Diving Into A BalladSaturday, 12th November, 2016
I love ballads. Nice, long ballads with a crunchy story all wrapped up in melody and words and because I love ballads, I sing them quite a lot. I can get my teeth into singing a ballad in a way I sometimes struggle with other folk songs.
One of the most common things said to me after a gig or during a break in a folk club singaround is “I don’t know how you remember all those verses.” I suppose it is easier when you’re enjoying learning and singing something but I thought it might be at least interesting, if not useful, if I explained how I go about learning these behemoths of songs.
Performing a ballad at Devizes Folk Club, October 2016. Photo © Andy Fawthrop.
Although broadsides, with their reams and reams of verses, have been around for hundreds of years, many of those and the older ballads would have been passed from person to person by word of mouth. That oral transmission is the reason why we have so many different versions of ballads; verses misheard and forgotten or ballads conflated with other ballads in a tale-mashup leading to a hydra effect when modern folk singers (and the collectors of the late 19th/early 20th century) go in search of folk ballads to learn.
Of course, that’s no bad thing as it gives modern folk singers plenty of material from which to create their own version of a ballad and to tell a tale that sings to their own soul. That, though, is the subject for another blog so I’ll leave that train of thought there for now.
In terms of how I learn a ballad, once I’ve constructed the form I want to learn and have settled on a tune to put the words to, I take inspiration from the oral tradition when learning it. I remember a friend (I have a feeling it might be the marvellous Piers Cawley) telling me of someone in Appalachia learning a ballad from their grandmother. The grandmother would sing a verse, the child would then sing the verse back, the grandmother would sing the second verse, the child would sing the first and second verses and so on. Now, I don’t have a ballad-keeper grandmother to teach me the old songs but I do take inspiration from that tale in how I learn to sing long ballads.
First, I find a way of breaking the ballad (which I’ve written down) into chunks. It could be narrative arcs within the ballad’s tale, or it could simply be splitting the ballad into sets of, say, three or four verses, or a mixture of the two. My approach changes slightly depending upon the song.
The next step is to work on each of those sections; sing through the first verse with words, then hide the words, until I’ve got it, before moving onto the second verse and then the next ones. After that I’ll sing through the entire section until I’ve got that memorised. Rinse and repeat for all the other sections.
I don’t sing all the way through from beginning to end, adding a verse as I go, because that brings in the issue of getting really good at singing the first bit of a ballad and then becoming gradually less certain of the latter part of the song. I need to feel confident and secure throughout the whole song so that I can give a strong performance throughout.
Once I know each section then I can start piecing the sections together into a whole. To begin with, I sing the ballad straight through so that I can get the whole story arc fully in my head. It’s the story (which, for me, plays a bit like a film reel in my mind) that helps me not to get lost in all the words I have to remember.
With the story arc and linear flow bolted into my mind, I then start singing the ballad at different points in the song. Why would I do this? With all the will in the world, I can never be sure that there will be something to distract me while I’m singing or if one verse will elude me when I come to it. If I know I can get back on track wherever I am in the ballad, it means I won’t have to noticeably stop or apologise for getting something wrong. I can just continue like nothing’s happened without being thrown and without apologising which can leave the audience feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed.
It does take some time to learn a ballad, it’s not something that can generally be done overnight, but by really tackling it and getting to grips with all parts of the ballad it’s possible to be so confident in performing it that people will marvel at how easy you make it seem. It’s not easy, but it doesn’t have to be impossible, and it’s always nice to impress with a well performed ballad that captivates your audience.