At the end of February, I travelled up to Glasgow to speak at the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Broadside Day at the Unviersity of Strathclyde. This is the third in a short series of posts about the day.

After the afternoon tea break there was a final panel of two speakers. The first was Oskar Cox Jensen, who I last saw at Una McIlvenna’s Singing Across the Channel workshop in Canterbury a couple of years ago. It was lovely to be able to catch up with him (and to meet his sister Freya, of course). He was talking about ‘Of Ballads and Broadsides: Mediating the Mainstream’

Oscar Cox Jensen

Oscar talked persuasively about the eclecticism of musical culture, and how commoners used to music that didn’t originate in ‘their’ social spaces. He also explained why he has a problem with the word ‘popular’ in terms of culture – for example, it implies an ‘other’, in the form of the elite.  He argues that this isn’t particularly helpful, as it operated on a basic principle of miscellany. Although the term ‘cheap print’ is good for the material item, it doesn’t suit the songs themselves. Instead, he suggested the word ‘mainstream’, which he suggested helps us understand the circularity of the printed and sung word. The elite and the commons had a repertoire in common.  It was also interesting to hear him suggest something that I have been saying, in other words, for a long time: if you asked people in the past what about their musical tastes, their answer would probably be much the same as ours – ‘I like a bit of everything’. 

Oscar described Peter Burke’s theory of the elite withdrawal from popular culture by 1800.  But he argued that everybody could buy broadsides and all walks of life were still listening to the songs at least sometimes. They might not be buying broadsides but they still experienced them.

According to Oscar’s theory, the restriction for the mainstream was that the tune should stand up as a solo line. Ballad tunes were simple in that they were stripped down to the bare minimum, but they came from all sorts of sources, including the opera house. Bareness doesn’t mean performance is bad, but in fact makes it more important. Sonically their repertoire, though drawn from wide sources, was reduced to a relatively sparse palette.  This was particularly important and helpful before the time of recording of more complex resources as it allows the cultural objects to be reduced to their most portable.  Skill and pragmatic productionism was the part of the ballad singer.  There was hunger for the widening of the mainstream.

The final paper of the day was given by Professor Donald Meek – ‘A nineteenth century Gaelic broadside from Australia’. Professor Meek found the ballad in question when it dropped out of a 19th century copy of the Transactions of the Inverness Gaelic Society in his garage. The title translates as ‘A Song to the Profane Clergy by a Gael in Australia’.  It was published 1859 in Melbourne, and seems to have been sent as a new year gift to someone in the highlands of Scotland in 1863.  The piece is heavily annotated in English to criticise the Gaelic usage in the text. The annotations correct the Gaelic and change new spellings.  A verse is scored out because it says the profane clergy are said to be using the bible to extend their profanity.  On the back he complains at length about Gaelic poets and scholars: ‘Not a word of Gaelic shall be spoken here after this generation is gone’. Professor Meek suggested that possibly the annotator was the author of the printed work.

Professor Donald Meek

The first part of the song is a condemnation of the profane clergy – wolves in sheep’s clothing who cause the flock to scatter.  They should all be damned for wanting worldly goods and self advancement. The context is that in 1859, in Victoria, the hot topic was creation of reunited presbyterian church. The author tells us that those who have joined this union are traitors and foxes. The second half talks about the church in Scotland.  They are described as the descendants of Orthodox Church. Finally, the author names the church at Carlton in Melbourne as the ones who are to maintain the faith.  They were the main Gaelic congregation high number of settlers in the area.  They were literate in Gaelic (and English) making it worthwhile publishing in Gaelic.  The church attracted a significant clergyman from Scotland – the Reverend Doctor Mackintosh Mackie. He’d had a distinguished career as a Gaelic scholar.  Between 1854 and 1856 he had been involved in the creation of an expensive new church building at Carlton, then left leaving them in debt. He moved to Sydney and got involved supporting the new union.  He went back to Scotland in 1863.  The tract seems to have been sent back to Scotland to highlight what the Reverend Doctor Mackintosh Mackie had been involved in while he was in Australia

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