The meaning of the word ballad has been muddied.
“Somewhere in the evolution of commercial pop music, ballad became a radio DJ’s term for any slow song,” George Ward ’60 said. “Properly, though, a ballad is a story song.”
As a balladeer, he has a keen appreciation for the difference. Ward has been researching folk music and singing folk songs, traditional tunes that tell the stories and histories of people and places, since his Union days.
“The essential characteristics of folk music are oral transmission, at least in part, and the music’s existence within some particular community with its own identity and artistic standards,” explained Ward, who holds an M.A. in American folk life studies from SUNY Oneonta. “Think of isolated rural communities, certainly, but also of urban ethnic communities, occupational subgroups and even recreational or age groups.”
He is most fascinated by folk music of the Northeast, and has concentrated his efforts here, performing songs and creating albums that reflect the region’s history. Oh! That Low Bridge! is an album of Erie Canal songs, and All Our Brave Tars is a collection of American and British tunes from great naval battles of the 18th and early 19th century.
Ward is happy to have spent his life singing these songs; they’re an important means of persevering and passing down unique customs and a sense of togetherness.
“I was privileged to know many of the older generation musicians who carried these traditions on. Now it’s down people like me to keep the music alive, if we care about it and find community and history in it,” Ward said. “This music is about the varied cultural threads that have contributed to making us who we are.”
Ward is a member of the board of Caffé Lena, the legendary Saratoga Springs coffeehouse. He’s also on the board of Old Songs Inc., which runs a national folk festival annually at the Altamont (N.Y.) Fairgrounds.