Folklore is a broad subject that encompasses a variety of subjects. Ballads are one of those subjects. Defining a ballad is rather easy - a ballad is a traditional oral story that has been turned into a song.
In American society today, we depend on the written word and historical texts to provide us with cultural context and help us remember stories.
Societies that operated orally used different techniques in order to pass their knowledge and their stories down to future generations. While storytelling was a favored pastime, ballads took storytelling a step further.
Ballads not only set stories to songs but also those songs would accompany traditional dances. The pairing of story, song, and dance created a folk tradition that allowed the memory of a story to last for generations without any need to ever set pen to paper.
The word ballad comes from the Latin ballare, which means “to dance.” The traditional songs accompanied stories about Kings, princes, royalty, political figures, and heroes. The ballads may have been about past heroes but were often focused on the current day.
Ballads often depicted common people who found themselves faced by complex and difficult situations with no easy answers. The decisions the people made elevated their status to that of hero or diminished their status to that of vagabond or outlaw. Even when branded an outlaw, people featured in ballads grew in fame - or infamy.
The ballad tradition began with the wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages. The minstrels would wander from town to town, collecting stories of heroes and outlaws, religious tales, legends, and supernatural happenings that they would then refasten into ballads. As they traveled, they would often trade one ballad for another, and many versions of the same story would end up in circulation.
When the 16th century rolled around, the printing press was introduced. At its introduction, minstrels switched from mastering the ballad form of storytelling and started relying on print instead. Once newspapers began circulating news, the art of ballads slowly started to die out.
In order to preserve the dying art of the folk ballad, scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries began to collect the stories and write them down for future generations. The printing press changed the way we understand the past, and it changed the way we remember the stories of our ancestors and of everyday occurrences.
But ballads aren't entirely lost to us. There are folk ballads that still thrive in the mountain regions of North Carolina. The ballad of Tom Dooley, a man from Wilkes County who murdered his wife, is an example of a folk ballad where things go awry.
In addition to folk ballads, we also have metal power ballads. One of the most iconic is Aerosmith's “Dream On.” As for which song was the first power metal ballad and which metal band was the first to sing one, that is a heavily debated topic today.
Other popular metal power ballads include Metallica's “Turn the Page,” Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You,” and Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.”
Whether we're referring to folk ballads or power ballads, one thing remains the same - both types of ballads tell powerful stories. And those stories live on in our memories, as all good stories do.