March 2020

I’m used to working from home. Up until last September, I did it a lot. I’ve never found it particularly difficult to motivate myself, nor fallen prey to the many possible distractions. Even having three children and my other half in the house, I’m pretty good at either ignoring them, or dropping things for a few minutes without losing my flow when I needed to.

But there’s something a bit different about having to work from home. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve ‘had’ to work from home before – I never had office space for my PhD and when that finished, I had no job. But the instruction to work from home due to the coronavirus outbreak has already made me slightly stir crazy. There seems to be a psychological difference between working from home because it’s the only option, and working from home because you’ve been told you shouldn’t go out unless you have to. It doesn’t help that I have really settled in to working at Lancaster, and have got used to catching up with friends in the department.

Last weekend, to take my mind off things, I started tidying. Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of the things I do ever-so-slightly compulsively when I’m stressed. I’ve never discussed it with anyone who would know, but I can only assume that I try to control the space around me because I can’t control the rest of my life. It also gets me doing something rather than just sitting around and thinking. As a result, my office is the tidiest it’s ever been. All ready to start the avalanche of marking which is due to arrive next Tuesday, and to start a new project when I have time to get on with some research. It remains to be seen how well I can concentrate… And, of course, I have to decide whether or not it’s worth starting on another project which may or may not get finished, if I can’t stay in academia…

This is just a quick announcement that History has accepted my article ‘Gender, Authority and the Image of Queenship in English and Scottish Ballads, 1553-1603‘. It’s based on papers I gave to the Mary I Quincentenary Conference in 2016 and the EFDSS Broadside Ballad Day in 2019, and it should appear at the end of this year or early next.

So as I was able to announce earlier this week, the article based on my paper to the MedRen Conference in Maynooth in 2018 has appeared in early view on the Renaissance Studies website, although it’s come a long way from that initial idea.

The starting point for the article was the earliest printed music on a broadside ballad, which appears on A New Ballad of a Lover Extolling his Lady, published in 1568 by William Griffith. The tune is ‘Damon and Pythias’, but the problem is that it’s catastrophically wrong – it contains unsingable intervals such as the tritone (also known, with good reason, as the devil in music!). William Chappell described the score as ‘Mere claptrap jumble to take in the countryman’.[1]

But to my mind, that description does it a massive disservice. It was too expensive and difficult to print music in the sixteenth century for Griffith to have thought the notation just made a pretty picture.  A woodcut of two lovers would be more fitting and much easier to produce.  The music must be there for a reason. It is, in fact, the victim of a misprint – it needs a different clef – and, of course, I’m not the first person to suggest this. But what’s interesting to me is the fact that he tried to produce music on a broadside ballad at all. Why?

If you look at Griffith’s ballad in the wider context of early popular vocal music, printers seem to have been trying out all sorts of things, some of which were clearly influenced by the success of Sternhold and Hopkins’ Whole Book of Psalms. Indeed, the popularity of psalm singing increased dramatically during the mid-sixteenth century and the influence of such a major development in vocal music was felt across the musical spectrum.

Congregational psalm-singing was in its infancy, yes, but it seems also to have been in vogue. And just like ballads, it is likely that most people learned the tunes by ear, often fitting alternative words to some of the most popular melodies, in much the same way that ballad tunes were learned by ear and fitted to new words. This was particularly easy for psalms because the majority of Sternhold and Hopkins’ verses (131 of the 156 versions) were in ballad metre.[2] It has four-line stanzas, usually with an ABCB rhyme scheme. The first and third lines have four accented syllables while the second and fourth have three.[3] And of course, the Sternhold and Hopkins psalter was explicitly designed to appeal to everyone just like ballads did.

So the fact that Griffith made an attempt, however incorrect it may be, to provide the correct tune, says more to me than incompetance. What I see is a printer trying something different – possibly something he didn’t even really understand himself – to see whether it sold. We know that there were increasing numbers of musically literate amateurs in the later sixteenth century. Single-sheet part-songs such as Saunce Remedy, a fragment now held in the British Library, were published with an eye to amateur music-makers who were also interested in sharing their music with others.[4] After all, not everyone would have been able to afford an expensive set of part books. I suspect that Griffith was acting entrepreneurially – maybe he thought there was the possibility of a spur of the moment purchase if music could be produced more ephemerally.

It isn’t the only work inspired by the popularity of psalm-singing being printed around that time. Other examples include the thanksgiving songs which Katherine Butler examined in her article ‘Creating Harmonious Subjects? Ballads, Psalms and Godly Songs for Queen Elizabeth I’s Accession Day’ for the Journal of the Royal Musical Association in 2015. Like some ballads, these songs sometimes had an implicit meaning based on the associations of the psalm tune to which they were sung. These songs were designed to appeal to people who enjoyed psalm-singing, either in groups or as solo songs. And although they could be sung alone, these thanksgiving songs lent themselves to group performance on instruments or voices, encouraging sociability among families and friends.  They also made cheap and cheerful souvenirs of festive occasions.

The same can be said for Richard Beeard’s A Godly Psalme of Marye Queene. This was another piece printed by William Griffith some 15 years before A New Ballad of a Lover. It appeared soon after Mary I’s accession in 1553 and rather than being a broadside, it is a 12 page pamphlet which includes music in 4 parts. It’s not as easy to sing as the Sternhold and Hopkins psalm tunes, but it’s not enormously difficult either, and I wonder if it might have formed part of the pageantry for Mary I’s coronation.

Griffith was a specialist in printing popular musical items, and he clearly had access to musical type. So maybe A New Ballad of a Lover was an experiment, to see if there was a market for songs with simple musical notation. It didn’t exist in isolation. Instead, it was just one element of a burgeoning culture of musical literacy, an increasing market for print of all types, and a society which enjoyed communal singing of recreational songs. But it seems that when it came to ballads, the culture of learning by ear was too strong: musical notation never became a standard feature of broadside ballads.

[1] J. Lilly, A Collection of Seventy-Nine Black Letter Ballads and Broadsides (London, 1867), 278.

[2] Nicholas Temperley, Howard Slenk, Jan Luth et al, ‘Psalms, Metrical in Grove Music Online <> [accessed March 2018]; Nicholas Temperley, ‘All Skillful Praises Sing’, 544.

[3] Bill Gahan, ‘The Ballad Measure in Print’, English Broadside Ballad Archive (2007), <> [accessed March 2018].

[4] John Milsom, ‘Songs and Society in Early Tudor London’, Early Music History, 16 (1997), 276 & 79.

I’m really pleased to announce that last week, my first proper research article appeared online in Early View for Renaissance Studies. It’s based on the paper I gave in 2018 to the MedRen conference in Maynooth, and uses the incorrect music on A New Ballad of a Lover Extolling his Lady to explore some of the interesting oddities of early English popular song.

It’s called Mere Claptrap Jumble? Music and Tudor Cheap Print

A couple of weeks ago I gave a performance of Tudor news ballads for the local history society where I live. It was great fun, as it was their after dinner entertainment rather than a straight public history talk.

I took my other half along to provide the accompaniment, and we performed a selection of songs from the sixteenth century, including hits by William Elderton and Thomas Deloney. The idea was to sing extracts from the songs and to set them in a bit of context by explaining some of the important themes. I’m hoping that we’ll get chance to perform them again somewhere.