This is the sixth 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. 

Over the years, performance has become central to the way I practise my research into songs. You get much more of a feel for what they mean and what they were like when you actually sing them. So it was that on a wet weekend in June, stuck in the house, I found myself singing through John Balshaw’s Jig. I used my phone to make rough recordings of each song, which meant that not only did I get a sense of how they might have sounded, but I also had some idea how long they might have taken to perform. Of course, there are several problems. Firstly, it was just me singing through songs that were intended, in some cases, for 6 people, so it didn’t really give me a feel for the dialogue. Nevertheless, it was quite instructive in its own way. I discovered, for example, that the prologue takes only 3 minutes (a fairly standard pop song length), and three of the four main scenes run to about 10 minutes each. The final scene, however, is a tour de force of some strength. Lasting in the region of 20-25 minutes, it’s sung to a tune with a range of an octave and a 6th. As you might expect from what is, essentially, a finale, the whole cast is involved, which means that all 6 singers have to be pretty competent performers.

All told, I reckon the Jig would take about an hour to sing, but of course it’s not that straightforward, because this is a theatrical performance, not just a song. There are entries and exits for each character and the characters have to interact with one another. To my mind, it is in many ways more like a pantomime than a concert, albeit that it is sung right through.

So the following afternoon, I roped in the rest of the family to give it a read through. It was really only a tentative first go, and they had never seen the script before, so it was by no means perfect, but it became clear that it really is quite funny in places. Even my children thought it was okay (and yes, I know I’m lucky to have children who are prepared to take part in a seventeenth century drama, even if it is only at home). It really invites acting out, and I’m pretty certain that there would be some pretty lewd horseplay from the ‘fool’ character. Whoever Balshaw was, he could certainly tell his tale, and I am now more convinced than ever that this Jig richly deserves a full stage performance, preferably in Brindle!