America, and also providing a sense of how traditional ballads can be adapted for different musical styles.

Spanish language ballads from Mexico and from states that were once part of Mexico describe the Spanish settlement of North America and the events leading to the formation of modern Mexico. Corridos, as these songs are called in Spanish, were used for dancing and entertainment, and influenced the development of song styles in the West. José Suarez was a blind singer in Brownsville, Texas, who memorized and performed many corridos. Field recordings of some of his repertoire were made by John and Ruby Lomax in 1939 and are available in this presentation. "Corrido villésta de la toma de Matamoros," is a song from the Mexican Revolution describing the siege of Matamoros, which is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, in 1913. This violent event caused Mexican townspeople to flee over the border, thus affecting both countries. "Diecinueve de enero," also called "El Corrido de José Mosqueda" is another corrido from the Mexico-U.S. border. It describes the robbery of a derailed train by a bandit, José Mosqueda, who is credited in the ballad with having caused the train wreck. (The historical facts are not clear.) The outlaws gave their ill-gotten gains to townspeople, probably to evade the law, leading to the gang being treated as heroes, in a legend similar to that of Robin Hood. 4

Jesse James. c1882. Prints and Photographs Division, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-3854. The killing of this outlaw on April 3,1882 became the subject of a ballad.

Ballad Themes: Heroes, Outlaws, Murderers, and Workers

Ballads that originated in the United States often celebrate heroic Americans. "Casey Jones," relates the tragic death of train engineer Luther "Casey" Jones when his train, the Cannonball Express, collided with a stalled freight train in Vaughn, Mississippi in the early hours of April 30, 1900. Jones was the only fatality in the crash, having told his fireman, Simeon T. Webb, to jump before the impact. The ballad created a legend of an engineer who gave his life for the passengers and crew. Some versions name "Vanderbilt's daughter" as a passenger saved by Jones, which is an embellishment to add to his heroism. Some of the historical facts of the crash are disputed, as the Illinois Railroad investigation found that Jones had missed a flagman and held him responsible for the accident, while, for the rest of his life, Simeon Webb testified that no flagman could be seen.

"John Henry," a similar hero ballad from the African American tradition, tells the story of a "steel driver," that is, a worker who drills holes in rocks for dynamite in order to blast a railway tunnel. In the song John Henry pits himself against a steam-powered drilling machine and wins, but dies in the effort. Though many suspect this legend to have its origins in fact, the historical John Henry remains elusive. The enduring appeal of the song is in its depiction of the American worker as heroic and in its valuing humans refusing to bow in the face of industrial progress. It has been particularly important in depicting a heroic black working man devoted to both his job and his family. In general, African American ballads often describe attributes of the ballad's hero, merely alluding to the details of his story, and many versions of "John Henry" follow this pattern. For more on "John Henry," including several sound recordings, see the article about this song.

On the other hand, some ballads celebrated anti-heroes, especially outlaws and criminals. Historically outlaws were sometimes romanticized in the press and popular stories as well as in songs. Ruthless criminals might be treated as "Robin Hoods." Jesse James was a leader of a gang that committed violent robberies of banks and trains in several states in the aftermath of the Civil War. The gang was pursued aggressively by authorities and by 1880 several members of the gang had been captured or killed. James went back to his home state of Missouri, hired brothers Charley and Robert Ford both to assist in robberies and to live in his home as protection for himself and his family. The Ford brothers decided to seek the bounty offered for James, so Robert Ford shot him in his own home. The ballad "Jesse James," here sung by E. A. Briggs, is about betrayal, focusing on James' murder by a trusted friend. A widely distributed ballad, it helped create a folk hero out of an outlaw. On the other hand, "The James and Younger Boys," sung by O.C. "Cotton" Davis in 1941, is told from the point of view of James's accomplice Cole Younger. It presents a more realistic picture of outlawry, and expresses regret for the gang's crimes. As with hero ballads, African Americans had their own outlaw ballads, often known as "bad man ballads," which described, often with ambivalent feelings, violent crimes in defiance of white authority. "Bad Man Ballad," (perhaps titled by the collector) was sung for John Lomax by Willie Rayford in 1939.

Murder was another frequent topic of American ballads. Some murder ballads were based on British originals, such as "Pretty Polly," which was sung for the Library of Congress by Pete Steele of Hamilton, Ohio, in 1938. This song derives from an English ballad known as "The Cruel Ship's Carpenter." But many other murder ballads were composed in America, especially after famous murder cases. An example is "Pearl Bryant," a fictionalized account of the murder of Pearl Bryan in Kentucky in 1896. Murder ballads often appeared on song sheets and broadsides, including such obscure pieces as "The Thirtieth Street murder."

Occupational ballads tell stories related to particular professions, and are often composed by people in those professions. Cowboy ballads originated in the nineteenth century as entertainment on long cattle drives. They might tell a sad story, as "Sam Bass," here sung by E. A. Briggs in 1939, or they might be entertaining and humorous, as is the ballad of the "Zebra Dun," sung by Frank Goodwyn in 1939. (A "zebra dun" is a light brown horse with a black mane and tail and markings such as stripes on the legs, which suggested wildness to many cowboys.) Coal miners also sing ballads, sometimes used as entertainment on work breaks in the mines, or to recount historical mining events. "The Avondale Mine Disaster," sung by John J. Quinn in 1947, tells the story of the fire at Avondale Colliery near Plymouth, Pennsylvania, United States on September 6, 1869, which took the lives of approximately 110 men and boys. The song is more than a recounting of a tragedy, it is a protest song concerning the safety of mines. Logging also gave rise to ballads, which were sung as entertainment in the camps and shanties where lumberjacks lived. Many ballads unrelated to lumbering were sung by loggers, but a good example of a ballad about the lumberman's life is "Colly's-Run-I-O," sung by L. Parker Temple in 1946. The ballad has versions set in Maine, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Conclusion: The Ballad Continues

The demise of ballads has long been predicted, and this is one reason folksong collectors have avidly sought them out, but old ballads continue to be sung and new songs are still written that hark back to the ballads of earlier times. The folksong revival of the 1940s, and the later revival of the 1950s through the 1970s, led to new interest in narrative songs. Singers such as Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez not only sang old ballads, but wrote some of their own. This movement entered the mainstream in the late 1950s, when singers performed ballads with both acoustic and electric arrangements. Lloyd Price's 1958 recording of the African American ballad "Stagger Lee" was just one version of this song to become a rhythm and blues hit. The Kingston Trio's 1958 recording of the traditional ballad "Tom Dooley" went to number one on the charts and won a Grammy award in the "country and western" category. It was based on this 1940 Library of Congress field recording of Frank Proffitt. On his 1967 album "John Wesley Harding," Bob Dylan intended to invoke ballads of the frontier, while singing narrative songs in his own style. In the 1970s the late Jim Croce was famous for his unique style of urban narrative songs, such as "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," and "Rapid Roy," which blended African American and Anglo ballad styles. Ballads continue to be of interest to songwriters such as Paul Simon, who began his career playing traditional ballads such as "Scarborough Fair" and "Barbara Allan," and who has written many narrative songs in his long career, from "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" (1972) to "The Teacher" (2000). Both rap and hip-hop music have drawn heavily on ballad-style storytelling, while modern Mexican and Mexican-American popular songs draw deeply on the corrido tradition. Whether songwriters compose new songs to resemble earlier forms of balladry or cloak their narratives in the styles of current popular music, they compose them for an American public still eager to hear songs that tell stories.


  1. Peck, Chauncey E., 1914. The History of Wilbraham, Massachusetts. Published by Wilbraham, Massachusetts. Two versions of the song appear in this history. The first, titled "The Elegy of the Young Man Bitten by a Rattlesnake," found on page 81 is the most complete known version of the ballad, which the author reprints from an 1886 source. The lyric version, on page 83, with the first line "On Springfield Mountain there did dwell..." more closely resembles the recording in the example provided. This book is available online from various sources.[Return to text]
  2. A two page song sheet with the lyrics of several songs includes a related ballad from the British point of view on the American Revolution titled "General Gage." Instead of boasting victory, this song laments defeat, but in other ways the song parallels "Britania's Disgrace." For example, both songs say that colonial soldiers "like grasshoppers rise," and the last four verses of both songs describe the events of the battles of the New York and New Jersey Campaign, although General Gage was not present at these battles. These similarities demonstrate that soldiers on each side in the conflict were often aware of the songs the other were singing, and wrote answers to them. [Return to text]
  3. Although published sheet music largely replaced song sheets by the twentieth century, the printing of these continued. Today we may download lyrics from the internet, and print these out for gatherings. Folk songs, labor union anthems, protest songs, and hymns may be printed on single sheets for singing sessions. So, in a sense, this means of transmitting traditional song lyrics continues. [Return to text]
  4. The title of this corrido written down by the collectors, "La batalla del ojo de agua," is incorrect, as it is the title of a different ballad. An article about this corrido, "'El Corrido de José Mosqueda' as an Example of Pattern in the Ballad," was published by folklorist Américo Paredes in Western Folklore (Vol. 17, No. 3, Jul., 1958, pp. 154-162). It provides a full text of this performance with a translation into English, along with analysis of the song. [Return to text]