Six Characteristics of a Folk Ballad

By Henri Bauholz ; Updated September 15, 2017
Sometimes a folk ballad is accompanied by an ukelele.

The word "ballad" derives from the French term, ballade, which is defined as a dancing song. Before that, ballad can be traced to the French troubadours, who used the word to describe a poem for a dance. Today, the ballad is a popular folk song more known for storytelling and musical accompaniment than dancing. In 1958, the Kingston Trio recorded one of the most popular ballads ever, "The Ballad of Tom Dooley."

Modern Development

By the 18th century, ballads had developed as "a simple narrative poem, often of folk origin, bearing romantic and sentimental character, composed in short stanzas.” Many ballads did not have a single author, but instead originated from a common origin. Later on, noted 18th and 19th century writers such as Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth wrote lyrical ballad-like poems.

The "Ballad of Tom Dooley" was written sometime in the late 1800s and was based on real events.

Stanza

Ballad poems are often composed in blocks of words, known as a stanza. Each stanza has four lines. This type of stanza is known as a quatrain. "The Ballad of Tom Dooley" follows this format, for each verse and the chorus consist of a quatrain. Here is the first verse that follows the opening chorus.

I met her on the mountain, And there I took her life. Met her on the mountain, Stabbed her with my knife.

Rhyme

In the verse of a traditional ballad, the last word in the second and fourth line usually rhyme. These stanzas frequently use metered lines, but the practice is not universal. Also. the first and third lines often end in the same word. Here is another verse with its recurring rhyming scheme, and this stanza uses the same word to end the first and third lines.

This time tomorrow, Reckon where I'd be -- Hadn't been for Grayson, I'd been in Tennessee.

The chorus usually has the same rhyming pattern as the verses.

Repeating the Chorus

A refrain or chorus is simply a quatrain that is repeated after every stanza. The verbal message carries a lot of weight within the tale, as it is repeated many times to link the whole story together. The refrain in Tom Dooley opens the song and then alternates with the various verses for the remainder of the song. The solemn tone of the chorus helped make the Kingston Trio version of this classic ballad a very popular American hit song that sold 6 million copies..

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Hang down your head and cry. Hang down your head, Tom Dooley. Poor boy, you're bound to die.

Meter Variation

Ballads often vary meters in each quatrain. Meter is a function of the number of syllables in a line; if you count the syllables in each stanza you will see that there is some variation in meter among the examples given above.

Musical Variation

The musical melody and accompaniment for the chorus usually stays the same for every refrain. However, as seen with the meter, musical melody may change slightly from verse to verse. These are subtle changes that influence the mood of the ballad.

About the Author

Henri Bauholz is a professional writer covering a variety of topics, including hiking, camping, foreign travel and nature. He has written travel articles for several online publications and his travels have taken him all over the world, from Mexico to Latin America and across the Atlantic to Europe.