January 2017


img_20161111_085249079_hdrBack in November, I was privileged to be invited  to give a paper at the Oxford University Early Modern Britain Seminar Series.  It was a truly amazing experience, not just to give a paper in such opulent surroundings but also in the questions that were raised about my research – as someone who researches mainly from home, this kind of opportunity makes a big difference and, at the moment, makes it all worthwhile.

The paper was entitled ‘Text, Truth and Tonality in Mid-Tudor Ballads’ and it involved a lot of singing.  In fact, I started by turning the assembled company into a scratch choir to sing ‘The Hunt is Up’.  It’s always a risk asking audiences to join in, because if they don’t play along it has the potential to backfire spectacularly, but they were great and sang really well – quite possibly the best singers I’ve ever had as an audience and I suspect that anyone passing below the window in the photo would have wondered what on earth was going on.

img_20161111_085230237_hdrI talked about the typical sixteenth-century broadside ballad, taking one about Thomas Plumtree by William Elderton as an example, but I also pointed out that many, many more ballads circulated without ever being written down.  This led me on to how people remembered ballads, the reuse of tunes and the most common modes for sixteenth-century ballads.  When I had established that ballads used catchy tunes and simple words to interest their audience, I moved on to talk about the messages that they spread and how sometimes they could be used to promote sedition. Ballads were carriers of news, but also occasionally employed a knowing subtext to hide contentious material.  Among these were the ballads on Thomas Cromwell’s fall from power in 1540, and the Pilgrimage of Grace ballads on which I’m currently working.

After the paper, I was taken to a delicious dinner at Keble College, and the following morning I woke up (as you can see) to glorious early winter sunshine which bathed Merton in light.  I spent the morning wandering round Oxford with my Fiend, before catching the train back to Preston.

img_20161111_085740341_hdr img_20161111_085750310_hdr img_20161111_085627673_hdr img_20161111_085810825_hdrThe questions after the paper were really interesting and gave me plenty of food for thought.  I was asked about how much I thought people would have been able to remember after hearing a ballad just once or twice.  At the time, I was only able to say that as the audience themselves had shown, it was relatively easy to pick up a ballad and that I thought that people were probably better at learning by ear in the early modern period because it was what they did – perhaps an art that we have somewhat forgotten.  I have been thinking about this question on and off ever since, though.  A day or two after I arrived home from Oxford, a new CD by Steve Tilston and Jez Lowe arrived through the post: The Janus Game.  I listened to it once through, and was singing along to it when I picked my children up from school the next day. My daughter asked how I knew the words when I’d only listened to the song once.  Good question.  I thought about it, and I thought back to the seminar question.  It’s just something I happen to be good at.  I can remember song tunes and lyrics easily.  And, as it turned out, I can remember them for a long time too.  Just before Christmas, my husband had to step in to play the organ at church at the last minute.  One of the songs for the children’s service was the Cat and Mouse Carol, which he didn’t know and I haven’t heard since I was at primary school some 30 years ago.  But I dredged the first verse and chorus out of my memory and was able to tell him how it went.  So songs can clearly stick, if you’ve got that sort of memory.

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Frustratingly, this course is giving me all sorts of ideas that I would love to put into practice but I can’t because the course I teach on isn’t mine.  I just hope that by the time I have a post in which I can run my own course and apply these ideas, I haven’t forgotten about them all!  The idea of these blog posts, of course, is that it will help me to remember.

Week 3 of the Blended Learning Essentials – Embedding Practice course was rather less relevant to me at the moment, because much of it was aimed at people holding budget responsibility. I am, however, a bit concerned about the ways it encouraged the tracking of what students were up to – not particularly because of privacy issues but simply because of the extra administrative burden it would place on already heavily-worked staff.

Next week, I will be singing and speaking at the singingacrossthechannel conference in Canterbury.  I’ve now finished writing my paper and I’m really looking forward to it, as it gives me the opportunity to carry out an experiment in ballad singing that I think will be quite useful.  I’ll tell you more about it soon.

The conference takes place on Thursday 12th January at the University of Kent, Canterbury.  Registration is free, but please book with Una McIlvenna (u.mcilvenna@kent.ac.uk) with ‘ballad workshop’ in the subject line.