music


At the end of September I killed several birds with one stone by taking a short trip to London.  As well as attending a Historical Association committee meeting, I spent an afternoon in the British Library and an evening at the Royal Historical Society lecture given by Professor Christopher Marsh, ‘The woman to the plow and the man to the hen-roost’: Wives, husbands and best-selling ballads in seventeenth-century England.

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He  made a case for seeking the origins of pop music in the 1590s not 1950s.  This was the decade of Thomas Deloney, and of ‘Mother Watkins Ale’  – a song full of innuendo and sporting a jaunty melody.  Written in a man’s voice, it provoked moral outrage, and Marsh described it as a lascivious under-song.

He then described the broadside ballad format which was developing in this period of a title, one or two woodcuts, a border, and the lyrics in two columns of type.  They were commercially driven and mass produced.  He argued that we would know little about ballads if not for educated men like Selden and Pepys.

The main focus of the lecture was the ways in which relationships between men and women were portrayed by balladeers.  He described them as a good source for scholars who work on the field of marriage and bewailed the distorting tendency of historians who most often deploy them to show problems with marriage, especially problems with women.  Most often, scholars use them to show ‘relationships endangered from within’ – the cuckolded husband or the murderous wife.  He argued that many historians were guitly of cherry-picking and pull out the ones which provide the evidence for what they want to show.  Instead, we need more sophisticated approach than source mining. In fact, early modern ballads assumed that marriage was part of the context.  Many included married couples and this in itself gives us insights into popular tastes.

His case studies were based on his project to produce versions of the best-sellers of the 17th century based on a wide range of criteria including the number editions, evidence that publishers keen to assert copyright, spread of time, whether they generate new names for tunes, and whether they were long-lasting.  He acknowledged that the list would nto be definitive, but claimed that it means we can be confident that the songs were very popular. The project seeks to provide an integrated approach to texts, tunes, pictures and performances.

The lecture was based on the 25 of the top 120 ballads which relate to marriage.  He sought to investigate how husbands and wives were represented and how this affects our understanding of ballads or of gender relations.  What I found particularly interesting, having looked at this area myself, is that the 25 popular marriage-related ballads are not the ones that scholars have usually picked out. When I looked at gender relations in ballads while I was writing Chapter 4 of my book, I wasn’t particularly bowled over with them, if I’m honest.  I couldn’t find a great deal that was interesting to say; after all, there’s only so many times you can say ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love, someone objects, but they overcome the obstacles’ or ‘boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl spurns boy’.  In the end, I left it out altogether.  What Chris Marsh managed to do, that I did not, was turn it into a fascinating angle in itself.   Because what it means is that historians haven’t picked out the most popular but rather the ones that are most useful to them.  The most popular marriage ballads don’t sit comfortably among the “marriage problems” trope.  The only unremittingly wicked wife is Eleanor – but her wickedness is related to the fact that she is Spanish, so she’s not indicative of English marriage.  In fact, she appears in her song as a contrast to the happily married mayor and his wife.

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8 more ballads have wicked wives and harried husbands, but there are subtleties. For example, in one ballad by Thomas Deloney the wife murders the husband, but although she’s gone awry, she is presented sympathetically.  Other ballads featured female adulterers, but they wer not the blunt and brutal lascivious wives of scholarly stereotype.  The rest of the 25 presented happy marriages. Although they show an acute awareness of the dangers in marriage, these were threatened by external forces not dangers within the bounds of marriage itself.  Often, as I noted myself but couldn’t find an angle to hang it on) the problem is with the parents, and based on the different social status of the protagonists.

Marsh asked important questions about who formed the audience for this type of material and suggested that maybe the ballads contributed a different way to the gender debate.  We don’t know who bought the virtuous wife ballads and why, but perhaps it was about how to find fulfilment in patriarchy by making it their own.  We have little evidence for the audience of early modern ballads, but he thinks it was often female because the majority of the opening ‘come all ye’s were aimed at females.

 

The fascinating lecture was illustrated by musical examples sung live by Vivien Ellis, accompanied by Chris on fiddle.  It was followed by some really interesting questions about the performance practice of ballads, their continued popularity and the ways in which gender is portrayed in music.

 

 

 

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Since my children returned to school the push has been on to complete the final stages of my book manuscript.  It’s due to go to the publisher at the end of September, so I’ve been doing all the tedious things that come with completion.  Things like making sure all the images that I am using were sorted out.  Unfortunately, I my application for a grant to pay for several broadside images was declined, so I’ve had to think very carefully about what I was going to use as illustrations.  I couldn’t afford to self-fund as many broadside images as I would have used if I’d been given a grant, because as well as the cost of paying for high quality digital images, there is the payment of permissions to consider.  So I’ve settled on two high quality images of broadsides from the British Library, one of which illustrates my first major case study about the production of broadside ballads and the other is the first English broadside ballad to appear with music. On the plus side, the fact that there won’t be so many bought-in images means that I can concentrate on scores. I’ve always wanted to include as many musical examples as possible, so I’ve been able to use those extra images to provide settings of several more ballads, including a couple of conjectural settings.  These show that some of the broadsides which look like ballads but don’t include a tune direction could easily have been sung.

There are other tedious things that I’ve been doing.  I’ve had to check that all the entries in the footnotes and bibliography are consistent; that spellings which aren’t uniform in the period are nevertheless uniform in the book text; that the spacing between paragraphs and quotations is correct; and even things as simple as renaminng image files with their figure numbers.

Then I reached a bit of a dead end.  I could continue to tinker with the text, because it’s there and it’s easy to do.  But I’m not convinced that it’s getting any better!  I can’t send it off to the publisher yet, because I’m waiting for a friend to read through the whole text and get back to me with any howlers, typos, repetition, ugly prose, confusing bits – all the sorts of things that when you’ve been working on the same text for several years, you can no longer see!  So I’ve put it to one side and I’m looking at a couple of other things, and there will be more on those later.

After being rather unwell at the beginning of 2016, I decided that this summer I would spend as much time on holiday as I could.  This was only made possible by the fact that we have access to a caravan that is currently in Oban, and we have a trailer tent, and it meant that the holidays were going to be in the UK.  A friend asked me if my children were happy with being forced to holiday in caravans and tents.  This got me thinking about what I gained from the holidays that I went on as a child, most of which were caravan holidays in the UK.  I decided that they are partly responsible for my interest in history – along with the folk music that I love, which I have written about before.

Glen Coe

Glen Coe

Glen Coe

I spent a lot of time at National Trust and English Heritage properties.  I spent a lot of time, therefore, in places where the present collides with the past.  I spent a lot of time in places where good stories, maybe even the best stories because they are true, come to life.  Take, for example, Glen Coe.  It’s a landscape that seems to have barely changed in hundreds of years.  You can just imagine the MacDonalds running and scrambling for their lives in February 1692.  This, for me, was always helped by knowing John McDermott’s The Massacre of Glencoe by The Corries. Somehow, it’s always made it easy for me to imagine Macbeth, too.

 

 

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Part of the beauty of Easedale Island is the pools of water left in the abandoned slate quarries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then in Wales, we went to Harlech Castle.  It was easy to see why it was built where it was – the commanding views over the surrounding coast and countryside are hard to beat.  There were piles of cannon balls lying around, and turrets to climb.  You could see the grooves where the portcullises (is that the plural of portcullis???) were lowered and raised.

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My youngest was particularly taken with a trip to Sygun Copper Mine, a Victorian mine which closed in 1903.  We went on an underground tour, which took in some spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, accompanied by atmospheric rumblings in the audio guide.  He was IMG_20160808_142454019especially impressed when he looked across the valley to Dinas Emrys and heard the legend of the sleeping dragons in the lake below the hill.  Vortigern was trying to build a stronghold against the Saxons on the hill of Dinas Emrys, but each night the builders’ work  was mysteriously reduced to piles of rubble.  Vortigern’s magicians recommended that he sacrifice a fatherless boy, but the chosen  boy explained that two dragons lay asleep in a lake under the hill.  Vortigern’s men dug into the hill and revealed two dragons: one red, the other white.  When the two dragons  were released from their slumber, they fought each other.  The eventual winner was the red dragon, symbolic of the Welsh victory over the Saxons.  The boy who knew the dragons lay under the hill? Merlin.
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My eldest, on the other hand, was fascinated by the industrial archaeology above the ground.  We decided to walk the Fisherman’s Path at Beddgelert, and found ourselves climbing Cwm Bychan, which is scattered with the remains of copper mining pylons.

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We passed Frongoch. Almost every day, in fact. It took me several days to place the name – I knew it was something to do with the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising but I couldn’t remember what, exactly, until we pulled up on our last day to have a look at the information board. Michael Collins had been interned there.  My daughter immediately made the link between Frongoch, Michael Collins and Michael by Johnny McEvoy.

(My summer holidays this year have gone by the subtitle a tour of the UK’s highest peaks which you can’t see because they are obscured by cloud, and the answer to my friend’s question was yes, the children seem to enjoy themselves, just like I did.)

Loch Linnhe, below Ben Nevis

Loch Linnhe, below Ben Nevis

Somewhere beneath that cloud is Snowdon

Somewhere beneath that cloud is Snowdon

With apologies for the length of the delay between posts (brought about by a computer faliure), here is the second piece about Elizabeth Parr and William Elderton:

William Elderton’s A proper new balad in praise of my Ladie Marques (London, 1569; STC (2nd ed.) / 7562) is unique among the surviving early ballad epitaphs in that it specifies the tune to which it was to be sung: ‘The Lusty Gallant’. With its implications of joyfulness and chivalry, ‘The Lusty Gallant’ may seem inappropriate for a verse epitaph, yet as you can see the words of A proper new balad fit the tune perfectly and the melody is in a minor mode – the Aeolian.

A proper new Balad in praise of my Ladie Marques whose Death is bewailed to the Tune of New lusty gallant-p1al7bfl541esn1sdtgt1it91qj8

Actually, it’s debateable whether the initial upbeat on the first verse is necessary. Originally, I put it in because it matched the bouncy crotchet-quaver rhythm of the rest of the line. The lyrics work equally well, however, with no upbeat, because it emphasises the first syllable of ‘Ladies’ by placing it on the stronger beat of the bar.  It also matches the three-quaver rhythm of the second line. I’ve played around with both and I’m undecided.

I left Facebook, for a variety of reasons, last autumn and I haven’t really missed it.  But I have just rediscovered my MySpace page.  I had completely forgotten that I’d had it, if I’m honest.  I’ve just spent a while playing with it, but the reason that I wanted to mention it here is that, for some long time, I’ve wanted to be able to share with you some of the ballads that I’ve been learning about and I haven’t been able to because WordPress, in it’s free form at least, doesn’t support that type of content.  MySpace, on the other hand, does.  At the moment, my page still only contains a few of the songs that I recorded at Shamrock Studios in 2000 with my folk band, Triptych, but I hope that in the future I might be able to post some of the home recordings of ballads that I’ve made over the last few years.

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