A couple of years ago I was sitting in the British Library calling up various documents that might be ballad-related, when I came across John Balshaw’s Jig. What really captured my interest was the fact that Balshaw apparently wrote the piece in Brindle, Lancashire, in 1660. Now Brindle is a little place near Chorley, and about 13 miles away from me by car – fewer as the crow flies. Balshaw’s Jig was a short dramatic piece in verse, probably danced as it was sung to a series of popular tunes of the day, and I spent some time in the months following the find transcribing the text of the jig. But although I found it really interesting, life got in the way and the file was sidelined on my computer for some time, while I carried on with my teaching.

St James’s Parish Church, Brindle CC BY-SA 2.0

Then in January, I began teaching on the Civil War course at Lancaster, and during the summer, I started thinking about the jig again. I couldn’t really remember the plot, and I hadn’t noticed anything particularly significant about the lyrics, but I decided to dig it out and look at it with fresh eyes. And it turned out to be quite a sight.

I started by reading the script through again, looking at the plot in more detail and writing a synopsis as I went along. The jig involves 6 characters in a prologue and 4 scenes, and is based on a fairly standard ‘thwarted lovers’ plot: the girl and boy swear their eternal love, but the girl’s wicked uncle has taken her lands and property and wants to marry his daughter to the boy instead, until fate intervenes and the girl’s fortunes are restored. But there is a twist: the wicked uncle and his daughter are parliamentarians, while the girl and her lover (and his father) are royalists. Fate, in this particular case, takes the form of King Charles II, whose return to London up-ends the balance of power.

Once I’d written the synopsis, I started looking for the music. Each of the four scenes and the prologue are set to different tunes. A couple of the tunes had already been identified by the British Library cataloguer, but I’ve also suggested tunes which might fit the other scenes and provided scores for all of them.

I then went back to the beginning of the document and wrote some introductory paragraphs about jigs, John Balshaw and the manuscript he left behind. I tried hard to find any reference to the man himself, but I couldn’t. More to the point, I couldn’t work out why the BL catalogue claimed that he died in 1679 – there is nothing on the manuscript to sugest this, nor do the Lancashire parish clerk records contain any indication. I even went so far as to contact the BL archivists to ask if they knew where the information came from, but they don’t. So Balshaw remains something of an enigma. in the next section, I provided some context on the civil war, interregnum and their effects on Lancashire. Finally, I expanded my synopsis to provide a commentary on the drama.

All in all, I’m quite pleased with the piece, and I’ve sent it off for consideration by a folk journal. What I’d really like to do, though, is to direct a performance in Brindle! It seems right to take it back where it was born.