This is the first in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

Alexandra Franklin opened the proceedings with a few words of welcome and a quick overview of the cataloguing of the illustrations of the Bodleian broadside ballads.  Next, our host and organiser Siv Gøril Brandtzæg explained that she had attempted to bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars for the workshop, with specialists from history, digital humanities, folklore and many more subjects.  Between us, we would be able to share knowledge of 7 different countries’ ballads.  The workshop was funded by Siv’s project: the Norwegian Skilling Ballads 1550-1950. These songs are under-researched, and the project intends to digitise 2000 of them and create an open access database inspired by EBBA and Bodleian Ballads Online.  She described how the terminology had been created, with ‘skilling print’ referring to the print item – an octavo sheet folded twice to make a leaflet of usually 8 pages printed on both sides – while the ‘skilling ballad’ is the song. 

There are many possible elements to study, not least because these songs circulate in the oral and print traditions.  She chose news ballads because they are very prominent in Scandinavia, where the most common subject is shipwrecks.  She noted that the songs seem to be very accurate.  The definition she has used to identify a news ballad is ‘a ballad which reports and comments upon a current event by providing the time and place as well as details of the event in the title page and/or in the text itself’.  The songs have a capacity to stir emotion and entertain, but they might have had a role in offering the first report of things, if only because the first newspaper in Norway wasn’t printed until 1763.  Nevertheless, even after the coming of newspapers, the skilling ballads convey news that is not present in newspapers circulating in the same period or provide a different take on those stories.

Siv then suggested that it may make sense to look at ballads across national boundaries which deal with the same event or the same kinds of event.  Comparing ballads on the same event is most complicated, in part because some countries have not digitised their catalogues or their ballads, and also because of the language barriers.  The ephemerality of these cheap prints is also a significant problem.  She pointed out that recent research has shown that lies spread faster than truth, but it might well be true in the past too.  She raised the issue of the miraculous fish story, which seems to have originated in Italy but can be found across Europe.  Rather than singling out a particular story to track across national boundaries, it might be easier to compare themes which crop up in many countries, such as great fires, monstrous births or the so-called ‘goodnight ballads’ which were supposedly written by condemned criminals the night before their execution. By breaking down the ballads into subject matter, we might see similarities that way.  She suggested that we are more likely to see what unites our songs if we look beyond national borders and embark on a European Grand Tour.

at the workshop dinner

The keynote paper was given by Una McIlvenna on ‘Ballads as news media in Europe’.  Taking as her starting point a list of questions which Siv had circulated a few weeks before the workshop, she offered an exploration of English, French, German, Italian and Dutch ballads, noting that she had found her comparative work really helpful.  She highlighted her execution ballad database, which is both multi-lingual and long durée (and still under construction so still contains some mistakes). The defining characteristics of a ‘ballad’ which allow it to be included are that it is in  verse form and that it purports to be about something that actually happened. She commented that she was not too fussy about what was included, and that she included songs that comment on what’s happening.

More broadly, she mused on what a ‘news ballad’ might be. Often, they are defined in comparison to what they aren’t – for example they are not love songs!  But ‘topicality’ also raises problems, as ballads on newsworthy events are sometimes published long afterwards.  She gave as an example two ballads on Great Fire of London – the first was written soon after, but although the second was very similar to the first, it was written at least 8 years later.  Does the later one count as news or is it nostalgia?

She identified two significant problems with our current study of ballads: the study of single countries, and problems of periodisation.  News ballads begin long before newspapers, and continue after, and although there is variation the continuities are more striking.

Anglophone scholarship dominates the study of balladry because there are more scholars working on English popular song. Una commented, however, on the false dichotomy between traditional ballads and broadsides, especially in English scholarship.  Meanwhile, Italian scholars of song continue to concentrate on elite musical culture (mainly madrigals), while popular culture is studied by people you can count on one hand.  In other countries, there is often only one person in in each country working on the songs.  This results in a lack of overview.   We also lack a common terminology to describe popular songs.  She described how when searching catalogues and databases she looks for the phrase ‘to the tune of’ in each language to get round the differences.

Una’s experience of ballads from different countries suggests to her that there is no separation of news, sensationalism, moralising and entertainment. A contemporary noted that ‘For a penny you may have all the news in England of murders, fires, witches, floods, tempests and what not in one of Martin Parker’s ballads’.   Objective news only existed in the mid-nineteenth century to mid-twentieth, and for the rest of the time sensationalism is the big seller. Miracles might drop off the agenda, but there’s still Christian moralising.

Una also commented that although the absence of musical notation is often seen as a characteristic of the popular ballad, this was not true of everywhere – there is music on some of the French material. There are songs set to the tune of psalms, and setting execution ballad to psalm tunes in France is making a point because of the radicalism involved in singing psalms in the vernacular in Catholic countries. In France there was much more control over what was sung. Cardinal Mazarin collected all the songs attacking him, and the songs in this style became known as Mazarinades.  Publishing these works was an incredibly brave move on the part of the writers and printers. Meanwhile in England, the seventeenth-century songs are much less conservative. 

Ballads use news lexicon in order to make claims for novelty and truth. This is true at least until the 19th century. Perhaps by then ballads are doing something different because now there are many newspapers [and, I thought, surely there was a more widespread ability to read too].   Una raised the very interesting point that scholars often ask about the truthfulness and accuracy of ballads, and wondered why do we only ask this of songs?  Her evidence suggests that the closer to the locus of the event, the more likely the song is to retain accurate details of what happened.  

She also pointed out that there is endless evidence of news ballads being sung, especially that there is lots of evidence of audience participation.  Italian barzolette have choruses for the audience to join in.  Many other ballads do too.  There was also a commonly-expressed belief that if you aren’t in a song you’ll be forgotten. 

It is not, however, a tale only of similarities.  As my comparative work with Massimo Rospocher for the EDPOP conference in Utrecht showed, the formats of the ballads are different in different countries.  Una described how the English and Germans print broadside ballads, there are later English slip songs, the Germans print ballad chapbooks in quarto size, the Italians quarto pamphlets, the Dutch produce beggar pamphlets, while the French do everything. This raises questions about how ballad singers perform the different media.

Una’s paper was, therefore, wideranging and thought-provoking. We had had an excellent start to a very interesting day.