Literature

10 of the Best Ballads in English Literature

Traditionally, a ballad was a song that was designed to be danced to, as the etymology of the word, Provençal balada meaning ‘dance, song to dance to’, ultimately from late Latin ballare. The great British ballads – and we say ‘British’ because many of them were Scottish rather than English in origin – date from around the fourteenth century onwards, and represent some of the best popular poetry written in English. Many of the Border ballads are narrative poems which tell a story, often tragic but sometimes lighter and happier. Below, we introduce ten of the best ballads from British history.

Sir Patrick Spens’.

The king sits in Dunfermline toune
drinking the blude reid wine,
‘O whar can I get skeely skipper,
To sail this ship o’ mine?’

Let’s kick off this list of some of the greatest and most popular British ballads with a tale of a reluctant sailor, Sir Patrick Spens, whom the King of Scotland sends for and tasks with the job of undertaking a perilous sea mission in the depths of winter. Curiously, there are different versions of this ballad in existence, some of which have a happy and some a tragic ending, suggesting that the tale was adapted for different audiences and perhaps different kinds of occasion.

Bonny Barbara Allen’.

He turned his face unto the wall,
And death was with him dealing:
‘Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allen.’

After ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, this is perhaps the best-known of the popular ballads. A servant asks Barbara Allen to visit his sick master, a lord, who asks her to declare her love for him – but she refuses because he had slighted her (perhaps for being low-born) in front of his aristocratic friends. This tragic tale of love and death has been popular since at least January 1666, when Samuel Pepys made an early reference to the ballad in his diary, describing how his friend Mrs Knipp sang it: ‘in perfect pleasure I was to hear her sing, and especially her little Scotch song of Barbary Allen.’

The Unquiet Grave’.

‘I’ll do as much for my true-love
As any young man may;
I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave
For a twelvemonth and a day.’

This is part-ballad, part ghost story, as we find a dead woman speaking from beyond the grave, telling her bereft lover to stop pining for her. Like many ‘ghost stories’ from the Middle Ages, the voice from the grave is a kindly and well-meaning one here, who entreats her grief-stricken lover to enjoy life (albeit without her) while he still has it. Although this ballad is thought to be around 600 years old, fans of A. E. Housman’s poems will note the striking similarities this poem had on Housman’s own poems (the Border Ballads were a big influence on his work).

The Ballad of Chevy Chase’.

‘Tell me whose men ye are,’ he says,
‘Or whose men that ye be;
Who gave you leave in this Cheviot chase
In the spite of mine and of me?’

Although the name ‘Chevy Chase’ is perhaps inextricably linked with that of the American comedian, it is actually also the name of one of the most celebrated Border Ballads, set among the ‘chase’ (or hunting-ground) of the Cheviot hills, hence the name of the ballad. This is a ‘Border’ Ballad in the truest sense: it’s even set on the Anglo-Scottish borders! The poem tells of Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, leading a hunting party on the Cheviots, an action which incurs the wrath of the Scottish Earl Douglas and leads to a bloody battle.

The Twa Corbies’.

There were three rauens sat on a tree,
downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.

Also known as ‘The Three Ravens’ (the number of ravens or ‘corbies’ varies from telling to telling), this ballad tells how some ravens see a dead knight, recently slain, and debate whether they can eat him. Grisly but great.

The Wife of Usher’s Well’.

‘I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come home to me,
In earthly flesh and blood.’

A woman sent her sons away to school, but shortly afterwards she discovered that they had died. She longs for them to return – and they do, as ghosts. Like ‘The Unquiet Grave’ above, this ballad is a medieval ghost story as much as it is a poem.

Mary Hamilton’.

Yest’re’en the Queen had fower Maries
The nicht she’ll hae but three
There was Mary Seton and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Car-Michael and me.

Alternatively known as ‘The Fower Maries’, i.e. ‘the four Marys’, this sixteenth-century ballad is about Mary Hamilton, a lady-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of the Scots (no, not necessarily the Mary, Queen of Scots: the queen could be a number of Mary Stuarts from the period). Mary Hamilton has an affair with the king and falls pregnant, bearing the king’s illegitimate child. The tale ends in tragedy for both her and the child.

The Bonny Earl of Murray’.

Ye Highlands and ye Lawlands,
Oh where have you been?
They have slain the Earl o’ Moray
And layd him on the green.

This ballad played a curious role in the 1950s, in helping to inspire a neologism: the term mondegreen, the name Sylvia Wright proposed for a misheard song lyric, named after Wright’s own childhood mishearing of ‘And layd him on the green’ as ‘And Lady Mondegreen’. The ballad stems from real events in 1590s Scotland, when the Earl of Huntly slew his rival, the Earl of Moray (pronounced ‘Murray’, and so rendered thus in some versions of the ballad).

The Knight and Shepherd’s Daughter’.

It’s of a shepherd’s daughter dear
Keeping sheep all on the plain;
Who should ride by but Knight William
And he’d got drunk by wine.
With me right fal-lal-al diddle-al-day …

Bearing some similarities to Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’, this ballad sees a knight seducing a shepherd’s daughter into giving up her virginity. She pursues him afterwards, insisting that he marry her, and despite the knight’s attempts to pay her off, her has to agree. After they marry, it’s revealed that she is not a shepherd’s daughter after all, but a noblewoman.

Get Up and Bar the Door’.

The wind sae cauld blew south and north,
And blew into the floor;
Quoth our goodman to our goodwife,
‘Gae out and bar the door.’

Something more domestic now: a husband tells his wife to bar the door, but she is busy cooking. They decide that whoever speaks first has to get up and bar the door. A couple of travellers show up, and help themselves to food when neither the husband nor wife responds. A more light-hearted ballad to conclude this list of the best ballads, largely bloody and tragic, to a conclusion.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

3 Comments

  1. my personal favourit s: She moved through the fair, Scarborough fair (a bit obvious, I know) and Black Jack Davey, but only in Dylan’s version.

  2. Tony Stokes

    Sadly missing is the great Australian ballad “The Man from Snowy River” by A B Paterson.

  3. A big amen to “The Unquiet Grave” which is one of the treasures of English literature IMHO. And I’ve enjoyed singing (within my limits) most of the rest!

Leave a Reply