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6.3: Anglo American Ballads

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    Ballads are basically folk songs that tell stories through the introduction of characters in a specific situation, the building up of dramatic tension, and the resolution of that tension. Ballads were originally brought to America by British, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish immigrants, many of whom eventually settled in the mountainous regions of the American south.

    The melodies of Anglo American ballads are simple, often built around archaic sounding pentatonic (five note) and hexatonic (six-tone) scales that may feature large jumps or gaps between notes. Songs are traditionally sung a cappella in a free meter style, or with simple guitar or banjo accompaniment. The voice is delivered in a high, tense, nasal style.

    Ballads are most often set in four line stanzas, with the second and fourth line

    I was born in West Virginia,
    among the beautiful hills.
    And the memory of my childhood,
    lies deep within me still.

    While older British and Scottish ballads found in the American South dealt with themes of
    ancient kings, queens, and magical happenings in faraway places, the 18th- and 19th -century
    ballads that developed in America tell stories of everyday folk involved in everyday life events,
    usually set in the present or recent past. Sentimental and tragic love stories, often involving
    violence and death, were common. Many American ballads express strong moral sentiments,
    warning listeners about the consequences of irresponsible behavior:

    I courted a fair maiden,
    her name I will not tell
    For I have now disgraced her,
    and I am doomed to hell.
    It was on one beautiful evening,
    the stars were shining bright
    And with that faithful dagger,
    I did her spirit flight.
    So justice overtook me,
    you all can plainly see.
    My soul is doomed forever,
    throughout eternity.

    The sentimental and tragic themes of Anglo American ballads, along with the high-pitched, “whiny” vocal style, have survived and flourished in 20th-century popular country music.

    6.3: Anglo American Ballads is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Douglas Cohen.

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