This is the fourth 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.

Our British ballad lightning presentations took us up to lunch, which again we had in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre. I was fascinated to see two eras of printing juxtaposed in the room, with a modern computer printer visible behind the old printing press!

The afternoon was dominated by another set of lightning presentations from scholars working on European news ballads, chaired by Siv. The first paper was given by Alison Sinclair – ‘What is news if you are in Spain?’  She started by asking if Spain might be different because of the population distribution being affected by geographical features such as mountain ranges.  Her sources are the Spanish chapbooks collection, the Mapping Pliegos project, and Iberian Books.  ‘What is news?’ sets up a dichotomy between the passing versus the enduring. Alison argued that if it’s a good story it will carry on.  What counts as a good story is different in different places and at different times.  She wondered how far the ballad is a special form of red herring, questioning whether something in verse is already culturally constructed and the ballad is therefore another stage.

Regarding ballads’ claims to tell the truth, she pointed out that some cultures make a linguistic distinction between what we know because we saw it, and what we know about because we’ve heard about it.  In fact, the themes and functions of ballads might be a difficult area to study.  After all, she noted that we can’t assume that everyone had a particular reaction to didactic material. 

Next up was Jeroen Salman, who organised the EDPOP conference that I attended in Utrecht last summer. Jeroen talked about ‘News Ballads and Street Sellers in the Low Countries (1500-1700)’. He described himself as more of an expert on the infrastructure around the dissemination of popular print than on the ballad itself.  His priority is to try to recover the people who were involved in the dissemination of cheap material, not least because oral culture influences political culture.  He argued that the ballads should be seen in the context of other material.

The Low Countries were rather different in the period because of the reformation context. The Dutch Republic saw better literacy and transport so the book trade spread out across country.  There were still lots of pedlars and street sellers even after the widening of the book trade.  In the Low Countries, these people can be divided into four sorts: the occasional pedlar, who only sold items seasonally or in times of need; pedlars of printed matter and other goods; pedlars of printed matter exclusively; and the specialist pedlar who sold only songs. It seems that there were no singers that didn’t sell?

There is a turning point in Low Countries in 1550 at beginning of the Dutch revolt.    Now ballad sellers considered seditious and considered to be selling seditious material. Instead, books of beggar songs incorporated former single sheet songs. Nevertheless, some ballad singers became famous as well-known local entertainers. 

Una McIlvenna then gave a short presentation on Italian ballads.  Her biggest headache is that nothing is digitised. Italian ballads have no tune indication but there are only 3 metrical forms:

  • Terza rima: 1st person accounts in the voice of noble person who is repentant for their crime
  • Ottava rima: provide a linear chronology of events that happened – eg songs about battles
  • Barzoletta: fun, satirical songs with a chorus (the world means jest or joke).

This means that there is a repertoire of tunes that you can sing to each metrical structure. 

David Hopkin spoke next, on ‘Broadside Ballads in Nineteenth-Century France: Accounting for an Absence’.  He argued that folksongs are important because they show what is taken into common memory, and there are few if any folksongs that would have been topical songs when they were written. When French folksong collectors they tried to collect them, there were few historical ballads in the canon and the historical memory in song had vanished.  There are, however, printed ballads.  In these, crime becomes the dominant theme because it’s less political.  They have a very prominent black and white picture.

But although these things are printed, they have no impact on the oral repertoire. David wanted to think about why this might be:

  1. More than half the murder ballads are to the same tune.
  2. Canards (ballads) in France are in competition with popular imagery, which is a much more popular form of cheap print because they are in colour, not black and white like the images on the ballads.  They also have a song, but the visual element is more important and the song isn’t part of how they are sold.  They are more complicated to make because they require stencils for the colouring, but they have huge print runs.  The people who make the prints come from a different background in playing card manufacture rather than moveable print.
  3. Lyricization – there are elements of the historical ballads in the tradition, but people have cut out the historical reference in the songs to leave just the timeless story – eg the boy talking to the girl. This process happens very quickly, and the folklorist doesn’t always pick this up as being the same song as the historical ballad.

The next panellist was the first doctoral student to work on the Norwegian skilling ballads, Anne Sigrid Refsum. She reminded us that Norway was a province of Denmark for 400 years until its push for independence resulted in 6 months of independence before a further union with Sweden.  The subject of her presentation was ‘Ole Høiland – a Sung Hero of the Norwegian Lower Classes’. Born to poor parents in 1797, he was notorious criminal with a Robin Hood-like reputation (although that analogy was invoked to help we Brits understand, rather than being a contemporary Norwegian one!).  As he escaped from prison several times, he became a symbol of the Norwegian push for liberty. 

Høiland was the subject of a long list of songs.  These ballads were not moralising, but instead used his exploits as a way to debate liberty and independence between Norway and Sweden. Høiland’s only critic is a colleague (and competitor), the second-most famous criminal of the time.

Anne Sigrid asked whether we can consider the songs to be the voice of the people?  They seem to have been written for them.  The printer, Hansen, sold the songs from his home in the poor area of town, suggesting that he was writing for and selling to his neighbours.  Even if they were not the authentic voice of the people, ballads about these criminals were part of a political discourse which reached the lowest levels of society.

The final paper in this set was presented by Karin Strand: ‘On Swedish Execution Ballads’. Karin is working on infanticide, comparing the execution ballads to the verifiable details of the crimes in order to shed light on women’s history.  She described how the newsworthiness (or perhaps balladworthiness) of these songs was not the crime itself but the punishment –the beheading of the condemned woman.  Interestingly, the Norwegian ballads are in the future tense, implying that the execution hadn’t yet happened.  The songs are headlined with the name of the criminal, as well as the date and place of execution.  But in the ballad text itself we have the first person lyrical confession of the woman and the story of their journey to salvation (it was, after all, never too late for forgiveness).  By the early 19th century, after the establishment of news media and mass production, we see the genre develop into a combination of prose texts and songs.  The ballads provide an emotional, subjective exposition of the event.