A ballad is a written collection of lyrics, often a long narrative tale told to music. Ballads date back to the early medieval French chanteur ballad or balladerie, which were in turn "ballad songs"". Ballads were especially characteristic of the folk poetry and song of Britain and Ireland throughout the late Middle Ages until the early Renaissance. The word "ballad" derives from the German word Ballen, which meant ballad. A narrative of love, sorrow, and heartache, ballads typically tell of adventures involving heroes, villages, and other meaningful places.
Over the centuries, many different versions of folk ballads have emerged. They can be narrative accounts of tragic love themes or can be centered on more contemporary themes about young love. Many ballads are based on old Biblical stories and have deep connections to Ireland.
One of the most popular forms of ballad in the early to mid 19th century was the Irish ballad. These songs were originally popular with the Irish people themselves. While the Irish ballads continue to be a mainstay in the folk culture, many ballads during this time period were created in America and Europe. Many songs were written specifically for popular Christmas carols. Some of these ballads became popular in their own country but faded out quickly after they became popular elsewhere. The earliest examples of these are songs such as "I Remember You" by Rosemary Echard and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" by William Tell.
While many traditional ballads remain popular, modern day versions tend to be far less sentimental. Many ballads tell of love and happiness, whereas modern day songs focus more on love and romance. Most traditional folk ballads tell of love lost or broken hearts. Modern day ballads focus more on relationships that have already failed than they do love lost love.
The most well known ballad form is the Irish ballad. While it may sound strange to consider an Irish ballad as having anything to do with Irish heritage, there is a strong connection between the two ballads. The first ballad was originally titled "A Claddagh Star". In the ballad, a man named Richard Joyce is invited to a marriage march and is forced to leave the wedding because his stepmother is holding a feast for her maids that night.
As punishment for his failure, Joyce is locked in a room and forced to eat only dry food until he passes out. Fortunately, his luck changes when a shepherd's daughter named Moira comes along and Moira's brother Stephen comes to save the day. In order to get back at Stephen and Moira for stealing their stepmother's dowry, Joyce breaks into their house and eats all the food in the refrigerator, but not before leaving behind a four-line poem that describes his situation in detail.
There are many other popular ballads in the literature of Ireland. One such ballad, "A Man For Me", tells the story of a man who falls in love with a common-as-dirt woman. He realizes his mistake when he realizes she isn't a common-as-dirt woman, she is, in fact, a princess. He runs off to marry her, but not before putting up a handsome display of one of his work in order to win her heart. Another popular ballad from this time period is "The Ballad of Famine" which tells the story of a man who marries a wealthy landowner only to have his fortune disappear one day. When he realizes what has happened, he vows never to marry a woman who does not earn as much as he does, and goes on to spread this vow to each of the women in his life.
All of these traditional popular ballads tell of the lives of people in Ireland during this time. Interestingly enough, many of them tell of things that happen centuries ago today, long before modern technology or anything else that would likely change the plot of these traditional ballads. As a result, many people believe that these old Irish ballads had a greater influence on modern-day humanity than contemporary works like "Echoes" or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." If you want to read an interesting and thought-provoking Irish ballad about love and romance, try "An Ideal Husband for Me" by Joseph Sheridan Earle, the tale of a man who falls in love with a lady who turns out to be an opium addict. The book was published in 1903 and went straight to number one in its country - the best-selling novel in Ireland.