This is the second 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.

After Una McIlvenna’s fascinating keynote on the similarities and differences between news ballads across Europe, there were some interesting discussions. It was suggested that there was, in fact, some evidence that nineteenth-century Norwegian ballads were not sung, as they contain no indication of their tunes, and another contributor suggested that we cannot assume that every ballad was sung. Una, however, countered this with the point that no tune indication does not necessarily mean an absence of tune, just that there was no particular need to label it. Siv pointed out that there are some skilling ballads with choruses, and it is hard to see why they woud have a chorus if it were not to encourage audience participation. We considered whether it might be safer to talk about a continuum of performance, which would allow for people to learn tunes from each other, to make up tunes where they wanted or needed to, to chant rather than sing melodically, or even to read the verses aloud rather than sing them.

David Atkinson and Steve Roud

David Atkinson and Steve Roud then talked about their forthcoming book on cheap European Street literature.  This material was very wide spread.  The British model does not work right across Europe, so they are hoping to produce a second volume to explore this further. There are themes that emerge: for example, they deliberately called the material cheap print, because the term ‘street literature’ is not applicable everywhere if there isn’t a street!  The book is not about ballads as such, but most contributors chose to include them at least in passing. Likewise, it is not all about news.

In Britain we are lucky to have EBBA and Bodleian Ballads Online, as our material is cataloged and indexed much faster.  This probably accounts for the explosion of interest in ballads in Anglophone scholarship.  However, we can’t look at news ballads across Europe until we have established what we are working with in more general terms. The advent of cheap printing was at different times in different places, while the formats are different across Europe.  Even chapbooks are not the same everywhere.  Steve and David pointed out that we can tell things simply from the layout, such as whether the words or picture are more important: depending on their relative size, printers can choose to accent illustration or text. They questioned whether this might tell us what people want, or whether it says more about what they are being told.  Each country has its own chronology, not least over at what point they developed cheap print in their own language (vernacular).  We  should look at whether vernacular cheap print appeared early on, or later when printing techniques had developed, as the social movements and technology changed over time. If you were part of an empire, your cheap print might not have been printed in your own language, and this has important implications for the control of the medium.

They raised the important point that there are always worries about who was talking to the people, and what was not mediated by the elite.  Across Europe, there were attempts to assert control by licensing the printers or the distributors (publishers) or the pedlars. Although the elites tried to do it everywhere, they had mixed success. In England, their attempts were not terribly successful but some places they really did stop people producing anything other than officially-sanctioned material.

If it was not in the local language because the locality was part of an empire, cheap print was more closely controlled. Some countries seem not to have had their own cheap print, which might help to explain why pictures are more important in some areas than others.

Not all the news in cheap print, however, was true.  Steve commented that as a folklorist, he was annoyed that ‘fake news’ has been stolen by Trump.  It was the stock in trade of folklorists to recognise it in the way that people approached the news.  A lot of what we knew and thought we knew was influenced by myths and legends, and historians hadn’t cottoned on.  Folklorists recognise stories (often known as ‘tall tales’) that are common throughout history, but historians don’t always recognise them for what they are.  We know that tall tales sometimes have an effect just like news. People act on them so presumably they believed them. Some of the 19th century street ballads that David and Steve had studied were spot on and give you the facts of the matter; others don ‘t. But the problem is that you can’t always tell the difference just by looking at them. Their example was taken from the evidence given by a contributor to the EFDSS Broadside Day on ballads about the opening of new railway lines.  Often these songs are absolutely right, but others are a complete fiction, and in some cases the same song is reprinted multiple times, just changing the station name!  Unfortunately, we can’t normally tell what the people believed and what they didn’t. We tend not to know whether the individuals who bought these songs were treating them as news or entertainment.

David gave an account of a ballad in chapbook which is printed with prose account of the same story, but as far as we know this Whittam ballad is entirely fictitious.  He noted that the similarity of some stories is also striking. The balladeers seem to have been using the news ballad as a format for  folk stories and urban myths.  ‘The Berkshire Tragedy’, for example, was reprinted many times but was probably not true.    

Finally, they reiterated the comment that by the 19th century there are plenty of newspapers but ballads seem to be doing something different.