Perhaps the oldest form of poetry in most languages, the art of story-telling in rhyme and meter, has staying power like little else in literary history. Recording historical events, myths, and everyday happenings—comic, tragic, or somewhere in between—the ballad has traditionally been sung and accompanied by (frequently a stringed) musical instrument. Yet many unforgettable tales in rhyme and meter stand sufficiently alone on paper, begging to be read aloud.
My English literature background is rich with balladry beginning with that bloody saga of Good vs. Evil, Beowulf. In the 1990s, when we lived in a home with a vaulted wood paneled ceiling we hung the heads of a Javelina pig and a pronghorn antelope—both hunted, bagged, and bequeathed to me by my father. As I viewed the mounted heads, I experienced a wash of Beowulf Medieval atmosphere; I just had to get out an old textbook and read parts of that gory drama in the ancestral hall.
Whereas some of the characters in the ballad had grown fuzzy or obscure in my head over decades, the mood and setting were indelible. Mood and atmosphere are created by music, with or without words.
English literature is replete with balladry. Some beloveds probably known to most aficionados of poetry are Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci and Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. Add The Rime of he Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge and haunting works by America’s own Edgar Allan Poe (examples: Annabel Lee and The Raven) and you have a start toward Balladry 101. The canon is endless.
The tradition of story-telling via ballads set to music was big in the 1960s, with the popularity of folk music and wrung-out war-protests. This music continued into the 1970s. But since then, except in isolated parts of the country where (happily) folk music is inherent to the local culture, the ballad seems to have dropped through the floor—as if someone played a foul trick by suddenly opening up a hidden trapdoor on the floor of a stage, and absconding with a lot of life-quality in the process.
Now fakey-flashing lights, screaming, throbbing, gyrating about in indecent attire, and the glorifying of oblivion—all personified by The Coarse and Obnoxious (as well as The Just Plain Weird!) have supplanted the age-old entertainment mode of telling and re-telling the human story, both epic and everyday, in a format that implants one’s heart and mind forever. As a society, we have lost the power of the ballad—and the loss is tragic beyond definition!
The stage lights went out and the metaphorical trapdoor opened up shortly after the immense popularity of what I believe to be one of the most significant ballads in contemporary times: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot—a multi-gifted composer and troubadour. With the obvious exception of fictional last minute commentary on the ship, Lightfoot documented the tragedy with careful selection of factual information.
The ballad triggered an inquisitive spirit in me, and in recent years I’ve read everything I could get my hands on concerning the Fitzgerald (pictured above in all its original glory.) As far as I know, there is still a question: Did the ship hit an uncharted shoal which jarred the hatches loose, or had they been improperly secured? God knows.
Shipwrecks are among history’s most horrific events. I have a penchant for reading about peril on high water, and oddly enough I don’t even like to be tossed about on a small inland lake in a sailboat.
Yes, I do swim and I love water. Canoes and rowboats are wonderful! Motors are okay, too. But flailing in the wind? No thank you—only in a book. I have read about many ship disasters, including the Titanic which was massive in scope and devastation compared to the Fitz. So why is the Edmund Fitzgerald foremost in my head?
Maybe because it happened in my recent lifetime, and less than three hundred miles from home. Or even more likely, because Gordon Lightfoot wrote and performed an unforgettable song about the Fitz. It’s all about The Power of the Ballad.
Margaret L. Been — April 23, 2016
Note: Over decades of serious application to the art of poetry I have written many lyrical, philosophy-of-life pieces. Ten years ago I decided to try writing a ballad, and I did exactly that.
The ballad is titled: The Summer of Horses, and it is kind of a metaphorical-epiphany thing. I was pleased with the effort, and the ballad won 1st Honorable Mention in the 2006 Wisconsin Writers’ Association Annual Jade Ring Contest.
God willing, and the creeks don’t rise, AND providing the days do not suddenly go berserk and hit 70-80° F., I will post The Summer of Horses on this site before National Poetry Month morphs into the Merry Month of May.
But please don’t hold your breath!