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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
GUEST,Chicken Charlie Folklore: What is a ballad? (39) RE: Folklore: What is a ballad? 08 Mar 08


IMO, a ballad tells a story, but there's more.

Because a story is being told, the point of view (POV) is objective; it is outside the teller. Jesse James robbed some banks and Robert Ford killed him; those are the facts, ma'm, and I'm going to at most gently imply how I think you should feel about them. George Alley died trying to slow his locomotive down, so when it hit the rockslide, the impact would be less and passengers/crew would not be injured/killed. Those are the facts, and I'm not going to hit you over the head with the emotional reaction.

Now the flip side of a ballad (a non-ballad, if you will) is a lyric. A lyric (not word-set) is a short poem (set to music), dealing with an ephemeral emotional state--usually love or lust, wherever your personal deliniation between those two is--or anger, grief, whatever. If I sing a good lyric, there won't be a dry eye in the house, and I still can see blue velvet through my tears. A lyric is a subjective form. I feel ... I want ... I love ... I need...

Ballads reinforce tribal solidarity and teach moral lessons.

There's many a man with a face young and fair,
Who starts out in life with a chance to be square.
Just like poor Billie they wander astray--
They'll all lose their lives in the very same way.

So watch it, kid. But you're a brave engineer like Charlie Snyder or George Alley, or even Casey Jones, and you buy the farm trying to minimize the "collateral damage" of a wreck, then we, your fellow tribespersons, will write songs about you and be sure everybody knows what a noble thing you did. You could have just said 'to hell with it' and jumped. You don't get that kind of message from "Delta Dawn."

Finally, lyrics these days tend to get copyrighted, and the infringement police come knock you down if you do a George Harrison and use somebody else's. Sure, you can write a ballad today, but most of them coincidentally are old enough to be public domain. It's possible to "cover" a lyric and give it a new interpretation. That happens now and then. It's easier, and far more common, IMO, for people to reinterpret ballads. Folk singing, to me, is like the blues in that respect; both use "innovation within limits."

One old fogey's opinion--

Chicken Charlie
Chicken Charlies' California Minstrels


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