Ever get a tune stuck in your head? We're willing to bet you have; some things just get caught on a loop in our brains. But what causes this ever-present ear worm? What makes something catchy?
Two things help: rhythm and rhyme. Over in "Form and Meter," we talk about how Randall's use of both rhyme and meter in this ballad form makes the poem stick in his reader's head. But that's not all the sound action that's taking place here.
We get, for example, moments of alliteration, as in line 14: "For I fear those guns will fire." All of those F sounds strung together almost mimic the force of a bullet leaving a gun. As well, we learn that the mother's eyes are "wet and wild" in line 26. The double W's catch our mind's ear (if you can picture that) and draw our attention to the mother's grief.
In addition to alliteration, we also get some assonance in the final stanza: "She clawed through bits of glass and brick, Then lifted out a shoe" (29-30). The short I in "bits," "brick," and "lifted" has the subtle effect of packing the same sound into our ear in a short, confined space. The sound is trapped, anxious—much like the unfortunate mother who is sifting through the rubble in search of her daughter. Sound, then, works in this poem in subtle ways but to a common effect: to reinforce the horrors of the violence described in the lines.
"Ballad of Birmingham" is, indeed, a ballad, or musical poem. Ballads are often about heroes or sad tales, and this poem is no different. As well, ballads are often well-known—even by those who aren't poetry buffs. It's not a coincidence that Randall chose this form, since he wanted to spread the truth—and the horror—of this story as far and as wide as he could.
So, that explains the ballad part of our title. Now for the location: In the early 1960s, Birmingham was the setting for numerous marches, protests, and meetings about civil rights for African American citizens who faced daily segregation because of the Jim Crow laws in effect in the South. In retaliation, white supremacists often resorted to violent means. This poem is a sad tale of an actual 1963 bombing that happened in a church in Birmingham, ending the lives of four young girls that day.
Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 was a troubled place. Jim Crow laws, which legalized segregation, were still in effect in the South, and many of Birmingham's citizens organized marches and protests to demand equal rights. In fact, the town became a center of the Civil Rights Movements, attracting leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and citizens from all over the country who wanted to partake in the marches and demonstrations. These took place regularly. The poem takes place in a home, safe from the violence, as well as in the ostensible safety of a church. That the sanctity of the church was so utterly destroyed is a big part of the horror of this event. We end up finally in the rubble left after an act of terror. We're left shaking our head at what the setting should be—a peaceful refuge for an innocent little girl—and what it ultimately was: a death trap sprung by racist murderers.
In the first half of the poem, we have two speakers: the mother and the daughter go back and forth in a dialogue that reveals much about the threats of violence in their lives—as well as the committed and steadfast content of their characters. Starting at stanza 5, though, a speaker arrives to narrate the events of the Birmingham bombing. He does so (and we're just assuming it's a he, as we have no other evidence to go by) in the third person, far removed from the violence. We never learn who this narrator is, just as we never learn any specifics about the mother or child, nor do we learn what the speaker thinks about these events. Unfortunately, we don't need much more than basic reporting from our speaker. This tragedy speaks for itself.
You don't need an advanced degree to decipher this one. Nope—"Ballad of Birmingham" is a straightforward poem told in simple, non-tricky language. Randall wanted his meaning to be crystal clear so that folks everywhere would be exposed to the horror of the bombing.
Randall didn't mince words or spend much time hiding obscure symbols in his work; what you read is what you get. But don't mistake his straightforward lines with lack of thought; keeping the poems simple makes them easy to memorize, much like a song. His style also lets the subject matter speak for itself; Randall's tragic subject matter doesn't need much dressing-up. For other examples, check out "Profile on the Pillow" and "Booker T. and W.E.B".
Though it may seem simple, there's still a form to Randall's ballad. Don't fret, though, Shmoopers. We're here to break it all down for you, beginning with the stanzas.
A stanza is just a group of lines formed into a unit (usually separated from other stanzas by spacing). Think of it as a poetic paragraph. And if you check out this poem, you'll notice that each stanza has four lines. Now, in the poetry world, four-line stanzas are called quatrains, so we can say that there are eight quatrains in all here. Got it?
She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair, A
And bathed rose petal sweet, B
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands, C
And white shoes on her feet. B
The last word in lines 2 and 4 (in this case, "sweet" and "feet") rhyme, although lines 1 and 3 do not. If you check the other stanzas, you'll see that this patter is consistent throughout. Therefore, the poem is written in rhyming quatrains. Remember, we're dealing with a ballad form here. Ballads often have a simple and consistent rhyme scheme.
Ballads also follow a consistent beat pattern. We (and other folks) like to call this rhythm a "ballad meter." If you listen to the sound of the lines, you'll notice a certain repetition of the stressed and unstressed lines, something like:
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM
daDUM daDUM daDUM
For example, check out the meter in the following two lines:
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.
Each daDUM is a beat unit (or, in the poetry world, a foot). There are all different types of feet; a foot with one unstressed (da) and one stressed (DUM) syllable is called an iamb. Since the first line has four iambs, we say that line is written in "iambic tetrameter" (tetra- means four). And since the second line has three iambs, we call that pattern "iambic trimeter" (tri- meaning three).
Randall occasionally deviates from the traditional ballad form in the poem (just to keep it interesting), but this iambic tetrameter-iambic trimeter is generally the rule he follows, which is why this poem is still considered to be a ballad.
But why choose this form in the first place? We think the ballad form serves a couple of Randall's purposes, actually. Purpose 1: it's relatively easy to follow. The lines are short, the rhymes and rhythms are consistent, and the form is not at all intimidating. In fact, it sticks in your head without any obstacles between you and the horror of the poem's actual content. This leads us to Purpose 2: a ballad is traditionally a popular form. It was easily memorized and easily put to music. Therefore, it traveled easily from person to person. Randall's not just writing this poem for himself. He's out to expose this horror to anyone who will read his work. And it worked, too; this poem was translated into song and reproduced widely.
The dogs, clubs, hoses, guns, and jails of stanza 2 all serve as symbols of the police, who regularly broke up the Freedom Marches. Instead of mentioning the officers themselves, Randall associates them with the tools they used to stop the marches. That's a case of what's called metonymy. It is as if the officers aren't individuals, but part of a force of repression and violence in the poem.
To the mother, the police are a danger to her child, and these tools symbolize that threat. Later, in stanzas 7 and 8, the rubble of the church symbolizes the end result of the violence. For a poem ultimately about the destruction that bigotry can cause, these violent images serve to remind the readers that even children weren't safe from the potentially deadly effects of racism.
The young girl dresses all in white in stanza 5 as she prepares to go to church. Not only is the color a symbol of her innocence and purity, but it shows the respect the child has for church. While most young kids might not mind a few stains on their clothing, the young girl in the poem wants to arrive at church looking clean and well-dressed.
Later, in stanza 7, the white shoe is the only thing the mother can recover in the rubble. Visually, that's some striking imagery; were the shoe any other color, it might not stand out so well. Randall wants to leave us with this final image of destroyed purity to emphasize the tragedy of the bombing.
Though ballads can sometimes be a bit bawdy, there's definitely no hanky-panky to be found here.