Top 10 Ancient Ballads

Ancient ballads are mostly traditional folk songs as well as dirges and panegyrics meant to be sung at festivals or some funerals. They mostly narrate stories of the ancient folks involved in some emotional event or scene. Legends, myths, historical facts, fantasies, love, and mourning are some of the topics of these ballads, but sometimes they may be panegyrics sung in praise of some lord, outlaw, or some other hero of those times. They were meant to be sung at some festivals as they gained currency due to their attraction for emotions. Generally, such ballads have various versions in various local or cultural folk song anthologies. The top ten ancient ballads appearing in English literature across the globe are as follows.

Example #1

Tom O’Bedlam’s Song

With a host of furious fancies
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear and a horse of air,
To the wilderness I wander.
By a knight of ghosts and shadows
I summoned am to tourney
Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end:
Methinks it is no journey.
Yet will I sing, Any food, any feeding,
Feeding, drink, or clothing;
Come dame or maid, be not afraid,
Poor Tom will injure nothing.

Despite its being an ancient poem, this anonymous ballad was composed around the start of the 17th century. It is perhaps the best anonymously written lyrical ballad ever found in English literature. Structurally, the ballad has eight verses and a four-lined chorus in each stanza. The ballad presents Bedlamite, a homeless person visiting a brothel and falling in love with a prostitute. Although he loves her madly, he becomes obsessed and is declared a madman who becomes a madman of Bedlam after he begs in its streets. This is perhaps one of the best ballads of the olden times. The stanza given below shows its great features due to which it stands first in our order of ranking of the ancient ballads.

Example #2

Cleveland Lyke Wake Dirge

If meate or drinke thou never gavest nane,
Every nighte and alle;
The fire will burn thee to the bare bane;
And Christe receive thye saule.
This ae nighte, this ae nighte,
Every nighte and alle;
Fire and sleete, and candle lighte,
And Christe receive thye saule.

This beautiful dirge type of ballad first emerged in Cleveland, North Yorkshire. It stated that some lady sang this ballad when she was standing at the side of the funeral of her relative. Presenting the harsh moral law of the moorlands of those times, the ballad shows the traditional singing of dirges. The ballad’s specific feature is the harsh retribution in theology with pre-Christian symbolism. It also presents mourners with a corpse among whom there is a woman who wails in the tones as given in this ballad. It compares the poor and the rich, adding that if a poor person goes without shoes, thorns will pierce the bones of the rich who have snatched away their rights. These two stanzas show what is best in this ballad that has made it to the second in our order of ranking.

Example #3

The Unquiet Grave

“The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true-love,
In cold grave she was lain.

“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 beautiful ancient ballad, too, has an anonymous origin with no name of the real composer or writer. It is, in fact, a folk song dating back to the 14th century. Later, Francis James Child added it into his collection. On the structure level, the ballad has total of seven stanzas with each having four lines or a quatrain. The four lines have ABAB rhyme scheme. Thematically, the ballad presents the story of a man wailing about his true love during a rainy seasons, vowing to mourn for the whole year and a day more. However, the woman questions him for disturbing her sleep at which he implores for a kiss. However, she advises him to join life and enjoy it instead of dying and perishing in the soil. These two stanzas show the intensity of the love of that man due to which the ballad has come third in our order of ranking.

Example #4

Corpus Christi Carol

He bear her off, he bear her down
He bear her into an orchard ground
Lu Li Lu Lay
Lu Li Lu Lay
The falcon hath bourne my mate away
And in this orchard there was a hold
That was hanged with purple and gold
And in that hold there was a bed
And it was hanged with chords of red
Lu Li Lu Lay
Lu Li Lu Lay
The falcon hath bourne my mate away

This beautiful ballad is stated to have originated as a hymn during the Early modern English period. Richard Hill composed this ballad during 1504 to 1536 as the real date is uncertain. However, it is also stated that the real authors of this hymn- ype ballad are still unknown. Also, it is still not in its original form. The structure of the ballad is in the carol, having six stanzas in total and rhyming couplets. The story of the ballad presents a knight on the bed with his injuries. A lass is kneeling on him, wailing. However, the interesting thing is the presence of a stone maker with Corpus Christi inscribed on it. The ballad was meant to be sung with a dance. Some of the best features of this ballad are as given in these two stanzas due to which it comes fourth in our order of ranking.

Example #5

Sir Patrick Spens

Up and spak an eldern knicht,
Sat at the kings richt kne:
Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That sails upon the se.”
The king has written a braid letter,
And signed it wi his hand,
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens,
Was walking on the strand.

A popular Child ballad of Scottish Origin, Sir Patrick Spens occurs at 58 number in ballad collections but at fifth in our order of ranking. The ballad has total six stanzas with each having four lines or each is a quatrain. Interestingly, it has no definitive version until today. Several versions are circulating in literary collections. Its eleventh version format was included in Reliques of Ancient English Poetry collected by a bishop, Thomas Percy, in 1765. The story presents a Scottish king asking mariners to command a royal ship, among whom Sir Patrick is one who becomes depressed after receiving this letter with the command to sail during the frosty winter. The expression of the intensity of the emotions brings this ballad to stand fifth in our order of ranking.

Example #6


Why does your sword so drip with blood?
And why so sad are ye, O?’
‘O, I have killed my hawk so good,
Mother, mother:
O I have killed my hawk so good:
And I had no more but he, O.’

This conventional English ballad, too, occurs in the Child Ballad collection of Sir Francis James Child. Its history goes back to around 250 years with several records in historical documents. Yet, its exact date and its author both are unknown. The ballad presents a mother who inquires her son about his bloodied saber to which he avoids. He admits wrongly that it is the blood of some animal, hoodwinking his mother, and finally admitting that he has killed his father or brother. Although he leaves his mother, saying goodbye, he also implicates her in this gruesome act. The ballad stands sixth in our order of ranking. One of its stanzas also shows its features.

Example #7

Lord Randal

Where have ye been all the day, my own dear darling boy?
Where have ye been all the day, my own dear comfort and joy?
I have been to my stepmother, make my bed mummy do
Make my bed mummy do

What did she give you for your supper, my own dear darling boy?
What did she give you for your supper, my own dear comfort and joy?
I got fish and I got broth, make my bed mummy do
Make my bed mummy do

This ballad, which is a border ballad due to its origin in the Anglo-Scottish border, comprises a conversation between a Lord and his mother. Titled “Lord Randal”, this ballad has been found in various European languages, including Italian and Danish. However, its English version is stated to have emerged in 1629. The ballad presents the story of Lord Randall, who comes back to his mother after having a good meal with his beloved, but his dog starts dying, making his mother suspect the poison in the meal. He dictates his will sensing his death. Other details have not been mentioned in the ballad, making the readers feel a thirst for more. That is why the ballad has been placed seventh in our order of ranking. Its stanzas show its features as follows.

Example #8

Bonny Barbara Allan

All in the merry month of May,
When green leaves they was springing,
This young man on his death-bed lay,
For the love of Barbara Allen.

This highly popular ballad also occurs in the Child collection at 84th number. It is a conventional English ballad known throughout the world. It has witnessed changes in its title from Sir John Graham to Barbry Allen and several others. Several versions of this ballad are circulating across the world. Generally, it presents the story of Barbara attending to a sick master of a servant, but she refuses to attend to her, citing a reason for teasing her. Despite her harsh refusal, she dies when she hears the bells of his funeral, and both are buried at the same place. This grief-filled emotional ballad has been placed 8th in our order of ranking. This stanza from the ballad shows some of its features.

Example #9

The Wife of Usher’s Well

It fell about the Martinmas
The nights were long and dark
Three sons came home to Ushers Well
Their hats were made of bark
That neither grew in forest green
Nor on any wooded rise
But from the north side of the tree
That grows in Paradise.

This conventional North American ballad stands 79th in the Child Collection though its origin is Great Britain. The ballad is also included in the famous, Roud Folk Song Index. Despite having an anonymous date and anonymous author, this ballad has survived centuries but with multiple versions. Structurally, the ballad has eight-lined stanzas accompanying each a four-lined stanza coming one after the other. With differing rhyme schemes, this beautiful ballad presents the story of a woman belonging to Usher’s Well who sends her sons away to school to find them dead after a few weeks and becomes distressed so much so that she cursed natural elements. This distress expressed through natural metaphors and personifications has brought this song to the ninth position in our order of ranking. It stanza as given below shows some of its features as follows.

Example #10

The Three Ravens

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.

The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?

Occurring in Child Collection at 26th and in Roud Indexing at 5th place, this beautiful traditional English folk ballad first appeared in the collection of Thomas Ravenscraft back in 1611. However, it is not certain when it did appear and how it went through several versional transformations. Interestingly, the orthographic transcription of its version published in 1611 shows that it has a quatrain-type of stanzas with a couplet rhyme scheme. The ballad presents three ravens discussing the death of a knight, the protection of his body by a dove, and their own preoccupation with their meal. Its beautiful stanzas as given below, highlight the use of metaphors and symbols used in this ballad.