Ballads: Hip Hop, History and Folk Music

*WARNING*  – May contain traces of ‘folk music’ and ‘Hip-Hop’

In last weeks Scribbled Poetry post, I had a quick look at Ballads, or more specifically the traditional form of ballad; four beat to a line (tetrameter) interspersed with three beat lines (trimeter). Feel free to have a look at the post here. Of course, as soon as I tried to find examples I struggled to find any that conformed to that rigid pattern, well I found one in the end.


This week’s Scribbled Poetry post is about the benefit of reading poetry out loud, and so in that spirit I thought I’d share an example of a Seventeenth Century ballad with accompanying performances. The Seventeenth Century was particularly rich in popular songs and ballads. The best ballads combined political messages and propaganda in an entertaining format. The same popular melodies were used repeatedly, while the words were altered to fit the topical theme. They were essentially utilising the jingles of the day to get their message across.


Anyone who has listened to hip-hop over the last twenty years will know that many of the best songs reuse samples from other, older songs. By doing so, as with the ballad writers, the message gets tied up in a familiar, or simply catchy, package. Here is the esteemed Mr Jay Z to demonstrate with a sample of ‘Hard Knock Life’ from the musical Annie (nsfw lyrics):

Actually, let’s have another. Here is Dr Dre’s ‘Next Episode’, along with the track he sampled from:

By the way, this website is great if you want to identify samples:


As with poetry, rather than just reading the text of ballads as if they were prose, it helps to hear how they should have sounded. I find that doing this helps to stops the process becoming too dry and academic. Yes the lyrics were satirical, and often daringly so, but even in the Seventeenth Century they would only have been as good as they were entertaining. This rule applies today, you can be as cleverly satirical as you like, but if it doesn’t amuse and entertain you’re unlikely to get the message across to anyone but yourself.


There are a couple of websites that supply the accompanying melody with the transcripts of the ballads. I was lucky enough to see Emma Curtis of The Frolick perform on Tuesday at the London Historian launch party. The Frolick do a great job in bringing alive, with great accuracy and verve, the popular songs of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century. The performances are as mischievous and playful as they would have been in private homes of the time (this one is particularly apt as it is an old tune with new words):

This is where folk music comes in (stay with me.. um.. folks). I’ll admit that folk music does not regularly pop up on my iTunes, but it I’ve found that it can be very useful when trying to bring ballads alive. Many of the tunes that are named in ballads have survived into the modern era, or have been rediscovered, through folk music. They are often picked up and dusted off, but they often remain fundamentally the same. On some occasions, such as ‘Little Musgrove’ below, some or all of the lyrics survive into the modern songs. Often my first port of call when looking at a new ballad is to check if its modern counterpart is on YouTube. So here is a nice example. The ballad is called “The Lamentable Ballad of Little Musgrove” and it has survived from the Seventeenth Century. It has actually survived in two formats, as ‘Little Musgrove’ and also as ‘Matty Groves’. Here is the Seventeenth Century text and the two different, but charming, modern versions.


A Lamentable Ballad of  Little Musgrove, and the Lady Barnet.

To an Excellent new Tune.

As it fell out on a high Holy-day,

as many more be in the year,

Musgrove would to the Church and pray,

to see the fair Lady’s there:


Gallants there were of good degree,

for beauty exceeding fair,

Most wondrous lovely to the eye,

which did to the Church repair.


Some came down in red Velvet,

and some came down in Pall,

Then next came down my Lady Barnet,

the fairest amongst them all;


She cast a look on  little Musgrove,

as bright as the Summers Sun.

Full well then perceived  little Musgrove,

Lady Barnets love he had won.


The Lady Barnet meek and mild,

saluted the  little Musgrove,

Who did reply her kind Courtesie,

with Honur and gentle love:


I have a Bower in merry Barnet,

Bestrewd with Cowslips sweet,

If that you please  little Musgrove,

In love me there to meet.


Within my arms one night to sleep,

for you my love have won,

fear my suspicious Lord,

home is gone:


his beside my death,

will lye with thee,

sake I’ll hazard my breath,

so dear is thy love to me.


What shall we do with our little Foot-page,

our Counsel for to keep,

And watch for fear Lord Barnet come,

while we together sleep:


Red gold shall be his hire, quoth he,

and silver shall be his fee.

So he our counsel safely keep,

that I may sleep with thee.


I will have none of your gold, he said,

nor none of your silver fee,

If I should keep your counsel Sir,

’twere great Disloyalty:


I will not be false unto my Lord,

for house nor yet for land.

But if my Lady prove untrue,

Lord Barnet shall understand.


Then swiftly ran this little Foot-page,

unto his Lord with speed,

He then was feasting with his own Friends,

not dreaming of this deed,


Most speedily the Page did haste,

most swiftly he did run,

And when he came to the broken Bridge,

he bent his breast and swam.


The Page did make no stay at all,

but went to the Lord with speed,

That he the truth might tell to him,

concerning this wicked deed:


He found his Lord at supper then,

great merriment they did keep,

My lord, qd. he, this night on my word,

Musgrove with your lady doth sleep.


IF this be true my little Foot-page,

and true that thou tellest to me,

My eldest Daughter I’ll give thee,

and wedded thou shalt be:


If this be a lye my little Foot-page,

and a lye thou tellest to me,

A new pair of gallows shall be set up,

and hanged thou shalt be.


If this be a lye, my lord, said he,

and a lye that thou hearest of me,

Never stay a pair of gallows to make,

but hang me upon the next Tree:


Lord Barnet call’d his merry men all,

away with speed he would go;

His heart was so perplext with grief,

the truth of this he must know.


Saddle your horses with speed, he said,

and saddle me my white Steed,

If this be true as the Page hath said,

Musgrove shall repent this deed:


He charged his men to make no noise,

as they rode along the way,

For wind us horn (quoth he) for your life,

least our coming it should betray.


But one of them that Musgrove did love,

and respected his friendship most dear,

To give notice lord Barnet was come,

did wind the Bugle most clear:


And evermore as he did sound

away Musgrove and away,

For if he take thee with my lady,

then slain thou shalt be this day.


O hark fair lady, your lord is near,

I hear his little horn blow,

And if he find me in your Arms thus,

Then hang’d I shall be I know


O lye still, lye still,  little Musgrove,

and keep my back from the cold,

I know it is my Fathers Shepherd,

driving Sheep unto the Pinfold.


Musgrove did turn him round about,

sweet slumber his eyes did greet,

When he did awake then did he espy,

lord Barnet at the beds-feet:


O rise up, rise up, thou  little Musgrove,

and put thy cloathing on,

It never shall be said in England fair,

that I slew a naked man.


Here is two Swords, lord Barnet said,

Musgrove thy choice now make.

The best of them thy self shall have,

and I the worst will take:


The first blow Musgrove did strike,

he wounded lord Barnet sore,

The second blow lord Barnet gave,

Musgrove could strike no more.


He took his lady by the white hand,

all love to rage convert,

And with his Sword in furious wise,

he piere’d her tender heart:


A grave, a grave, lord Barnet cry’d,

prepare to lay us in,

My lady shall lye on the upper side,

cause she’s the better Skin.


Then suddenly he slew himself,

which griev’d his friends full sore,

The death of these three worthy wights,

with tears they did deplore:


This sad mischief by lust was wrought,

then let us call for grace,

That we may shun the wicked vice,

and slye from sin apace.


O. and T. Thackeray at the Angel in Duck-lane.


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