I’ve spent a lot of time since the beginning of the year recording ballads for this website, to accompany my new book.  This is the third in a short series of posts about what I’ve been up to.

There are more than 30 musical examples in the book and my plan was to record all of them.  Some have been more fun than others, it has to be said.  Some of my favourites are in fact conjectural settings.  I borrowed the term ‘conjectural setting’ from Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook – it means that although I don’t know what the tune for the words actually was, because no tune name was given, I’ve found a contemporary one that fits.  There’s quite a bit of pleasure in finding a tune that matches the words really well.  After all, I maintain that if people in the sixteenth century didn’t know the tune for a ballad, they would make one up if they were able, or simply fit the words to a tune that they already knew.

There are several conjectural settings in the book.  One is a set of Cromwell ballads to a tune called ‘Half Hannikin’, which I think is a particularly good tune considering it’s association with clowns.  I sang extracts from one of them at a Reformation 500 event last year – it’s a real belter with a rollicking chorus which is really easy to pick up.

Another is one of my real favourites. It’s a setting of The Ballad of Joy to the tune of ‘Nancy’.  Long time readers of this blog might recall that I started out by looking at the ballads written during the reign of Philip and Mary (1553/4-8).  The problem I had with the Marian ballads was that none of them stated their tunes.  That meant that in the thesis, the only musical example in the chapter was of Richard Beeard’s Godly Psalm of Mary Queen, which isn’t a ballad in anyone’s book (actually, it’s not even all that easy to sing, and the thought of trying to maintain the 4 separate parts  for more than 40 verses was too much for me – we bottled out after the single one used as an illustration for Singing the News).  I didn’t want to leave it like that for the book, because for me it’s as much about showing that these songs could have been sung.  So I decided to find a tune to fit one of the ballads that I looked into in the chapter, and there was an obvious candidate.

The Ballad of Joy seems to have been written to celebrate Mary I’s quickening – the moment when she thought she felt the baby move in her womb.  Of course, with hindsight we know that it was some kind of phantom pregnancy, and the jury is still out on what exactly caused Mary to think, twice, that she was pregnant when in fact she wasn’t. But The Ballad of Joy celebrated the security of the succession and the prosperity of the marriage which had produced the promised heir to the throne, even though it seems that gossips wondered whether Mary was indeed pregnant. The tune ‘Nancy’ is like a cross between ‘The British Grenadiers’ and ‘Rule Britannia’!  It gives the song real oomph.  It’s a pleasure to sing and makes the words sound like an anthem – really celebratory, just as I imagine that the real tune would have been.

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