The ballad is the narrative poetic form par excellence, characterized by directness of address, simplicity of language and a strong rhythm. Surviving from the late medieval and early modern periods, topics include contemporary events, love found and (more often) lost, the supernatural, military might, murder, betrayal, banditry and bawdry. The main common denominator is that all were composed to be sung, this musical origin reflected in the forms name which is derived from the Italian ballare, to dance. Some were no doubt sung first and recorded later, whilst others may have been composed for the growing market in cheap broadsides which flourished in the seventeenth century; in either case, the ballad was very much common property to be shared orally. Consequently, the majority of early ballads exist in numerous variants, each bearing the imprints of those through whose hands they have passed. Although there are a great many collections, the landmark remains Francis James Childs The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, which was published in ten volumes between 1882 and 1898, and which comprises more than 300 ballads, each with full discussion and, in most cases, variant forms. More than a scholarly work, the series has, appropriately, functioned as a key text in folksong revivals in both Britain and the United States.
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