Here are a selection of quotes from The Ballad Book (1955), by MacEdward Leach which have been insightful to my project.
In the Middle Ages in Europe there appeared a form of story-song which in English has come to be called a ballad.
The primary characteristics are as follows: (1) The ballad tells a story; (2) it tells its story in song, in simple melody; (3) it is folk story-song since it has the unmistakable qualities of treatment, off style, and of subject matter that comes only from folk culture.
The secondary characteristics – impersonality and concern with a single situation rather than with a developmental series of events – are not integral, but expected.
The ballad tells a story. But of the elements that do to make up a story – action, characters, setting, and theme – the ballad is mainly concerned with action.
Characterization is conventional and general; setting is likewise general and static; theme is implied.
But the action is always vivid and dramatic and often romantic as well.
Always there are sensational deeds of violence, jealous lovers, family and tribal feuds, men against society. The situations are timeless.
Another conspicuous difference between modern story and/ballad story is the tendency in the ballad to pass quickly over the first half of the plot – the unstable situation – to come to the second – the solution.
The folk are not concerned with why , for they are not introspective or analytical.
Although it tells a story, the whole is an evocation of powerful emotion that overwhelms the simple narrative and leaves the listener (reader) tremendously moved.
The ballad is objective; the action is allowed to unfold of itself, without comment or expressed emotion of the author.
As a general and working definition, however, we may in summary say that a ballad is a narrative folk song that fixes on the most dramatic part of its story and impersonally lets the story move of itself, by dialogue and incident, quickly to the end.
But really to know ballads is to hear them sung by people of whose culture they still form a part.
The next most common stanza in ballad use is the four-line, four-stress quatrain; its rime scheme varies between abab and aabb.