Though the ballad is a FORM still much written, the so-called "popular ballad" in most literatures belongs to the early periods before written literature was highly developed. They still appear, however, in isolated sections and among illiterate and semi-literate peoples. In America the folk of the southern Appalachian mountains have maintained a ballad tradition, as have the cowboys of the western plains, and people associated with labor movements, particularly when marked by violence.
In Australia the "bush" ballad is still vigorous and popular. In the West Indies the "Calypso" singers produce something close to the ballad with their impromptu songs. Debate still rages as to whether the ballad originates with an individual composer or as a group or communal activity. Whatever the origin, the folk ballad is, in almost every country, one of the earliest forms of literature. Certain common characteristics of these early ballads should be noted: the supernatural is likely to play an important part in events, physical courage and love are frequent themes, the incidents are usually such as happen to common people (as opposed to the nobility) and often have to do with domestic episodes; slight attention is paid to CHARACTERIZATION or DESCRIPTION, transitions are abrupt, action is largely developed through DIALOGUE, tragic situations are presented with the utmost simplicity, INCREMENTAL REPETITION is common, IMAGINATION though not so common as in the ART BALLAD nevertheless appears in brief flashes, a single EPISODE of a highly dramatic nature is presented, and often the ballad is brought to a close with some sort of summary STANZA. The greatest impetus to the study of ballad literature was given by the publication in 1765 of Bishop Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The standard modern collection still is The English and Scottish Popular Ballads edited by Francis James Child. The tradition of composing story-songs about current events and personages has been common for a long time. Hardly an event of national interest escapes being made the subject of a so-called ballad. Casey Jones, the railroad engineer; Floyd Collins, the cave explorer; the astronauts-- all have been the subjects of ballads. Popular songs, particularly those engendered by the youthful protest movements, have revived the ballad form; for example, "Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley," or the ballads of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. Strictly speaking, however, these are not ballads in the traditional sense, and that form probably belongs to a period in the history of Western civilization which is past.