This is the third 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 coffee (or in my case, tea) and pastries (yum!) in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre at the Weston Library, we were treated to a viewing of some of the Bodleian’s collection of ballads in the Horton Room. It is always lovely to get a close up look at the ballads, especially the ones in different formats, because most of the time, I work on the digital facsimiles on EEBO or EBBA.

One of the ballads included this fascinating image of a printer shop! Siv had pulled out a 16th-century ballad especially for me, and I was thrilled to discover that it was a piece by William Elderton that I had been writing about only a few days before attending the workshop, as it is one of the broadsides that I included in my EDPOP paper (I am currently putting the finishing touches to the publication version).

Next, it was time for a series of lightning presentations of 8-10 minutes on British ballads, charied by Giles Bergel. First to speak was Angela McShane. She talked about ‘A Ballad: News and No News’. The title of the paper comes from the poem in Pills to Purge Melancholy, which satirises the idea of news.  Angela reiterated her belief that ballads don’t tell the news – you need to already know the news to understand them.   She pointed out that the historiography sets the ballad against newspapers in competition.  She argued that we need to get rid of the competition, because it’s not about one being replaced by the other.  Acknowledging the seventeenth-century distinction between type faces, she claimed that campaigning ballads are in white letter, whereas the rest appear in black letter. Although there is drop in numbers once the periodical press appears, this is of white letter ballads, and they reappear, so the drop is not sustained.   She pointed out the peaks in printing the whole range of publications and the ballad publications specifically are in the same place.

Anglea asked why we talk about ballads and their newsworthiness rather than news which is ballad-worthy?  She suggested that we need to think about the interaction between ballads and pamphlets, as some printers produces both.   They do something different.  Interestingly, this is something else which has cropped up in the article version of my EDPOP paper, and it’s something I was already planning to develop over the summer by using corpus linguistics.  There will be more on that in another post, I think!

Anyway, Angela argued that the function of a ballad is crucial to understanding it.  The two areas most commonly identified as ballad topics are the military song and the execution ballad. These are the topics that have led to the perceived ‘competition’ between ballads and newspapers.  She suggested that ballads were reissued for their emotive use; for example, ‘The Honour of Bristol’ was reissued every time there was a recruiting campaign.  Again, the point was made that protest songs demonstrate the fraught relationship between producer and market; Angela argued that one of the key things about political songs is that they lead to something, either inspiring action or creating public debate.

Oskar Cox Jensen’s short paper ‘The Blooming Beauty of Surrey’ aimed to set nineteenth-century broadside ballads in the context of the previous 300 years.  Many of these are about neighbourhood and the community, often making them local songs.  He suggested that these ballads are either anachronistic or what we understand about 1865 London is wrong. 

The ballad singer he studied was arrested for his part in the nine-hour-wonder of the marriage of Alice Cross. At the age of 20, this sole heir to her family’s fortunes eloped with George Smith.  As they were not able to get married, Smith charged with abduction.  Then the girl’s father allowed the marriage, and the couple were surrounded by sympathetic crowds when they got married.  The authorities had trouble preventing a riot.  The ballad singer was drunk, singing a ballad and surrounded by a crowd. His singing caused a complete obstruction of the street. Oskar argued that the authorities’ reaction not only illustrated contemporary fears that the ballad singer was capable of creating a disturbance, but also fears about the vagrant singer as masterless and mobile.  

The third paper in the series was mine, and I chose to bring to the table a summary of my recent and current work, since in doing so I would address many of the questions that Siv had circulated before the workshop as starting points for our papers and discussions. It also meant that people would know my general areas of interest in case there was any potential for fruitful comparison or cooperation. First, I talked about my book, Singing the News, and its aim to treat the news ballad as part of the ballad genre in mid-Tudor England:

  • It focusses on ballads as song as far as it is possible to do so
  • Looked at the music and process of contrafactum (re-use of tunes)
  • Many of the songs style themselves as news and make claims about truth
  • Some have more information than others, but then so do modern newspapers!
  • There were fewer topical songs in the manuscript collections than print
  • They rely on oral transmission, especially of the tunes, therefore their social context is one of the keys to understanding them. 
  • We know that people talked about the issues raised by the songs they sang and heard

Then I mentioned the comparative work with Massimo Rospocher for EDPOP, looking at the similarities and differences between Italian and English news ballads:

  • Italian ballads were not printed on broadsides but in pamphlets, and their heyday is the earlier sixteenth century
  • There are more surviving tunes from English repertoire
  • Italian ballads contain much more foreign news, which I suspect (although I haven’t really tested this theory yet) is due to the different nature of English foreign policy – it was much less active than Italian foreign policy in the relative periods for which we have more topical ballads (so the beginning of the sixteenth century in Italy compared with the end of the sixteenth century in England)
  • There was quite a bit of overlap between pamphlet and ballad news and some degree of textual overlap. I even found one early Stuart ballad which points out that you can get more information from a pamphlet. In the immediate future, I am going to look in more detail at what is covered by topical ballads in the late sixteenth-century and investigate their relationship with pamphlets in some depth.
  • We also looked at the idea of sensationalism, as understood by Joy Wiltenburg, who wrote that ‘sensationalist text uses emotional resonance to draw its audience, assuming a given emotional response’ in order to shape ‘shared values and individual identity’.[1] 

I described how my next major project will be on Ballads, Thomas Cromwell and the Pilgrimage of Grace, so not directly on ‘news’ ballads but on the role of songs in bringing people together, the problem of noise and disorder, the process of ballad transmission, and their potential for sedition.

Joad Raymond’s lightning presentation argued that ballads are not primarily a news form.  They tell a story. This is not to say that ballads aren’t published in response to significant events, but that they are about packaging the story in an interesting way.  News isn’t about forms or truth, but instead works by bundling different things together.  People get their news for more than one source and they expect to do so.  He suggested that ballads need to be supplemented by social performance as I had pointed out, and that they provide the occasion for people to get the context. 

Joad pointed out that historians have gravitated towards text, but we need to think about the ways music changes things.  The nature of creativity means that performance changes the messages and makes them more didactic, adding layers of meaning and an emotional perspective.  By positioning them as news we miss the point that the text serves as an occasion for music. He suggested that we would be better served by thinking of them as a set of materials for making a performance.

Matthew O. Grenby’s presentation was on the 18th century election ballads from Newcastle Upon Tyne between 1774-80.  Elections like these throw up a welter of cultural articles, including ceramics, as well as an upsurge in print. There were lots of election ballads. Some were printed, but others were manuscript ballads which were collected at the time. A printed compendium was made because people didn’t want them to disappear.  Election ballads were often unillustrated. Their tunes were named, and these melodies included traditional, high cultural and original ones. Particular tunes were associated with one side or another

These songs don’t claim to have been written on behalf of the candidates but instead employ a dispassionate tone (despite being on one side or another.)  Matthew argued that they required quite a high degree of political literacy, which points to many more people being politically literate than actually have a vote.  They are markedly literary, having footnotes to explain dialect etc.  Matthew claimed that they were too complicated to be understood if you heard it once or twice therefore they were written to be read at leisure.  Furthermore, they were not on the market but were targeted at clearly defined groups.

It was fascinating to hear him say that these songs could be an immediate intervention in what was going on because they have no life beyond the day they were written.  Their aim to drive the vote out, as every day the newspapers and poll books recorded how many people had voted for each of the candidates. He therefore plans to look at whether any of the ballads can be shown to have affected the course of voting


[1] Joy Wiltenburg, ‘True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism’, American Historical Review, 109:5 (2004), pp. 1379-80.