Last week I wrote about the first of my two small research projects, so this week I want to introduce the second: Fake News and Facts in Topical Ballads. This will be a digital humanities project which will use corpus data analysis to look at the links between ballad and pamphlet news.

Thomas Charles Wageman [Public domain]

Shakespeare’s ballad-seller Autolycus is famous for peddling tall tales to credulous commoners hungry for news of monstrous fish and miraculous births.[1]  So my project aims to check the accuracy of information in popular songs to challenge the assumption that ballads were full of news.  It will show that, despite recent scholarship which has challenged our belief in the existence of the ‘news ballad’, the genre really did exist prior to the invention of regular news periodicals.  By supplying information to its customers in an entertaining way, it helped to shape social responses to the news.  By using state-of-the-art corpus data analysis of ballads and pamphlets rather than viewing the ballad in isolation from – or in competition with – other news-forms, I hope to demonstrate that there was more than one way to tell the news, and one method was not intrinsically more important or accurate than another.  

Scholarly interest in ballads has surged since the publication of Christopher Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England. There has been a recent special issue of Renaissance Studies on street singers in Renaissance Europe (33:1), for example, and a plethora of articles on English balladry alone, but the role of song in spreading news remains contentious.[2]  Angela McShane argues that ‘there was no such thing as a “news ballad”’ and that ballads, being songs, served a different purpose.[3]  Nevertheless, I don’t believe that their entertainment value need necessarily undermine their newsworthiness.  I intend to carry out the first systematic study of the relationship between English ballad and pamphlet news prior to the development of a regular periodical press. This will enhance our understanding of early modern news networks by offering insights into the intermediality and interdependency of different cheap print genres.

The first step is a database of ballads identified from the Stationers’ Registers Online and British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth Century.[5]  I will access topical ballad texts using digital archives such as the English Broadside Ballad Archive, Early English Books Online and Broadside Ballads Online.[6]  Next I will try to find news pamphlets relating to the same events. And this is where the corpus data analysis comes in: specialist corpus linguistics software such as AntConc will highlight any textual overlap between the ballad and pamphlet texts much more quickly and accurately than even the closest of close readings could. This will demonstrate whether ballads have any significant relationship with news pamphlets.  If the software finds substantial similarities between the texts, I will attempt to explain how and why this might have occurred, for example, by looking for evidence that the texts were officially commissioned.  

But there is still no substitute for the human eye and the software can’t do all the analysis. Only by carefully reading the texts will I be able to see whether the need for a narrative story arc in ballads helped to shape the way the news was presented in songs.

Now all I have to do is decide which project I want to make a start on first.

[1] William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale.

[2] Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: CUP, 2010).

[3] Angela McShane, ‘The Gazet in Metre’ in Joop Koopmans (ed.), News and Politics in Early Modern Europe (Leuven: Peeters, 2005), p.140.

[5] <; [accessed 15 April 2019]; Carole Rose Livingston, British Broadside Ballads of the Sixteenth Century (New York: Garland, 1991).

[6] <;; <;; <;

[all accessed 15 April 2019]



The new academic year is approaching fast and things are changing. While I wait to hear what work I’ve got and where, I’ve been getting on with my own research. Several of my projects are almost at an end, so I need to work out which of my projects to dive into next. There are two biggies (the Pilgrimage of Grace book and the martyrs project) and two smaller ones. Realistically, I need to go for one of the smaller ones, both of which should produce a journal article.

The first is a project on the printed epitaphs which seem to have become fashionable from the 1560s onwards: Singing Epitaphs in Sixteenth-Century England

Memorialising the dead in a post-reformation age required imaginative solutions because purgatory and traditional Catholic practises such as masses for the dead were officially no more.  For the first time, epitaphs produced in praise of prominent members of post-reformation English society were printed on a single side of paper and made to look as if they were songs.  I suspect that by combining the enduring popularity of broadside ballads with the new fashion for singing metrical psalms, these epitaph ballads created a new way for Protestants to come to terms with death.  The ballad trade was like a magpie, happy to steal melodies from anywhere and barely aware of differences between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture.  Psalm tunes would have been particularly fitting melodies for epitaph ballads because they were in vogue, they were devotional and because they gave further meaning to the text.  My research will unite the histories of music, print culture, and doctrinal change, by examining the performance practice of epitaph ballads Identifying tunes for these epitaphs will help bring them to life once again, showing that this crossover genre created a new way for Protestants to process grief.

I want to explore how epitaph ballads were voiced as part of the civic life of sixteenth-century England.  The project will investigate potential similarities between epitaph ballads and the accession day songs in praise of Elizabeth I which have already been studied by Katherine Butler.[1]  ‘Singing Epitaphs’ likewise combines history and musicology, but it also builds on research into the development of psalm singing.[2]  Moreover, ‘Singing Epitaphs’ will couple psalms with recent research on ballads which suggests that melody created meaning.[3] Identifying potential tunes would increase our knowledge of how these epitaphs were heard and understood, based on parallels between old and new texts.

I have already identified a group of printed broadside epitaphs from the Tudor period. The next step will be to compile a list of relevant references in contextual materials such as George Puttenham’s  Art of Poesy, Henry Machyn’s Diary and Holinshed’s Chronicles, in order to suggest when and how the epitaph ballads were performed. Then I will need to identify possible tunes for the epitaph ballads by identifying common metre, rhythm and stress patterns, as well as shared themes and textual similarities.  Further work will investigate whether individual psalm tunes were appropriate because the melody had a suitable emotional effect or was particularly fashionable at the time the epitaph was written.  

[1] Katherine Butler, ‘Creating Harmonious Subjects? Ballads, Psalms and Godly Songs for Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 140:2 (2015), pp. 273-312.

[2] For example Beth Quitslund’s The Reformation in Rhyme (Aldershot: 2008) and Timothy Duguid’s Metrical Psalmody in Print and Practice (Farnham: 2014).

[3] Chris Marsh’s Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: 2010).  

A couple of years ago I was sitting in the British Library calling up various documents that might be ballad-related, when I came across John Balshaw’s Jig. What really captured my interest was the fact that Balshaw apparently wrote the piece in Brindle, Lancashire, in 1660. Now Brindle is a little place near Chorley, and about 13 miles away from me by car – fewer as the crow flies. Balshaw’s Jig was a short dramatic piece in verse, probably danced as it was sung to a series of popular tunes of the day, and I spent some time in the months following the find transcribing the text of the jig. But although I found it really interesting, life got in the way and the file was sidelined on my computer for some time, while I carried on with my teaching.

St James’s Parish Church, Brindle CC BY-SA 2.0

Then in January, I began teaching on the Civil War course at Lancaster, and during the summer, I started thinking about the jig again. I couldn’t really remember the plot, and I hadn’t noticed anything particularly significant about the lyrics, but I decided to dig it out and look at it with fresh eyes. And it turned out to be quite a sight.

I started by reading the script through again, looking at the plot in more detail and writing a synopsis as I went along. The jig involves 6 characters in a prologue and 4 scenes, and is based on a fairly standard ‘thwarted lovers’ plot: the girl and boy swear their eternal love, but the girl’s wicked uncle has taken her lands and property and wants to marry his daughter to the boy instead, until fate intervenes and the girl’s fortunes are restored. But there is a twist: the wicked uncle and his daughter are parliamentarians, while the girl and her lover (and his father) are royalists. Fate, in this particular case, takes the form of King Charles II, whose return to London up-ends the balance of power.

Once I’d written the synopsis, I started looking for the music. Each of the four scenes and the prologue are set to different tunes. A couple of the tunes had already been identified by the British Library cataloguer, but I’ve also suggested tunes which might fit the other scenes and provided scores for all of them.

I then went back to the beginning of the document and wrote some introductory paragraphs about jigs, John Balshaw and the manuscript he left behind. I tried hard to find any reference to the man himself, but I couldn’t. More to the point, I couldn’t work out why the BL catalogue claimed that he died in 1679 – there is nothing on the manuscript to sugest this, nor do the Lancashire parish clerk records contain any indication. I even went so far as to contact the BL archivists to ask if they knew where the information came from, but they don’t. So Balshaw remains something of an enigma. in the next section, I provided some context on the civil war, interregnum and their effects on Lancashire. Finally, I expanded my synopsis to provide a commentary on the drama.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with the piece, and I’ve sent it off for consideration by a folk journal. What I’d really like to do, though, is to direct a performance in Brindle! It seems right to take it back where it was born.

Stitching together an intellectual life

Stitching together an intellectual life
— Read on

Thought I’d just post a link to a really interesting piece by Una McIlvenna, about her experience of finding some previously undocumented ballads while teaching a class in Melbourne.

Just a quick post to say that an article based on my paper at the Medieval and Renaissance Music Conference in Maynooth last year has been accepted for publication by Renaissance Studies, and that the Musici Trust has given me funding to have some digital images created of different examples of sixteenth century printed music to illustrate the article. I’ll keep you posted as things progress, but I’m looking forward to moving this forward over the next few weeks.

It’s probably a couple of years since I last undertook an online course with FutureLearn, but a few weeks ago I signed up for a short course from Griffith University called Music Psychology: Why Does “Bohemian Rhapsody” Feel so Good? It was a simple introduction to some of the basic principles of music psychology, and while it didn’t go into anything like as much depth as the text book that I read last summer, it was still interesting. It’s something I’m looking at because it helps me to understand how Tudor ballads might have affected people.

Emotions have a physiological component, and a psychological component which interprets those physiological effects.  This comes together with our musical expectations (based on our experience of other music that we have heard) to help create emotions.  These combine with our cognitive appraisal of the situation. Our emotional reaction to the event (or music) depends on whether or not we expected what happened, and the context of what happened.

The expectations are, in effect, predictions of what will happen. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain which rewards us for predicting things that turn out to be true, and if the chances of the prediction being true were low but we got it right, it gives us more of a reward.  When we listen to music, we are unconsciously comparing it to everything we have already heard, so it our brains are rewarded with dopamine when the expectations that are set up are fulfilled.  Different songs play with our expectations in different ways, so they make us feel different emotions.  Likewise, our own feelings and experiences change, so the emotions created by the same song might be different at different times. 

There was one particularly interesting task, comparing our emotional responses to different parts of the song Bohemian Rhapsody, and explaining why others might have a different reaction. I find the ‘Mama’ section quite melancholy – it has a sparse texture and the relaxed tempo feeds into this feeling too. It’s a style of music that is ballad-like, which I enjoy. ‘So you think you can stone me’ is much more rock-orientated, and not a style I would normally listen to out of choice, but the much harsher tone, full texture and quicker tempo are a significant contrast. I find this section tense and agitated, but it works for me as a part of the whole – which plays on the changes from one section to another. Other people’s stylistic preferences and musical experience might mean that the rock is more familiar and therefore their preferred style, because it fulfils more of their expectations.

As emotions are based on our expectations, our emotional responses to music are based on what we expect to happen.  And skilled composers are able to take advantage of our expectations of what will happen when.  They can choose to fulfil or deny our expectations at different places in the music.  When those expectations are fulfilled, we get a hit of dopamine which is pleasant.

Another task asked: What’s a part of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by Queen that you really look forward to when you listen to it? How do you feel when you reach that part of the song? One of the places in Bohemian Rhapsody that I look forward to is Brian May’s guitar solo after ‘never been born at all’.  Why?  Because it’s soulful, and it gives you a break from listening to the words and trying to process them.  Actually, I’ve never realised that it’s the guitar solos that I really like before – because the one before ‘So you think you can stone me’ has the same effect.  I wonder if it’s because they are the signals for the changes of style/pace etc….  And I get the frisson (the chills, or goosebumps) at the end, at the 5 minute mark.

What interested me a lot about this task was that my response was very different to most people. According to the course tutor, many people find the guitar solo after verse 2 an anticlimax because they are expecting a chorus!

Anyway, I don’t think I learned anything new about music psychology, but it was certainly good to refresh my memory and it used some interesting examples.