TODAY’S PROMPT: Write a Ballad

Wikipedia says that a ballad is a narrative set to music.  By that definition, you could have the prompt be simply “Tell a story in a song.”

Before the 19th Century (I’m getting most of my info from the wiki site!), ballads were, as I mentioned in a previous post, a form of HBO-type entertainment.  They spread news stories across oceans, they compelled listeners with riveting suspense.

In the 19th Century, the definition of a ballad became “a slow popular love song.”

So, write a narrative song or a slow popular love song. Up to you! This month is totally your oyster.

I’m going to be working with traditional ballads today, though, because those are some of my favorite songs to sing and write.  I have a special fondness for new music that sounds old.  (This is why the band Over the Rhine tends to be my favorite.)

If you too want to be traditional, make sure you kill someone off in your story and structure the lyrical rhythm to go a little something like this:





And try to have no less than six verses.  The longer it is, the more impressive it is until it gets too long.  But the longer you can hold the audience’s attention with suspense, the higher quality the ballad.

Here’s another challenger: the refrain, in a good ballad, changes meaning in context of the verses.

News stories make good ballads.  Deaths (as previously stated) make good ballads.  Lost love makes good ballads too. Keep it dark, people.

Or don’t.  If you’re not dark and you have no fascination for the old-timey, do this assignment the post-19th Century way and write yourself a powerful (slow) love song.

SONG OF THE DAY: Boots of Spanish Leather

Bob Dylan loved him some ballads.  Here’s one that Norton anthologized as one of the greatest poems of all time.



TODAY’S PROMPT: learn a song written before 1900.

This site is a fantastic resource.

Once upon a time (hey nonny), I took a rhetoric of song class at Miami of Ohio that alerted me to the fact that our music history (“our” as in “American”) is chock full of songs that tell really dark, complicated stories.  Ballads are the HBO dramas of the past.  We’ve got songs about infanticide (“The Cruel Mother”), songs about murder guilt (“Edward”).  “Mary Hamilton” is a first person account of a woman waiting for public death because she got pregnant by the king and killed the baby. Dark stuff, yo. And really dramatic.

Not all the old songs are dark.  Some of them are about feeling like mack-daddies in a world gone right (“Sittin’ on Top of the World”).  These songs came from overseas and morphed on American soil; their journeys help us understand where we came from and maybe where we’re going.

All the cool kids are doing it, by the way.

Everybody who is anybody knows how to play “Saint James Infirmary.”  I mean, I have my version. So does Janis Joplin, despite the fact that Louie Armstrong is probably the true owner.

Gillian Welch has a fantastic “Make Me Down a Pallet on your Floor.”

These songs are great because you can play them in any setting and not worry about copyrights. Right?

TODAY’S SONG:  “I Wish My Baby Was Born”

I learned about this song in my aforementioned rhetoric of song class. There’s a great version on the COLD MOUNTAIN soundtrack.

This one isn’t Jack White (who is fantastic all over that soundtrack), but it does have the potential to destroy a listener:


I wish, I wish my baby was born
And sitting on its papa’s knee
And me, poor girl
And me, poor girl, were dead and gone
And the green grass growing o’er my feet
I ain’t ahead, nor never will be
Till the sweet apple grows
On a sour apple tree

But still I hope, But still I hope the time will come
When you and I shall be as one

I wish, I wish my love had died
And sent his soul to wander free
Then we might meet where ravens fly
Let our poor bodies rest in peace

The owl, the owl
Is a lonely bird
It chills my heart
With dread and terror
That someone’s blood
There on his wing
That someone’s blood
There on his feathers.