Today, I decided to continue posting about song or to be more accurate, poems that are ballads – which are narrative poems, but also narrative songs – they tell a story. If they tell a story of someone great (someone who had a significant effect on history) then they’re an epic (usually the hero is the subject used to tell a story of grandeur, a story that is a sweeping account of a country’s history in which the hero is a major figure). But if the story is about the common man or woman where something big happens – usually something tragic like a man being lost at sea, or a woman who drowns herself over a lost love – then it is a ballad.
I always laugh at the goofy idea that some Heavy Metal songs like “Wanted: Dead or Alive” by Guns and Roses is referred to as a power ballad. First of all, it’s not a story because the character doesn’t go on a journey to accomplish anything; the song simply describes what the character does (I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride, I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all). Second of all nothing tragic ever happens to the character. It is implied that he’s tragic, because he’s committed crimes and now he’s a traveler on the road, and on the run – but that isn’t tragic. If he’d been forced by circumstance to commit the crimes, or someone had blackmailed him to do it, or framed him, then that would be tragic (a victim of circumstance). Or if he’d gotten caught or killed the moment that he thought he was free, that too would have been tragic. A good man ruined who just never had a chance; this is the theme of modern tragedy, similar to ancient (a noble and blessed man above reproach pulled down by the fate dictated by the gods; a man too good to for this place).
In the old ballads, we have people who are usually kind hearted or as good as anyone else, being pulled into fatal circumstances, or rather, sinking into the mire of bad fortune. Throughout the tale, he or she will try his or her best to get out of it, but in the end they never had a chance.
In the ballad of Bonny Barabara Allen, the tragedy is that a knight falls in love with a woman who cannot love him. She is described by the textbook (Intro to Poetry, 7th ed. Kennedy) as hard heart perhaps because when she rises up from their bed slowly, slowly (“hooly, hooly rose she up”) she sounds like the actions of a snake or a bit like a vampire (the same imagery as when they wake a sunset to start their hunt). She looks at the knight and tells him that she overheard him making fun of her at a tavern. It sounds as if she has poisoned him in the night for the slight that he gave to her reputation. But the saddest part of the poem is that it seems as if he knows what she has done, he knows, even before she tells him, that he is dying and he forgives her. She leaves this scene, but slowly as the thought of what she does squeezes her heart and tears her apart. She regrets her choice to leave him after she hears the deathbell chime (“jow that the dead-bell geid”), and she realizes that despite everything she really did love him.
At the end of the story she is by herself and knows that her refusal has made her this way. It sounds as if she is planning to take her life in the end, “since my love died for me today/I’ll die for him tomorrow”). Or perhaps she is going to live her life as a lonely woman, she’ll only be alive in appearance, but in spirit she will be dead, because she sounds as if she’s going back to sleep “O mother, mother, make my bed!/O make it saft and narrow!” (“Saft” is the word swift) Or it is permanent sleep, either way, she is doomed to face a life alone, doomed to go to the dust alone.
This is also comparable to another popular song that the textbook printed (with permission of course). A very popular song, perhaps you’ve heard it? This is similar to the ballad of Bonny Barabara Allen where a woman Eleanor Rigby, tries to find a way to reach out to people, but only does so by wearing her make-up (putting on her mask), watching a wedding from afar. Perhaps she has rebuked a lover and now lives alone. But that isn’t the story, the big question is: why is she alone? Why is Father MacKenzie so very alone? Why don’t two very lonely people reach out for each other? But in the end Father MacKenzie hears Eleanor Rigby’s death bell and wishes he could have saved her, but something in life stood between them and wouldn’t let them find a connection. Perhaps Father MacKenzie will be doomed to face go to the dust alone as well.
I won’t post that poem (copyright issues), instead, I’ll let the Beatles do it for me.
Bonny Barabara Allen
It was in and about the Martinmas time,
When the green leaves were afalling,
That Sir John Graeme, in the West Country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allan.
He sent his men down through the town,
To the place where she was dwelling;
“O haste and come to my master dear,
Gin ye be Barbara Allen.”
O hooly, hooly rose she up,
To the place where he was lying
And when she drew the curtain by:
“Young man, I think you’re dying.”
“O it’s I’m sick, and very, very sick,
And ’tis a’ for Barbara Allan.” –
“O the better for me ye’s never be,
Tho your heart’s blood were aspilling.
“O dinna ye mind, young man,” said she,
“When ye was in the tavern adrinking,
That ye made the health, gae round and round,
And slighted Barbara Allan?”
He turned his face unto the wall,
And death was with him dealing:
“Adieu, adieu, my dear friends all,
And be kind to Barbara Allen.”
And slowly, slowly raise she up
And slowly, slowly left him,
And sighing said she could not stay,
Since death of life had reft him.
She had not gane a mile but twa,
When she heard the dead-bell ringing,
And every jow that the dead-bell geid,
It cried, “Woe to Barbara Allan!”
“O mother, mother, make my bed!
O make it saft and narrow!
Since my love died for me today,
I’ll die for him tomorrow.”
Read it out loud and you can hear the musicality of the meter – it is a song after all.
And now for a very similar song, where the sound track, instead of the bells, tone “Woe Unto Eleanor Rigby.”