I’m cruising down a long stretch of highway in flat Ohio, cool breeze rushing in the rolled-down windows, the radio cranked up high. Yes, and I’m tapping the steering wheel, driving mile after mile by myself, free to choose CD or Oldies, fresh air or conditioned, stop now or keep going, as another twenty songs blast me back to the past.
Don McLean comes on, and I crank the volume even louder:
We were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie,
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry….
Then it’s Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen, ” her sad refrain a part of my past, and Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle, ” a melancholy reminder of missed opportunities with children.
Whether it’s Buddy Holly’s death and the sixties that followed, teenage angst, or a warning to grab what time you can with children while they’re young, there’s something about the ballad that reels us in.
And the ballad has been reeling people in for a long time. Springsteen or Swinburne: the beat keeps repeating. “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” (Jim Croce) or Rudolph Reed (Gwendolyn Brooks): violence and revenge consume.
Begun as a type of medieval folk tale and sung by both illiterate workers and courtly troubadours, the ballad has made a musical and literary splash in just about every country and century. And why not? With its often haunting choruses and landscape of memory and loss, the form feeds our need for story and rhythm.
Traditionally written in rhyming quatrains of abcb, aabb, abba, or abab with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (four beats of unstressed/stressed syllables) and iambic trimeter (three beats of unstressed/stressed syllables), the ballad also isn’t afraid of variations.
Give it a whirl. You can come up with your own story or try taking one from the headlines. Consider, for example, the popular ballad of Frankie and Johnnie, most often credited to the prolific author (ahem) Anonymous. Variations of this poem have been sung by such greats as Bob Dylan, Lena Horne, and Elvis Presley. The tragic tale, of course, also has frequently graced the stage and silver screen. Based on an actual murder (or two), the poem begins like this:
Frankie and Johnnie were lovers,
O, my Gawd, how they could love,
They swore to be true to each other,
As true as the stars above;
He was her man, but he done her wrong.
and ends like this:
The Sheriff took Frankie to the gallows,
Hung her until she died,
They hung her for killing Johnnie,
And the undertaker waited outside;
She killed her man, ’cause he done her wrong.
You’ll notice that the author uses an abab rhyme scheme (with some slant, or inexact, rhyme), plus a refrain with slight variations.
So, grab that black-and-white newsprint and flip through the morning news. Or listen to ten minutes of a TV or radio talk show. Any human-interest pieces grab your attention?
If not, try this exercise: Last month, a friend told me about a dog and owner who were reunited. Apparently, the dog was so excited to see the owner that the pooch fainted! By now, you may even have seen the video. Put that in a refrain. Once you have it, go back and fill in the story.
Want to retell in ballad form the story of Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, or Rosa Parks? Pick someone who interests you, find out as much as you can about that individual, then zoom in on a crucial event or characteristic of her or his life. See what happens.
If you prefer to start your poetic storyline from scratch, remember that ballads can use plenty of dialogue and action to create, among other things, a romping adventure, a mysterious tale, or a lament of lost love. Think Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ” and Poe’s “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”
Got a story in mind? A genre you like? (Dare you to try a sci-fi ballad!) Re-read Langston Hughes, W. B. Yeats, and Christina Rossetti, then use rhyme and repetition to lure your reader into a drama. Keep the language simple and the plot moving. If you like, choose a musical refrain that captures the tension in the tale.
With all that in mind, you’re on your way. Just don’t forget your most important ballad-producing ingredient:
Crank up the radio and listen.
Featured photo by Jenny Downing, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Marjorie Maddox, director of creative writing and professor of English at Lock Haven University and author of Local News from Someplace Else and Perpendicular As I.