What’s a ballad? The word might make you think of sad songs about leaving your true love with only a suitcase and your guitar, but ballads are actually some of the oldest forms of poetry and trace back to the Middle Ages. So get ready for some songs and tales as we learn about ballads!
[This post contains Amazon affiliate links. When you click on those links to make purchases,
Poetry Teatime receives compensation at no extra cost to you. Thank you!]
A ballad is a type of formal poetry that was originally recited or sung by minstrels in courts across Europe during the Middle Ages and passed down for centuries before being written down. Minstrels (also called bards) would memorize a vast number of songs, which they would retell and adapt to suit different occasions and audiences.
Because ballads have been sung by so many different people in different places, they vary widely in their form and style. For example…
- Scottish ballads often involve supernatural elements like the Fairy Kingdom.
- In England, ballads honoring Robin Hood became extremely popular in the late 1700s.
- There was even a type of ballad called “broadside ballads,” popular throughout the 1600s, that commented on news events of the day!
While ballads can be about any subject, they always tell a story, especially about a famous person or a love story. They are also often sad, although they can be heroic, tragic, or comic as well.
Ballads today are usually arranged in stanzas of four lines each, with a rhyme scheme of either ABAB or ABCB and an iambic rhythm (da-DA, da-DA).
Ballads often include a repeated stanza, called a refrain, after every verse, similar to a chorus in a song. This refrain is often the main idea of the ballad or the most important part of the story, so it’s a good idea to pay close attention to it!
Writing a Ballad
During today’s teatime, while you read a few ballads, why not try to write your own?
- Choose your subject: Maybe you want to write about your favorite superhero character. Perhaps you think your trip to the grocery store to buy cereal deserves to be immortalized. Pick something funny, grand, or striking, as long as you love it!
- Decide on a key phrase: What do you want the refrain to be?
- What’s the most important moment in your story?
- What is your main character feeling as they approach a key part of their quest?
- What do you want your audience to feel as they listen?
- Think about rhythm and rhyme: Ballads have a strong beat and rhyme scheme. Try to fit your story into the pattern of a ballad! If you’re having trouble coming up with rhymes, check out RhymeZone.
- Tell the story: This is the main part of your ballad. You can have different people make up new verses about what happens in the story, or tell the whole story yourself.
- Pick a style: Think about how you’d like your ballad to be performed. Do you want to set it to music? Play guitar or banjo while you recite? Or just tell the story as a poem? Time to decide and get ready to perform!
- Ready, set, go!: Once you’ve drafted and tweaked your ballad, it’s time to get in front of an audience! You’ll be stepping into the shoes of ancient bards and adding your own ballad to history.
Check out these ballads in both poetry and song for some real-life inspiration. You can find even more ballads in collections of these poets' work, some of which are recommended below.
- Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border by Sir Walter Scott (on Amazon and on Gutenberg)
- “Robin Hood, An Outlaw” by James Henry Leigh Hunt
- “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe and Poetry for Young People: Edgar Allan Poe
- “The Lady of Shalott” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his Selected Poems
- “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Coleridge and Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads