The Centre of Brindle – (c) Jenni Hyde

This is the fifth in a short series of posts on my research into John Balshaw’s Jig. It’s a short ‘musical comedy’ written by a man in Brindle, Lancashire, in the mid-seventeenth century.  I found the manuscript in the British Library a couple of years ago, and transcribed it, and I’ve already written a blog post about that.  It wasn’t taken up by the journal I sent it to, but in some respects I’m quite glad, as it’s given me the chance to expand the project a little further.  I’m now hoping that it’s going to be published next year by the Regional Heritage Centre at Lancaster University. 

John Balshaw’s Jig is, essentially, a seventeenth century musical. It’s sung throughout, but rather than having its own bespoke melodies, it is set to a series of ballad tunes. We can tell this because the tunes are named in the text, and they don’t relate to the words. This was standard practise for broadside ballads – often, they simply named an existing tune, whereas if the tune had been newly created for the song, it became known by the title of that song, its first line or its refrain.

Take ‘Welladay’, for example:

A Ballad Intituled, a Newe well a daye
As playne maister Papist, as Donstable waye.

Well a daye well a daye, well a daye woe is mee
Syr Thomas Plomtrie is hanged on a tree.

AMonge maye newes
As touchinge the Rebelles
their wicked estate,
Yet Syr Thomas Plomtrie,
their preacher they saie,
Hath made the North countrie, to crie well a daye.

Well a daye, well a daye, well a daye, woe is me,
Syr Thomas Plomtrie is hanged on a tree.

This ballad about Thomas Plumtree and the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569-70 is the earliest known ballad to the ‘Welladay’ tune. But it doesn’t SAY that the tune is ‘Welladay’ – it seems to be a new tune that then became known by the first line of the refrain (although I will grant you that the title might suggest that this was a ‘new’ Welladay to compare with a previous ‘old’ Welladay! Anyway, you get the principle).

Sometimes, when a tune was used for a particularly popular song, it took on the name of that ballad. This means that the same tune can sometimes go by several names. One tune called ‘The Twenty-Ninth of May’, which appeared in 1667, went by the names of ‘May Hill, or the Jovial Crew’, ‘The Jovial Beggar’ and ‘The Restoration of King Charles’ over the following fifty years.[1]

So John Balshaw wrote his Jig to existing tunes. In some cases it was easy to find them, as they were included in our two main modern sources for early modern ballad tunes, William Chappell’s Popular Music of the Olden Time and Claude Simpson’s The British Broadside Ballad and its Music. But for most of the tunes, such confident identifications were impossible. The survival rates of broadside ballads are low, we have even fewer tunes, and it’s possible that some of the tunes he used were for songs in the oral tradition, or even a local oral tradition. The combination of these problems means that it is impossible to make a positive identification of all the tunes used in John Balshaw’s Jig. Instead, in some cases I have made a ‘conjectural setting’ of the song.  By this, I mean that I have selected, from those melodies which we know to have been in circulation during the mid-seventeenth century, a suitable tune which fits the metre of the lyrics.  I’ve said before that this is the process that I think people would have used in Tudor and Stuart England if they didn’t know the tune to a song – they would have made one up, or found one to fit.

Ultimately, what I wanted was to provide a full set of tunes which could be used for the Jig so that it could be brought back to life and performed in Brindle sometime in the post-lockdown future.

[1] William Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time, 2 vols. (London: Cramer, Beale and Chappell, 1855), II, p. 491.