Wearing one of my other, semi-academic, hats, I’m on the editorial board of the Historical Association‘s members’ magazine, The Historian.  I’m about to start the process of putting together an edition for the first time, not by myself, but with Trevor James. The edition, which will be out in the autumn, is about history and literature, which seemed quite appropriate for me. I’ve commissioned a couple of articles for it already, and I’m looking forward to putting the magazine together over the next couple of months.

One of the articles is being written by a colleague from Lancaster University, Chris Donaldson, on the Lake Poets and travelogues. Another will be based on a lecture that was given to the Bolton branch by Guyda Armstrong last year, when she talked about Renaissance translations of Boccaccio, and how the naughty bits were edited to make them acceptable to an English audience. All I have to do now is find some more people to write!


At the end of February, I travelled up to Glasgow to speak at the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Broadside Day at the Unviersity of Strathclyde. This is the third in a short series of posts about the day.

After the afternoon tea break there was a final panel of two speakers. The first was Oskar Cox Jensen, who I last saw at Una McIlvenna’s Singing Across the Channel workshop in Canterbury a couple of years ago. It was lovely to be able to catch up with him (and to meet his sister Freya, of course). He was talking about ‘Of Ballads and Broadsides: Mediating the Mainstream’

Oscar Cox Jensen

Oscar talked persuasively about the eclecticism of musical culture, and how commoners used to music that didn’t originate in ‘their’ social spaces. He also explained why he has a problem with the word ‘popular’ in terms of culture – for example, it implies an ‘other’, in the form of the elite.  He argues that this isn’t particularly helpful, as it operated on a basic principle of miscellany. Although the term ‘cheap print’ is good for the material item, it doesn’t suit the songs themselves. Instead, he suggested the word ‘mainstream’, which he suggested helps us understand the circularity of the printed and sung word. The elite and the commons had a repertoire in common.  It was also interesting to hear him suggest something that I have been saying, in other words, for a long time: if you asked people in the past what about their musical tastes, their answer would probably be much the same as ours – ‘I like a bit of everything’. 

Oscar described Peter Burke’s theory of the elite withdrawal from popular culture by 1800.  But he argued that everybody could buy broadsides and all walks of life were still listening to the songs at least sometimes. They might not be buying broadsides but they still experienced them.

According to Oscar’s theory, the restriction for the mainstream was that the tune should stand up as a solo line. Ballad tunes were simple in that they were stripped down to the bare minimum, but they came from all sorts of sources, including the opera house. Bareness doesn’t mean performance is bad, but in fact makes it more important. Sonically their repertoire, though drawn from wide sources, was reduced to a relatively sparse palette.  This was particularly important and helpful before the time of recording of more complex resources as it allows the cultural objects to be reduced to their most portable.  Skill and pragmatic productionism was the part of the ballad singer.  There was hunger for the widening of the mainstream.

The final paper of the day was given by Professor Donald Meek – ‘A nineteenth century Gaelic broadside from Australia’. Professor Meek found the ballad in question when it dropped out of a 19th century copy of the Transactions of the Inverness Gaelic Society in his garage. The title translates as ‘A Song to the Profane Clergy by a Gael in Australia’.  It was published 1859 in Melbourne, and seems to have been sent as a new year gift to someone in the highlands of Scotland in 1863.  The piece is heavily annotated in English to criticise the Gaelic usage in the text. The annotations correct the Gaelic and change new spellings.  A verse is scored out because it says the profane clergy are said to be using the bible to extend their profanity.  On the back he complains at length about Gaelic poets and scholars: ‘Not a word of Gaelic shall be spoken here after this generation is gone’. Professor Meek suggested that possibly the annotator was the author of the printed work.

Professor Donald Meek

The first part of the song is a condemnation of the profane clergy – wolves in sheep’s clothing who cause the flock to scatter.  They should all be damned for wanting worldly goods and self advancement. The context is that in 1859, in Victoria, the hot topic was creation of reunited presbyterian church. The author tells us that those who have joined this union are traitors and foxes. The second half talks about the church in Scotland.  They are described as the descendants of Orthodox Church. Finally, the author names the church at Carlton in Melbourne as the ones who are to maintain the faith.  They were the main Gaelic congregation high number of settlers in the area.  They were literate in Gaelic (and English) making it worthwhile publishing in Gaelic.  The church attracted a significant clergyman from Scotland – the Reverend Doctor Mackintosh Mackie. He’d had a distinguished career as a Gaelic scholar.  Between 1854 and 1856 he had been involved in the creation of an expensive new church building at Carlton, then left leaving them in debt. He moved to Sydney and got involved supporting the new union.  He went back to Scotland in 1863.  The tract seems to have been sent back to Scotland to highlight what the Reverend Doctor Mackintosh Mackie had been involved in while he was in Australia

At the end of February, I travelled up to Glasgow to speak at the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Broadside Day at the Unviersity of Strathclyde. This is the second in a short series of posts about the day.

The first of the afternoon’s talks was given by Peter Shepheard on ‘The Master-piece of Love Songs’. Peter described how he recorded ‘The Bold Keeper’ in January 1966 from the Brazil family, and later discovered that what he had was the first known oral tradition versions of the ‘The Master-piece of Love Songs’ from 1690.

Peter Shepheard

Although there are many similar broadsides, and traditional songs, his is the first version based on the original ‘Master-piece of Love Songs’ .  The text is very similar, unlike the Bold Dragoon ‘versions’.  He argued that they are not the same song as too many of the words are different.  Storyline remains the same in the Masterpiece and Bold Keeper, but not the Bold Dragoon.  The metre of the Bold Dragoon is different (2/4) to the Master-piece and Bold Keeper which are both in 3/4.

During questions, Vic Gammon pointed out that it raises an interesting question about where one song ends and another begins – they have similar themes, but not rhyme scheme, storyline, words (ie phraseology) and not the same characters.  Peter suggested that it was born of the original, but was not the same song.

The next paper was given by Professor Margaret Bennett, on ‘Robert Macleod, Fife Miner Poet and Broadside-Maker’. Professor Bennett described how this research into Robert Macleod was sparked when she was offered a shoe box of papers by a hairdresser. They had belonged to his grandfather, who did turns at the local music hall. Some of his songs had been printed on broadsides. In 1911, aged 35 Macleod’s legs were crushed in a mining accident.  He was in hospital for a year and then made a living from his music.

Professor Margaret Bennett

Professor Bennett described how many Scottish miners joined up for the First World War because they thought it would get them into the fresh air.  Macleod translated the days news (and of lives lost) into songs.  Sometimes the words give us idea of the tunes he used – eg The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was set to Dark Lochnager, and Professor Bennett had the assembled crowd singing along with Macleod’s words.

The final paper in this session was given by Martin Graebe, who spoke about ‘Clift of Cirencester’. Cirencester is a quiet market town created on the network of roads when it was second city of Roman Britain.  The most prolific of its 19th century printers was William Clift.  He registered to operate a printing press in 1824, adjoining the Ram Inn, placing an advertisement in the Oxford Journal. In 1840 he advertised himself as being 30% cheaper than other printers in the area.

Martin Graebe

Martin discovered Clift’s tomb in the parish church, buried in the Pierce family tomb – after marrying into the family.  He believes that it is likely that William Clift took over the Pierce printing shop from the widow Mrs Pierce – then married the daughter of the family. The shop was located on the site currently occupied by Fatface.

Many of Clift’s broadside ballads are in the Madden Collection, although one is in the Bodleian Library.  A small collection once belonging to William Stephens is in the Cricklade museum.  Many are in poor condition and there are some particularly bad typographical errors. Among the corpus of songs, there are lots of old favourites but on the whole they are pretty tame – there are no monsters, no local topical ones, little sex and no executions. There are, however, several songs on the minstrelsy theme of Jim Crow, originated by Thomas Rice in 1830 in America. Rice visited England in 1836 and these songs were very popular. Martin has found two songs published by Clift not found elsewhere – The Baking Day; and The Dreadful Bonnet (which was illustrated by a saint with a halo!).

At the end of February, I travelled up to Glasgow to speak at the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s Broadside Day at the Unviersity of Strathclyde. This is the first in a short series of posts about the day.

On Cathdral Street, Glasgow

Due to a series of unfortunate cricumstances, I didn’t reach Glasgow until 11am, so I missed papers by Catherine Ann Cullen (Speckled Cats and Gravey Distillers), David Stenton (The Forth Valley Songster) and E. Wyn James (‘The Black Spot’ and ‘The Old Man of the Wood’: Welsh Street Literature During the Long Eighteenth Century

I arrived during the morning tea break (nice pastries and a decent cuppa). The first paper I heard was given by Freyja Cox Jensen on ‘In Good Queen Bess’s Golden Days’: Memories of Elizabethan England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries’. Freya talked about the context of English identity, which was very closely bound up with Protestantism and Protestant insularity.  The period was shaped by the notion of England as an island nation.  The idea comes from Elizabeth I, who comes to embody a very English types of Protestantism, with England as God’s chosen land.  Elizabeth continues to play a role in the idea of Englishness in the years after her death, as part of the cultural memory of Elizabethan England.  She’s a model for high politics after James II, especially with William and Mary.  The image of England is partly, therefore, created from the top-down, but it is also celebrated more widely.  Ballads from Queen Anne’s reign make explicit reference to Elizabeth I.  They see parallels between the armada and the Anne intervention in the war of Spanish succession. The most common idea, though, is the one that Elizabethan period was merry and a golden age. It was held up for centuries afterward as a jolly good time.

Freya Cox-Jensen

  Ballads are often set to Tudor tunes, and pick out martial characters from the period, such as the earl of Essex,  or Thomas Stukely who was a rather more complicated character than most – the ballad suggests he repents of going abroad as a recusant even though there is no evidence of this.  Many of these are long lived songs. They represent England as the underdog, the small and feisty man fighting for good.

But Freya noted that none of this is true – it’s a constructed myth that’s been going on for centuries.  And it’s not just about nation building, it’s also the belief in the ancient constitution which we see raised against Charles I before his execution. Custom is also a legitimising framework in court. Appealing to time out of mind trumps anything more recent especially relating to parish boundaries and common land. Traditionally scholars say the creation of the Elizabethan myth happens in the 18th and 19th centuries but Freya argued that the ideas were alive and well even before Elizabeth died.

Next up was me, talking about ‘Liege Ladies: Sixteenth-Century Broadside Ballads and Reigning Queens’, in a significant reworking of a paper I gave a few years ago at the Mary I Quincentenary conference. Then it was time for lunch.

I’m pleased to say that the first review of Singing the News appeared in the Folk Music Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society at the end of 2018. It was noticeable that the reviewer, David Atkinson, had read the book in detail, and I really appreciate the time he must have taken to shape his review. I’m happy to say that it was very positive, finishing with the comment ‘This is a significant book’.

The UCU is currently running a questionnaire on casualisation and precarious contracts in the university sector.  I filled in my return over lunch on the first day.  Although it is meant to be anonymous, I decided that I would share some (although not all) of my responses.  In places these have been edited in order to make sense to a non-academic audience, or to remove information which I daren’t put in the public domain.

How many academic jobs have you held in the last 12 months?

7 (each course that I teach on at one institution has a different contract…!)

How many jobs have you held in total in last 12 months?


Use this space to tell us more about how working on an insecure contract affects your work, whether positively or negatively:

I am unable to turn down work that comes up at short notice, making it difficult to plan my own research days – it plays second fiddle to finding paid employment.

I am unable to supervise MA and PhD students working in a field directly related to my own because my contracts do not allow for it – this is not detrimental to the students’ work because I feel it is morally wrong to deny them my support – so I do the work for nothing.

I am unable to reschedule teaching to enable me to go to relevant academic conferences, nor am I able to access the departmental research fund to support my own career development.  Likewise, I can’t afford to spend money on expensive conference travel as I have to save, because I don’t know whether I will have any income at all in 6 months.

A substantial proportion of the time I should spend on my own research in fact goes on unrelated work to pay the bills, or trying to create unrelated work which will pay the bills.

The stress is almost unbearable, particularly during the summer when there is no money coming in and no guarantee of any future work.  This has a negative impact on my ability to concentrate on my own work.  Furthermore, the stress is in itself tiring, and has a negative impact on my sleep patterns, which in turn means I have less energy to teach.

Use this box to tell us more about your employer’s support for your career development:

My institution, as a whole, has no interest in my professional development because I cannot contribute to the outcomes on which they are rated – the REF and TEF.  When I was an honorary, unpaid member of the department, I had my own page on the research portal.  Once I was employed on casual contracts, this was archived and I can no longer keep it up to date.

That said, individuals within the department have been very supportive of my professional development and independent research, suggesting appropriate sources of research funding and helping me with applications.

I do, however, have access to internal training courses.

Please use this box to give details of how your mental health has been affected:

Severe periods of stress and anxiety, especially over the summer when there is no guarantee of any work in the autumn or after Christmas, and while having to set up and prepare courses that I haven’t taught before, which takes a significant amount of time over and above what is paid for.  As I am unable to take anti-depressants, dealing with this can be very difficult.

I had a breakdown after a year of being unemployed post PhD, and although it was not  entirely related to the work/financial situation, it was certainly a contributory factor.

Please tell us more about how your contractual status affects long-term planning

I have children and own my house outright – I did not take the conventional route into academia – but I simply cannot think about how we are going to put 3 children through university, pay for driving lessons and car insurance for them…

As for my own long-term financial future, I have no pension to speak of and no prospect of attaining one.

Would you prefer a contract that guaranteed you more hours at the cost of less flexibility?


I could quite happily combine an admin role with teaching/research if it meant stability and a secure income.

Likewise, I don’t crave flexibility – I just want to be able to teach and research without worrying about where the next pay packet is coming from.

One of the pleasures of working at Lancaster has been putting together a new MA module on the early modern world. It is a small group of students who are very interested and engaged. After discussing what makes the early modern early modern (rather than medieval or modern) during our first session, our second seminar was on print culture. We talked about print, orality, reading aloud, audiences, news, transmission of information, networks… It was a really enjoyable session.

Other topics still to come include religion, patriarchy, trade, colonisation… And I’m looking forward to them.

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