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You probably won’t hear them on your favorite rock station, but folk ballads have been sung for thousands of years. Come hear about this ‘popular’ musical tradition and discover some of the most famous songs that belong to it.

The Original Pop Music: Folk Ballad Defined

If you grew up in the 80’s (or are a fan of the decade’s music), you’re probably familiar with the ‘power ballads’ that were belted out by big-haired frontmen and were a staple of pop and rock music at the time.

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Aside from their characteristically slower tempos, though, there’s not much in common between these songs and their traditional predecessors, folk ballads. These orally transmitted tales told through song have been around for millennia and represent some of the earliest examples of vocal music.Like the epic poems of the ancient Mediterranean (i.e. The Odyssey), folk ballads are a type of folk song that heavily depended on myths and other stories that were circulated orally by pre-literate societies. In these typically rural cultures, families and other small groups of people found it easy to pass on their stories in the form of songs set to the customary meters and music of the area.

Folk ballads took the musical element a step farther than epics or many other folk songs, though. Derived from the Latin word ballare (‘to dance’), ‘ballads’ were poetic tales intended not only to be accompanied by music, but also to themselves accompany the area’s favorite dances.

In this type of folk ballad performance from the Faroe Islands, all the dancers sing together and use their voices as the only instrument!
Faroese folk ballad performance

As people danced to the familiar rhythms – with their movements sometimes reflecting the story’s action – they would also be entertained with the generally brief and often tragic tales that folk ballads tend to tell. These stories frequently involve kings and knights, but they also quite often feature everyday people in everyday (and commonly unfortunate) situations.

These people can be portrayed as either saints or outlaws, but either way their actions are regularly interpreted as heroic.Thousands of folk ballads have been recorded through the efforts of folk literature – a genre dedicated to preserving these and similar oral traditions. Many of them are no longer sung; however, some of them (including a couple of the examples below) can still be heard today!

Examples of Folk Ballads

Robin Hood and the Monk

You’ve probably never heard them sung before, but there are several folk ballads like this one devoted to the legend of Robin Hood. We know him for ‘stealing from the rich to give to the poor,’ and this combination of saintly and sinful attributes has been a prominent feature of the Robin Hood ballads since they were first performed in Britain as early as the 14th century.In Robin Hood and the Monk, the pious Robin goes to the church to pray, but he runs into a monk whom he had previously stolen from. Robin is captured and turned over to the authorities (the king’s men), but his accomplice Little John runs between the king and monk, making them believe everything is settled. The king releases Robin and later finds out he’s been duped, but he lets the men go to reward their cleverness.

Tim Finnegan’s Wake

Just across the sea from Britain, we find another rich and enduring folk music tradition in the Irish folk ballads like Tim Finnegan’s Wake. Of course, Robin’s run-in with the monk was unfortunate, but the account ends on a better note with his escape from custody. This Irish ballad from the mid-19th century involves similar turns of fortune as it follows the brief tale of a brick-carrier who was ‘born with a love of liquor.’While climbing a ladder in a drunken daze, Tim falls to the ground and is presumed dead. At his wake, mourners are passing around the whiskey when some splashes on him and brings him back to consciousness. Like many other later folk ballads, Finnegan’s Wake features a refrain – verse lines that are repeated at regular intervals. This particular refrain lets dancers know that this song is one of the rare humorous ballads that are meant purely for fun.

The ballad of Tim Finnegan has been sung and recorded by several modern artists, including the popular Celtic punk band Dropkick Murphys on their album Do or Die (above).
Do or Die album cover

The Dying Cowboy

Yet another vibrant folk ballad tradition exists in America, especially in the western regions of the country.

The Dying Cowboy has long been considered the best and most famous example of this heritage. Originally adapted from a sailor’s ballad in the early 19th century, this song tells of a young cowhand’s tragic last moments on the desolate prairie.Throughout the song, the dying cowboy begs the others not to bury him alone out in vast wastes apart from other departed loved ones and those who would mourn his passing. Sadly, however, the song ends with the cowboy’s burial on the prairie against his dying wishes.

This ballad of course commemorates all those who lost their lives to the harsh conditions of the early American West and is sometimes more well-known by its refrain: ‘Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.’

Many modern artists – including country legend, Johnny Cash (above) – have recorded versions of The Dying Cowboy.
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