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With the holidays upon us, I thought it might be a good idea to look at three kinds of poems that derive from musical forms.  Ballads that tell stories, Carols, the hymns of Christmas, and lullabyes, the sleepy-time songs for babies. I love the variety of music for this season and the poetry is equally diverse in shape and form.


Ballads are a form of verse meant for singing or reciting. They present in a simple narrative form a dramatic or exciting episode. This form has a deep tradition in oral history of carrying the stories of a family, a community, or a tribe by using rhyme as a mnemonic device. Popular ballads, of course, continue to be written illuminating particular places and times in history.

In the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S., the settlers were isolated from colonial times (1700s) to the early twentieth century when roads were put through. Historians and musicologists discovered that British Broadsides had been remembered and passed generation to generation. Through them, they kept old English terms and usages alive. Many had been lost in the British Isles and were rediscovered in the hollers of the Cumberland Gap.

African American families tried to keep track of their roots through similar songs, some with a similar line length and rhymes to the ones told or sung by European immigrant families who owned slaves. But stronger, more repetitive African forms more easily adapted to their history. Some ballads were sung but much of the slaves’ oral history was woven into the three line refrain that eventually became the Blues.

The American West likewise has a history of ballads telling of cowboys, Indians, Westward Expansion, cattle drives, heroes and outlaws. Whatever the origin, it is true, that in almost every country of the world, the folk ballad is one of the earliest forms of literature.

Certain common characteristics among the world’s ballads should be noted: the supernatural is likely to play a part in events; physical courage and love are frequent themes; incidents happen to ordinary people; transitions are abrupt; action is usually developed through dialogue; tragic situations are developed with simplicity, repetition is common, and throughout, there may be flashes of metaphors; and usually ballads close with a summary stanza.

The stanza usually consists of four lines rhyming abcb, with the first and third lines carrying four accented syllables, the second and fourth only three. Rhyme is often approximate with great use of assonance and consonance. A four line refrain is common. Its rhyme may be the same (abcb) or may be abab to mark it as a refrain.

A Hussars Ballad – Vasili Nesterenko – 2003


Words: Andrew Lang
Source: Christmas: Its Origin, Celebration and Significance
as Related in Prose and Verse – Robert Haven Schauffler (1907)

Between the moonlight and the fire
In winter twilights long ago,
What ghosts we raised for your desire,
To make your merry blood run slow!
How old, how grave, how wise we grow!
No Christmas ghost can make us chill,
Save those that troop in mournful row,
The ghosts we all can raise at will!

The beasts can talk in barn and byre
On Christmas Eve, old legends know.
As year by year the years retire,
We men fall silent then I trow,
Such sights hath memory to show,
Such voices from the silence thrill,
Such shapes return with Christmas snow,—
The ghosts we all can raise at will.

Oh, children of the village choir,
Your carols on the midnight throw,
Oh, bright across the mist and mire,
Ye ruddy hearths of Christmas glow!
Beat back the dread, beat down the woe,
Let’s cheerily descend the hill;
Be welcome all, to come or go,
The ghosts we all can raise at will.


Friend, sursum corda, soon or slow
We part, like guests who’ve joyed their fill;
Forget them not, nor mourn them so,
The ghosts we all can raise at will.


In Medieval times in France, a Carole was a dance, the term later being applied to the song which accompanied the dance. The leader sang the stanzas, the other dancers sang the refrain. The Carol became very popular and in the 12th and 13th centuries spread through other European countries and was instrumental in extending the influence of the French lyric. Later Carol was used to mean any joyous song, then a hymn of religious joy, and finally was used to designate Christmas hymns in particular. Some Carols such as Joseph Was An Old Man were definitely popular belonging to the culture of the “folk”; while later ones such as Charles Wesley’s Hark the Herald Angels Sing are the product of more sophisticated literary efforts. The Christmas hymn is called a Noël in France.

 Christmas Carolers (Common Domain)

THE CHRISTMAS HOLLY by Eliza Cook (1818-1889)

The holly! the holly! oh, twine it with bay —
Come give the holly a song;
For it helps to drive stern winter away,
With his garment so sombre and long;
It peeps through the trees with its berries of red,
And its leaves of burnished green,
When the flowers and fruits have long been dead,
And not even the daisy is seen.

Then sing to the holly, the Christmas holly,
That hangs over peasant and king;
While we laugh and carouse ‘neath its glittering boughs,
To the Christmas holly we’ll sing.

The gale may whistle, the frost may come
To fetter the gurgling rill;
The woods may be bare, and warblers dumb,
But holly is beautiful still.
In the revel and light of princely halls
The bright holly branch is found;
And its shadow falls on the lowliest walls,
While the brimming horn goes round.

Then sing to the holly, the Christmas holly,
That hangs over peasant and king;
While we laugh and carouse ‘neath its glittering boughs,
To the Christmas holly we’ll sing.


A lullaby is a soothing song , usually sung to babies before they go to sleep, with the intention of speeding that process. As a result they are often simple and repetitive. Lullabies can be found in every human culture and seem to have been used at least from the ancient period. The English term lullaby is thought to come from ‘lu lu’ or ‘la la’ sound made by mothers or nurses to calm children,and ‘by’ or ‘bye bye’, either another lulling sound, or a term for good night.

Until the modern era lullabies were usually only recorded incidentally in written sources. The Roman nurses’ lullaby ‘Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, aut dormi, aut lacte’ is recorded in a scholium on Persius and may be the oldest to survive. In 1072, Turkish writer Mahmud al-Kashgari mentions old Turkish lullabies as ‘balubalu’ in his book ‘Dīwānu l-Luġat al-Turk’. It is also speculated that the term may come from “Lilith-bye” or “Lilith-Abi” (Hebrew for “Lilith , begone”). In the Jewish tradition, Lilith was believed to steal children in the night and was the demon responsible for the death of babies. To guard against Lilith, Jewish people would hang four amulets on nursery walls with the inscription “Lilith – abi!” [“Lilith – begone!”] which is a possible origin of the English word “lullaby.”

Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT by Edward Jones around 1784
The sung version by Olivia Newton John – Michael McDonald

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and dale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping,
All through the night

Angels watching, e’er around thee,
All through the night
Midnight slumber close surround thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping,
Hill and dale in slumber sleeping
I my loved ones’ watch am keeping,
All through the night

While the moon her watch is keeping
All through the night
While the weary world is sleeping
All through the night
O’er thy spirit gently stealing
Visions of delight revealing
Breathes a pure and holy feeling
All through the night

Angels watching ever round thee
All through the night
In thy slumbers close surround thee
All through the night
They will of all fears disarm thee,
No forebodings should alarm thee,
They will let no peril harm thee
All through the night.

Though I roam a minstrel lonely
All through the night
My true harp shall praise sing only
All through the night
Love’s young dream, alas, is over
Yet my strains of love shall hover
Near the presence of my lover
All through the night

Hark, a solemn bell is ringing
Clear through the night
Thou, my love, art heavenward winging
Home through the night
Earthly dust from off thee shaken
Soul immortal shalt thou awaken
With thy last dim journey taken
Home through the night

Post a family story ballad, a hymn to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwansa or the New Year or a lullaby you would like to share with us today! Thank you for coming by.  I am wishing all of you a wonderful holiday season, full of hope, wonder and peace.