Writing a Ballad.

The Ballad.

If you listen to popular music of almost any genre then you probably listen to songs in ballad form on a daily basis, as most pop songs are in ballad form, and in fact most rap songs are in ballad form too––as are hymns, county music, and folk music.
This is perhaps the most well-known of all pop ballads,  The House of the Rising Sun:

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
Dear God, I know I was one.

My mother was a tailor
She sewed my new blue jeans
And my father was a gamblin’ man
Way down in New Orleans.

And the only thing a gambler needs
Is a suitcase in the trunk
And the only time he’s satisfied
Is when he’s on a drunk.

Oh mother, tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Don’t spend your life in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun.

I got one foot on the platform
And another on the train
And I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain.

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
Dear God, I know I was one
Dear God, I know I was the one.

The House of the Rising Sun has all the key elements of a ballad.
1: Each line is 4 beats.
2: Each verse is 4 lines.
3: There are end rhymes at the end of the 2nd and 4th line.
4: The song tells a story.
5: The story is a warning.

In pop music the expression ballad is sometimes used to refer to a sentimental love song, but ballad form is a traditional poetic form. To be sure, sentimental love songs are in ballad form, but then so are furiously paced punk songs.
This is
Julie’s Working for the Drug Squad, by the Clash.

It’s lucy in the sky and all kinds of apple pie
she giggles at the screen ‘cos it looks so green
there’s carpets on the pavements
and feathers in her eye
but sooner or later, her new friends will realise
that Julie’s been working for the drug squad…

Once again a story and a warning. Well, okay. The Clash are not exactly Lennon and McCartney, but it’s easy to see why ballad form is used for songs. Most songs are in 4/4 time, which means there are 4 beats to a bar, and four bars to a line (stave).
Ballad form has four beats (which are known as feet in poetry) to a line, and usually four lines to a verse.
Which came first? The poem or the song? It’s probable that ballad form poetry is based on song, especially folk music and hymns, which preceded popular music.

Of course, we can easily find much better poets than the Clash in the field of pop music, and where better to look than the golden age of singer songwriters, which was the late 1960’s to the mid 1970’s, and in my opinion the greatest songwriter of that era was Joni Mitchell––who was in many respects the first real female singer songwriter.
There was a handful of great female singer-songwriters during that era, such as Carole King, Laura Nyro, and Janis Joplin, but Joni Mitchell was the first to really try to show her audience what is was like to be a woman at that time––or at any time.
This is a snippet from one of her early songs: Circle Game.

Verse 1
Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

Verse 2
Then the child moved ten times round the seasons

Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like, when you’re older, must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams


Verse 3
Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now

Cartwheels turn to car wheels through the town
And they tell him,
Take your time, it won’t be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down


Verse 4
So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
There’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

(Here is a link to a video:

If you watch the video it will be easier to follow my explanation of the meter.

Ballads stanzas or verses are usually 4 lines.
The first and third line have 4 beats, and the second and fourth line have 3 beats.
The rhyming scheme is usually ABXB or ABAB.

Let’s look again at the first stanza of The Circle Game.

Yesterday a child came out to wonder (3 beats with a caesura)
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar (3 beats period)
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder (3 beats with a caesura)
And tearful at the falling of a star (3 beats period)

Note end rhymes (wonder-thunder/ jar-star), so the rhyming scheme here is ABAB.

We can go back a couple of decades to the legendary African American Jazz vocalist, Billie Holliday. This is a song she wrote in around 1949.

God Bless the Child.

Them that’s got shall get
Them that’s not shall lose
So the Bible said
And it still is news

Mama may have,
Papa may have

But God bless the child that’s got his own
That’s got his own.

Here is an actual Poem in ballad form:

Ballad of the Triangle Fire

By Ruth Rubin

In the heart of New York City, near Washington Square
In nineteen eleven, March winds were cold and bare.
A fire broke out in a building ten stories high,
And a hundred and forty-six young girls in those flames did die.

On the top floor of that building, ten stories in the air
These young girls were working in an old sweatshop there;
They were sewing shirtwaists for a very low wage.
So tired and pale and worn-out! They were at a tender age.

The sweatshop was a stuffy room with but a single door;
The windows they were gray with dust from off that dirty floor;
There were no comforts, no fresh air, no light to sew thereby,
And the girls, they toiled from early morn till darkness filled the sky.

Then on that fateful day – dear God, most terrible of days!
When that fire broke out, it grew into a mighty blaze.
In that firetrap way up there with but a single door,
So many innocent working girls burned, to live no more!

A hundred thousand mourners, they followed those sad biers.
The streets were filled with people weeping bitter tears.
Poets, writers everywhere described that awful pyre,
When those young girls were trapped to die in the Triangle Fire.

Here’s another by Edna St Vincent Millais, who was from Maine.


Edna St. Vincent Millay – 1892-1950

I’ll keep a little tavern
Below the high hill’s crest,

Wherein all grey-eyed people
   May set them down and rest.

There shall be plates a-plenty,
   And mugs to melt the chill
Of all the grey-eyed people
   Who happen up the hill.

There sound will sleep the traveller,
   And dream his journey’s end,
But I will rouse at midnight
   The falling fire to tend.

Aye, ’tis a curious fancy—
   But all the good I know
Was taught me out of two grey eyes
   A long time ago.

When I am dead, my dearest

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

A Musical Instrument

WHAT was he doing, the great god Pan,
    Down in the reeds by the river ?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat,
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
    With the dragon-fly on the river.
He tore out a reed, the great god Pan,
    From the deep cool bed of the river :
The limpid water turbidly ran,
And the broken lilies a-dying lay,
And the dragon-fly had fled away,
    Ere he brought it out of the river.
High on the shore sate the great god Pan,
    While turbidly flowed the river ;
And hacked and hewed as a great god can,
With his hard bleak steel at the patient reed,
Till there was not a sign of a leaf indeed
    To prove it fresh from the river.
He cut it short, did the great god Pan,
    (How tall it stood in the river !)
Then drew the pith, like the heart of a man,
Steadily from the outside ring,
And notched the poor dry empty thing
    In holes, as he sate by the river.
This is the way,’ laughed the great god Pan,
    Laughed while he sate by the river,)
The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed.’
Then, dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
    He blew in power by the river.
Sweet, sweet, sweet, O Pan !
    Piercing sweet by the river !
Blinding sweet, O great god Pan !
The sun on the hill forgot to die,
And the lilies revived, and the dragon-fly
    Came back to dream on the river.
Yet half a beast is the great god Pan,
    To laugh as he sits by the river,
Making a poet out of a man :
The true gods sigh for the cost and pain, —
For the reed which grows nevermore again
    As a reed with the reeds in the river.

Lullaby For the Cat

by Elizabeth Bishop.
Minnow, go to sleep and dream,
Close your great big eyes;
Round your bed Events prepare
The pleasantest surprise.

Darling Minnow, drop that frown,
Just cooperate,
Not a kitten shall be drowned
In the Marxist State.

Joy and Love will both be yours,
Minnow, don’t be glum.
Happy days are coming soon —
Sleep, and let them come…

The Walrus and the Carpenter

“The sun was shining on the sea,
      Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
      The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
      The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
      Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
      After the day was done —
“It’s very rude of him,” she said,
      “To come and spoil the fun.”

The sea was wet as wet could be,
      The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
      No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead —
      There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
      Such quantities of sand:
If this were only cleared away,’
      They said, it would be grand!’

If seven maids with seven mops
      Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
      That they could get it clear?’
I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
      And shed a bitter tear.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!’
      The Walrus did beseech.
A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
      Along the briny beach:
We cannot do with more than four,
      To give a hand to each.’

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
      But never a word he said:
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
      And shook his heavy head —
Meaning to say he did not choose
      To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
      All eager for the treat:
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
      Their shoes were clean and neat —
And this was odd, because, you know,
      They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
      And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
      And more, and more, and more —
All hopping through the frothy waves,
      And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
      Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
      Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
      And waited in a row.

The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
      To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax —
      Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
      And whether pigs have wings.’

But wait a bit,’ the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!’
No hurry!’ said the Carpenter.
      They thanked him much for that.

A loaf of bread,’ the Walrus said,
      Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed.’

But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
      Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
      A dismal thing to do!’
The night is fine,’ the Walrus said.
      Do you admire the view?

It was so kind of you to come!
      And you are very nice!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
      Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf —
      I’ve had to ask you twice!’

It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
      To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
      And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
      The butter’s spread too thick!’

I weep for you,’ the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize.’
With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,
      You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
      But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They’d eaten every one.”

Assignment: Sea Shanties.
Sea shanties are a particular kind of ballad that originated on American merchant ships during the days of sail. Before mechanization sailors would have to team up to (for example: raise an anchor) perform exhausting physical labor. The songs were intended to help the seamen keep time, and keep working.
Traditionally the songs worked in a call and response pattern. The foreman would sing the call, usually the first and third line of each verse, and the crew would sing the response (usually the second and fourth lines).
This is how it works in Blow the Man Down.
Foreman: As I was a walking down Paradise Street
Crew: Way hey blow the man down
Foreman: A pretty young damsel I chanced for to meet.
Crew: Give me some time to blow the man down!
So, your assignment is to write a sea shanty with a call and response. You can write an actual song of the sea, but if you have little or no experience of sailing and boats, you should write a sea shanty about something else.
Here are some examples of things you could write about:
Driving to school
Cooking breakfast
Being kept on hold on the phone.

Trying to choose a Netflix Movie

The key here is the call and response, and my real goal with this exercise is to get you thinking musically, with rhythm and cadence. In fact what you write could in fact be nonsensical as long as you have the roll and the flow of language.
Here is Blow the Man Down in full. Your shanty can be much shorter if you like: 100-200 words. Just enough to give a flavor.
As I was a walking down Paradise Street
Way hey blow the man down
A pretty young damsel I chanced for to meet.

She was round in the counter and bluff in the bow,
Way hey blow the man down
So I took in all sail and cried, “Way enough now.”
Give me some time to blow the man down!

I hailed her in English, she answered me clear,
Way hey blow the man down
“I’m from the Black Arrow bound to the Shakespeare.”
Give me some time to blow the man down!

And so on, in the same style.

So I tailed her my flipper and took her in tow
And yardarm to yardarm away we did go.

But as we were going she said unto me
There’s a spanking full-rigger just ready for sea.

That spanking full-rigger to New York was bound;
She was very well manned and very well found.

And as soon as that packet was out on the sea,
`Twas devilish hard treatment of every degree.

But as soon as that packet was clear of the bar
The mate knocked me down with the end of a spar.

It’s starboard and larboard on deck you will sprawl
For Kicking Jack Williams commands the Black Ball.

So I give you fair warning before we belay,
Don’t ever take heed of what pretty girls say.

A bonnie good mate and a captain too,
A bonnie good ship and a bonnie good crew,[1]

Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down;
Blow the man down, bullies, pull him around.

Blow the man down, you darlings, lie down,
Blow the man down for fair London town.

When the Black Baller is ready for sea,
That is the time that you see such a spree.

There’s tinkers, and tailors, and soldiers, and all,
They all ship for sailors on board the Black Ball.