I’ve spent a lot of time since the beginning of the year recording ballads for this website to accompany my new book. This is first in a short series of posts about what I’ve been up to.

First, I must thank Stephen Kelly for prompting me to begin this project.   While I was working at Hope before Christmas, Stephen came to speak for the Historical Association in Bolton, so I gave him a lift across from Liverpool after work.  We were chatting about all sorts of things, the book among them, and Stephen asked if there would be recordings to go with the book.  When I replied in the negative, he remarked that it was a shame, as it would be good to hear examples as well as see them. I’d always wanted to have recordings of the songs in the book, but I’d written that idea off when that aspect of it wasn’t picked up by the publishers.  Stephen pointed out that in this day and age, it wasn’t really necessary to have a CD, as I could just put them on the internet.  So I went away and started mulling it over.

The first step was to talk to my husband. He’s a graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music and, like me, a former music teacher (although he did it for a lot longer than I did).  If he could help me by sorting out the musical arrangements for guitar or piano, it would save me a lot of time – in fact, without his help I simply wouldn’t have had time to get it finished, what with the travelling and teaching I was doing too.  He also agreed to accompany the songs, and sing some of the male parts for me.

The next one was to ask Father Christmas for a more advanced digital recorder.  I already had a pocket sized one, which was pretty good, but some of the pieces in the book have four parts, so in order to record them with just the two of us, we needed to multitrack them.  Enter the Tascam DR-40.  It took us a little while to get to know it, which became considerably easier when we found its instruction book on the internet.  And Tascam, if you’re listening, something to indicate that more comprehensive instructions are available than those which come in the box wouldn’t go amiss!

Once I’d finished proofreading the book text and writing the index, my next priority was to get stuck into the recordings. We thought we started well, until we tried to put them on the computer. Then we realised that the reason playback was so quiet on the recorder was because the recording was quiet, not because the recorder couldn’t play it back any louder.  A rookie mistake, and one that cost us a couple of days’ work.  Once we’d got that sorted out, things progressed much better, although it was a bit demoralising to have to re-record several of songs we’d already done.

Another mistake was not to disconnect the phone.  We’d got more than ten minutes into one of the songs, only about 4 verses from the end, when my fiend rang.  Normally, he rings my mobile, which was on silent in another room, but that day he chose to ring the landline.  A lesson soon learned.

The recordings aren’t all perfect, but we think they give a flavour of how the songs might have sounded.  And they certainly fulfil my main aim, which was to help people to understand how they could have sounded – that’s so much easier with a recording than it is on paper.


Earlier this week, I had an email from the publisher of my book to say that it has gone to the printer.  According to their website, it is due for publication on 22 February, so it’s not long now.  It’s an exciting, if somewhat scary, prospect.

I decided that it was about time I created my author profile on the Routledge website.   It took me most of a day, but I’m quite pleased with the result.  The other thing that I wanted to get finished before the book actually came out was the supporting recordings of the musical examples from the book. We finished the recordings on Tuesday, and I started uploading them to Soundcloud, which allows me to embed links into a new page on this site.  The only slight hitch with this process was that Soundcloud allows you to upload 3 hours of music – but some of the ballads take about 15 minutes to perform, and many of them are more than 10 minutes long.  Three hours doesn’t go far under those circumstances!  Anyway, I finished the process this morning, so everything is ready for the book to come out.

9781138553477I spent a lot of my Christmas and new year checking the copy edit and page proofs of my forthcoming book Singing the News, and writing the index.  It was a strange experience.  My fiend rang one day while I was sitting at my desk staring at the page proofs, and asked if I were enjoying myself.  Well, that was an interesting question.  My feelings varied quite dramatically, from ‘That’s quite good’ through ‘Why on earth did I express myself like that?’ to ‘I don’t remember writing this at all’.

I had something akin to an existential crisis over whether to use a comma or semi colon in one particular sentence.  I know the rules.  I just couldn’t make them work.  And the more I stared, the more confused I became.  I revisited that sentence at least 8 times over the course of 4 weeks, and I’m still not certain that it’s right. There were some problems and some confusion with short titles in the footnotes, which meant some to-ing and fro-ing with the production department.  I even made the mistake of running a search for ‘ye’ to check that I’d expanded every appearance of the thorn – I only found 3 places where ‘ye’ meant ‘the’, but the two letters appear everywhere, and of course the search didn’t differentiate.  It found ‘ye’ in the running titles of four chapters, every past tense of a word ending in y, almost every early modern word ending in y, ‘yet’, ‘year’, and a host of other occurences. I finally finished that particular run-through 20 minutes later!

The biggest problem I hit was that I had sent the wrong image to the publishers for one of the musical examples.  I checked the musical analysis in the text, scrolled down the page and realised that the figure only included a melody line.   Disaster.  Because three or four lines of melody only takes a third of a page.  Three or four lines of melody with lute accompaniment takes a full page, so it has a knock on effect on the pagination that could run for pages, or even the whole book.  I couldn’t have spotted it before the proofs arrived because the copy edited document didn’t contain the images, just the call outs.  I was lucky.  For one thing, I had an understanding production manager.  For another, there was a spare half page at the end of the chapter that sucked up the run over.

I mostly came away with a feeling of how I would write it differently now.  For one thing, I would modernise the spellings, or at the very least, change the old ‘u’ and ‘i’s to ‘v’ and ‘j’.  But there are other parts where I think I could write it much better now.

In the run up to Christmas, I taught for four weeks on Liverpool Hope’s second year witchcraft and witch-hunting course.  It was interesting to look into the subject in more depth than we do on the first year survey course, especially as I had lectures to write as well as seminars and tutorials to run.  I covered aspects of the Lancashire witch trials (very appropriate given how close I live to Pendle!), the East Anglia witch hunt and Matthew Hopkins, witchcraft in North America, the Salem witch trials and finally, the decline of witch beliefs, which meant that I was able to finish with my favourite image – one that serendipitously appeared on Twitter just as I was writing the lectures:


We had some very interesting discussions, most notably about the seventeenth-century belief in predestination and how it would affect the way you lived your life, but also about the nature of evidence that historians use to back up their claims.  The students gave some very good presentations on book chapters that they had read, identifying the key arguments and how they fitted in to wider scholarship.

All in all, it was a great experience.  I even got to pretend I had a ‘proper’ job, as I had an office to disappear to between lectures!

Amazon page capture

1st January 2018. The start of the year when my first book will be published.  And it came as something of a surprise to me to see that Amazon is telling me it will be released on 22 February, as I was expecting it to be March, and what’s more, I am still checking the page proofs!

I’ve got several plans for 2018.  The first is to record all the musical examples featured in the book.  I’m going to post the recordings on this website.  I’ve also got a big funding application to work on and some smaller ideas to knock into shape.  And of course, there is the Pilgrimage of Grace article to revise and submit to another journal.

That should all keep me busy.



At the end of September I went down to London to hear a paper by Chris Marsh at the Royal Historical Society, so I took the opportunity to travel down a bit ahead of time and spend the afternoon in the British Library.  This is something I haven’t done for a couple of years, for one thing because it isn’t all that easy for me to get down there, but also because up to now I’ve been working mainly on the documents that I found while I was carrying out my doctoral research.  But with the submission of the manuscript to Routledge, the time has come to move on.  This post is less about what I found when I was there and more about the process of carrying out the research itself.  It’s about how I work.


I only knew that I would be going to London a couple of days in advance, so I had to drop everything and start finding something to look at when I was there.  The first job, in fact, was to check up on how to renew my reader’s pass, as it had expired since I last went.  Once I’d got that sorted out, I knew that I would only have a few hours in the library itself. This affects the way I work, I think: I need to make sure that I am well prepared with a list of exactly what I want to look at.

I ran a search on the British Library Archives and Manuscripts catalogue for ‘ballad’, up to the mid-seventeenth century, and read through the descriptions of each result (of which there were many).  If I thought it looked potentially interesting, I copied the entry into Word, making each manuscript number a heading and including the descriptions for each entry.  It makes for a long document (at the moment, it’s 45 pages long!), but at least every item was easily accessible and the descriptions mean that when I’m in the library I know what I’m looking for and where to find it in the manuscript itself.  Next, I sorted the descriptions into the order that I wanted to look at them – by which I mean I put the materials I wanted to see first at the top of my list, running right down to the ones I considered to be less urgent.  Finally, I logged into my British Library account and pre-ordered as many as I could for the day of my visit.

way I work image 1


IMG_20170922_211455954When I arrived at the library I renewed my reader pass, had a quick brew and then settled myself into the Western Manuscript Reading Room with my tablet (much easier to carry than my laptop), my camera, notepad and pencil.  My trips to the British Library are a bit like a smash and grab…  metaphorically-speaking, of course.   This visit was going to be a particularly short one.  My priority is to accumulate as much evidence as I can, so that I can then work on it at home.  I looked at the documents that I ordered ahead of my visit and made notes on their features which I added to my Archive Research Document.  Then I photographed the relevant parts of the manucript. Often, I took several photos of the same folios, showing the overall layout on one and the detail on others. For each document that I’d looked at, I added a tick before its title in my list.

IMG_20170922_125155155What I didn’t do much of when I was in the library itself was to make transcriptions.   As I mainly work on 16th century documents, they are often in secretary hand, which can take a bit of deciphering at times (and yes, I suffer palaeographic jealousy when I look at the people working on beautiful italic hands!). I usually do my transcribing at home.  So when I’d looked at all the ones I’d pre-ordered, I prioritised working on what I thought was the most useful manuscript.  I kept this out, sent the others back to storage and called up some more.  While I waited for them to arrive, I started to transcribe the document that I’d kept, making the transcription in the big document but in a different colour of text so that I knew that it was my own transcription.  I then repeated the process until I’d looked at as many items as I could that afternoon – it was the bell that stopped me!

Once I got home, I transferred my archive photographs to dropbox and a mobile hard drive, putting each document into a separate folder under the heading Archives/British Library. Then I spent a relentlessy boring day renaming each individual file by the name of its folio number – I have learned in the past how difficult it is to find the relevant image of a particular folio later if I don’t do this.

I’m now in the process of transcribing the document in which I was most interested – I open the image on one screen and use another, usually my tablet, to make the transcription, making sure that I mark any words about which I’m uncertain with a question mark and each new folio with it’s number.  I am doing this in a new document, which I save alongside the images in the relevant folder.




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