In the old use of the word, a “ballad” is a song that tells a story. There are romantic ballads and comic ballads, but the quintessential English and Scottish “Big Ballads” are tales of high tragedy, expressed in short verses that rhyme and scan. The verses are set to memorable melodies, many of which have the haunting sound of the ancient modal scales.
The ballads, together with the Arthurian legends and the Bible, are the foundation of English literature. That alone would make them worthy of notice. From an educational standpoint the ballads have another virtue: the constraints of the stanza form caused ballad makers to express their huge stories in words of remarkable force and economy.
Margaret Nelson is a respected interpreter of traditional ballads, able to present them to aspiring writers and scholars as the literary marvels (and the gripping entertainment) that they are.