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Famous Ballads
The Best Ballads in the English Language (and a few Stinkers)
Ballad Timeline/Chronology/History

Which were the earliest ballads in the English language? Who wrote the best ballads, other than Anonymous? Which ballads are the the best? In an attempt to answer such questions, I have put together a page designed to trace the evolution of the English ballad via a detailed timeline. But first, let's begin with a definition: what exactly is a ballad? Most ballads tell a story and are either set to music or written in rhythmic verse. Ballads began with the Medieval French chanson balladée, or "danced songs." The ballad is related to ballet, or dancing to music. Think of country folk two-stepping to stories set to fiddle music. The words were either chanted or sung by minstrels. Over time the term "ballad" came to include sentimental love songs and those over-the-top compositions we now call "power ballads." But they are far removed from the ancient English ballads that originated in the Northlands. The best original ballads were far from sentimental: they were unsentimental, direct, definite in their imagery, hard-hitting, usually tragic, and often quite "spooky" due to supernatural elements. They often combined a fierce realism with the paranormal. The best ancient ballads were memorable, danceable and highly entertaining in their dark way. They often employed repetition in the form of a chorus or refrain. The refrain could either make sense, or not. An example of a meaningful refrain is this one from the Cleveland Lyke Wake Dirge: "And Christe receive thy saule (soul)." An example of a nonsensical refrain is: "Lollai, lollai, litil child!" from Thou Wandrest in this Fals (False) World.

compiled by Michael R. Burch

Please keep in mind that this page reflects one person's opinion, for whatever that's worth. If you're interested in the history of ballads, please feel free to skip down to the Ballad Timeline. If you'd like to know the better ballads to read as poems, or to listen to as songs, these "top tens" may prove helpful ...

Top Ten Ancient Ballads: Tom O'Bedlam's Song, Cleveland Lyke Wake Dirge, The Unquiet Grave, Corpus Christi Carol, Sir Patrick Spens, Edward, Lord Randal, Bonny Barbara Allan, The Wife of Usher's Well, The Three Ravens/The Twa Corbies

Honorable Mention Ancient Ballads: Childe Waters, The Fair Flower of Northumberland, Moder White as Lily Flour (Flower), The Battle of Otterburn, The Battle of Chevy Chase, Mary Hamilton, The Douglas Tragedy, The Cruel Brother, Hugh of Lincoln aka The Jew's Daughter, Clerk Saunders, Thou Wandrest in this Fals World

Top Ten Modern Ballads
: Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats, The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, Ballad of the Goodly Fere by Ezra Pound, Maude Claire by Christina Rossetti, Danny Boy by Frederick Weatherly, When Johnny Comes Marching Home by Patrick Gilmore, Greensleeves (author unknown)

Top Ten Rock/Pop Ballads
: Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers and Elvis Presley, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, Nothing Compares 2 U by Prince and Sinead O'Connor, All By Myself by Eric Carmen and Celine Dion, Without You by Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones, Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen

Top Ten Power Ballads: I Want to Know What Love Is by Foreigner, November Rain by Guns N' Roses, Dream On by Aerosmith, Every Rose Has Its Thorn by Poison, Home Sweet Home by Motley Crue, Wind of Change by the Scorpions, Amanda by Boston, Lady by Styx, Alone by Heart

Honorable Mention Musical Ballads: Knocking on Heaven's Door by Bob Dylan and Guns N' Roses, Who Wants to Live Forever and The Show Must Go On by Queen, Man in the Mirror and Human Nature by Michael Jackson, Mama I'm Coming Home by Ozzy Osbourne, Is This Love by Whitesnake, Open Arms by Journey, Silent Lucidity by Queensryche, Blaze of Glory and Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi, I Will Always Love You by Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston, As Tears Go By and Angie by the Rolling Stones, A Day in the Life and Eleanor Rigby by the Beatles, Heaven by Bryan Adams, I Remember You by Skid Row, One by U2, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, Candle in the Wind and Your Song by Elton John, Captain Jack and Piano Man by Billy Joel

Honorable Mention Related Poems: Lucy Gray, or Solitude by William Wordsworth, John Barleycorn: a Ballad by Robert Burns, The Ballad of the Dark Ladie by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Ballad of Moll Magee by William Butler Yeats, A Ballad of Boding by Christina Rossetti, The Lady of Shallot by Lord Alfred Tennyson, A Litany in the Time of Plague by Thomas Nashe, A Lenten Hymn by Thomas Campion, Lament for the Makaris (Makers/Poets) by William Dunbar

My number one ballad of all time istah-dah!―the ancient poem about madness, Tom O'Bedlam's Song. Harold Bloom called it the "most magnificent Anonymous poem in the language, a 'mad song' that surpasses Edgar's snatches of song in King Lear, and the later lyrics in that genre by William Blake, Sir Walter Scott and William Butler Yeats." I have observed that the final stanza of Tom O'Bedlam's Song is like Don Quixote, perhaps the greatest novel of all time, compressed into one otherworldly, haunting stanza.

Ballad Timeline

Some of the best early poems in the English language are the ancient anonymous ballads (see the entry for 1200). The ballad tradition was revived in modern times by a number of famous Romantic poets, including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott (both Scottish), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats (all English), and Edgar Allan Poe (American). 

950 — The Exeter Book may contain the first extant English poems written by women: Wulf and Eadwacer and The Wife's Lament. Wulf and Eadwacer appears to be the first English poem with a refrain―a hallmark of the ballad. Was the first English ballad thus written by a woman?

1200 — English folk music has existed at least since the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain circa 400 AD. The Venerable Bede's story of the cattleman and ecclesiastical musician Cædmon indicates that in the early medieval period it was normal at feasts to pass around the harp and sing "vain and idle songs." It is not easy to date the earliest popular ballads, but they clearly had become popular by the close of the Middle English period. Because they were passed down orally, some of them could be considerably older. Perhaps the best we can say is that the ballads mentioned here were probably composed sometime from 1200 to 1700, but could be older: Sir Patrick Spens (Spence), Edward, Lord Randal, Bonny Barbara Allan, The Wife of Usher's Well, The Unquiet Grave, The Three Ravens, The Douglas Tragedy, Mary Hamilton, The Bitter Withy, Lamkin, The Twa Sisters (The Two Sisters), Thomas the Rhymer, The Knight and Shepherd's Daughter, Get Up and Bar the Door, Chevy Chase, The Cherry-Tree Carol, Tam Lin, Judas, and the early Robin Hood ballads.

From this point forward, we will use the best publication dates that we have been able to find. But please keep in mind that a poem or song could have been composed long before it was finally published.

1350 — In the ballad Robin and Gamelyn, Gamelyn's older brother cheats him of his inheritance and becomes a sheriff. Roberte and Robin as a contraction appear in the ballad. Robin is described as "good" and the bow is emphasised. Thus the ballad appears to involve Robin Hood.

1450 — The earliest surviving text of a Robin Hood ballad that employs the name "Robin Hood" is the 15th century Robin Hood and the Monk. This is preserved in Cambridge University manuscript Ff.5.48. Written after 1450, it contains many of the elements still associated with the Robin Hood legend, from the Nottingham setting to the bitter enmity between Robin and the local sheriff (now known as the Sheriff of Nottingham).

1495 — A reference in William Langland's Piers Plowman indicates that ballads about Robin Hood were being sung from at least the late 14th century. Wynkyn de Worde's collection of Robin Hood ballads was printed about 1495.

1600 — Sir Patrick Spens (Spence) is one of the most popular of the so-called "Child Ballads" and is of Scottish origin. It is a maritime ballad about a disaster at sea.

1620 — Tom O'Bedlam's Song is published around this time, but could have been composed earlier. The existence of a chorus suggests that the poem may originally have been sung as a ballad. Harold Bloom has called it the best anonymous lyric in the English language and has suggested Shakespeare as the author because the poem is so good―no, make that so amazingly good. In my opinion, the poem is like Don Quixote compressed into a few stellar lines.

1782 — Robert Burns, generally considered to be the greatest Scottish poet, publishes John Barleycorn: a Ballad.

1782 — Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge appears in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads, which becomes the primary text of the English Romantic Movement.

1802 — Sir Walter Scott publishes the traditional Scottish ballad Lord Randall in his book Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

1820 — La Belle Dame sans Merci by John Keats is published.

1849 — Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, an American poet, is published.

1889 — The Ballad of Moll Magee by William Butler Yeats, generally considered to be the greatest Irish poet, is published.

1898 — The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde is published. Wilde actually did hard time in Reading Gaol, for the "crime" of being homosexual.

1909 — Ballad of the Goodly Fere by Ezra Pound is published. Pound was one of the most influential poets of English modernism, along with his protégé T. S. Eliot.

1954 — The Ballad of Davy Crockett is a song with music by George Bruns and lyrics by Thomas W. Blackburn. It was introduced on ABC's television series Disneyland, in the premiere episode of October 27, 1954. Fess Parker is shown performing the song on a log cabin set, in frontiersman clothes, accompanied by similarly attired musicians. The song would later be heard throughout the Disneyland television miniseries Davy Crockett, first telecast on December 15, 1954. Parker played the role of Davy Crockett and continued in four other episodes made by Walt Disney Studios. Buddy Ebsen co-starred as George "Georgie" Russel, and Jeff York played legendary boatman Mike Fink. The theme song was originally performed by The Wellingtons. The first album version was recorded by Bill Hayes,; it was quickly followed by versions by Fess Parker and Tennessee Ernie Ford. All three versions made the Billboard magazine charts in 1955: Hayes' version made #1 on the weekly chart and #7 for the year, Parker's reached #6 on the weekly charts and #31 for the year, while Ford's peaked at #4 on the weekly country chart and #5 on the weekly pop chart and charted at #37 for the year. A fourth version, by bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman, reached #10 on the radio charts in 1955. The song also reached #1 on the Cash Box charts. A contemporary version also exists by the Western singing group the Sons of the Pioneers. Over ten million copies of the song were sold. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.

The quoted commentary below is by Serene Dominic, who writes about music for Metro Times ...

1973 — Styx releases the first true power ballad! "Take the solemn seriousness of ELP and Pink Floyd and marry it with the histrionics of community theater and you’ve got Styx! Their chief weapon of surprise: Dennis DeYoung, who appears as harmless as a carpet salesmen but has a silly streak that would gag Freddie Mercury. He pens 'Lady,' which belatedly becomes a Top Ten hit two years later, prompting DeYoung to include at least one 'intimate' love sonnet per album that sounded as though it was being sung to his beloved from 150 rows away." (Aerosmith is a closet contender with "Dream On" and its mystical vibe―we should dream about something even though the "good Lord" is preparing to take us away. Makes perfect sense!)

1974 — Paul Anka releases “(You’re) Having My Baby” and sets power ballads back a year! "The 'My Way' composer still maintains that, had the megaton mix been released instead of the sugary substitute that went to Number One, every metal band of the ’80s would have had to bow down and make a hair extension love offering to him."

1977 — Styx Creates the First Homoerotic Power Ballad! "The Chicagoons accrue a second chief weapon of surprise—Tommy Shaw, the first credible recording artist with braces since Jan Brady! Another reason Shaw never smiles for group photos—Dennis DeYoung takes the band into lad-baiting territory with 'Come Sail Away' which he sings like Captain Bligh tryin’ to score! Ay-ay—yi yi yi!"

1978 — Journey morphs into Jefferson Starship without any Grace! "Steve Perry joins the ranks and breaks power ballad tradition by singing to a province instead of a chick on 'Lights' — Journey’s first power ballad to crack the Top 70. His insertion of a Sam Cooke yodel in every conceivable air pocket and rampant mispronunciation of the word 'city' — so it sounds like he’s talking about a piece of furniture — doesn’t sit well with Greg Rolie, the group’s keyboard player and original vocalist, now reduced to one vocal per album like Ringo. What a pit-tayyyy!"

1979 — Styx scores the first Number One power ballad with “Babe”! Journey hits the Top 20 with “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’”! "For his winning, wussy efforts, DeYoung is secretly ousted from Styx before being reinstated at double the silly strength. Meanwhile on the Journey front, Greg Rolie gripes that singing 77 na na’s or 154 individual na’s at the end of “Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” is perhaps not the best use of a jazz-fusion rock group’s time. In retaliation, Journey names its next album Departure in the hopes that Greg Rolie will take the hint and leave. He does!

1980 — Styx unleashes the first power ballad-driven concept album. "How d’ya make the Depression more depressing than it was the first time around? Stick Styx in a time machine set for 1928 A.D. and people won’t even wait for the stock market crash to start jumping out of windows. Whenever Dennis DeYoung sings 'The Best of Times' from Paradise Theater, he navigates around the word 'honey' with all the uneasiness of a cloistered monk.

1981 — REO goes to Number One with “Keep On Loving You.” "And Kevin Cronin keeps on writing it until fans don’t wanna keep on buying it. After 1987, the hits stop completely. Behind the scenes, they tell themselves that it’s all Nirvana’s fault."

1982 — Journey has three Top Ten power ballads from the Escape album!
1984-2002 — Everyone on planet Earth records a power ballad! "The timeline gets admittedly fuzzy from here on, with everyone from Richard Marx to the Scorpions to Bonnie Tyler to USA For Africa to Poison to Metallica to Nickelback diluting the original recipe. The worst offender has to be Celine Dion, who actually injects the word 'power' into every ballad, inspiring fear in the manner that only an overly emotive nuclear reactor might."

But never fear, there are more power ballads to come, care of American Idol (which kicked off in 2002) and other talent shows. Now the amateurs can belt out power ballads, doing their best (or worst) impressions of Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Diana Ross, Janis Joplin, Neil Diamond, Ann Wilson, Freddy Mercury, Tina Turner, Meat Loaf, Peter Cetera, Brian Adams, Air Supply, Toto, Wayne Newton, Huey Lewis, David Hasselhoff, Tiny Tim, Peewee Herman, et al!

The HyperTexts