Following a short break in posts, caused by a problem with internet access, this is the first in a short series of posts about the Historical Association Conference 2019, held in Chester in May.

Becky Sullivan welcoming people to the conference

On Friday morning, the proceedings opened with a welcome from Rebecca Sullivan, the HA chief executive, who was very pleased to note that this was the biggest HA conference since 2015 in Bristol.  She then introduced the first keynote speaker, Professor Tony Badger, the HA President, who was once described by the Wall Street journal as a man with an instinctive understanding of American politics.  Prof Badger’s talk was on ‘The Kennedys and the Gores’.  He described how families became good friends, lasting 50 years through 2 generations of politics, to the point where Ted Kennedy’s support was vital to Al Gore’s nomination in 2000.  He pointed out that you can use the Kennedys and the Gores to chart the changing fortunes of American liberalism. 

Albert Gore grew up in a rural small town – a very different wold to that of the global superpower, space race and nuclear arms.  In 1938 he had to make his mark not just through speaking on hustings, but by playing fiddle in a country band to draw a crowd at political meetings. John Kennedy, on the other hand, came from a very wealthy background and was a genuine war hero.  He was of Irish Catholic while Gore was a southern Baptist, but at the time public religiosity was not the order of the day. Both had strong wives: Pauline Gore was one of the first women to graduate in law; Jackie Kennedy a style icon.

Professor Tony Badger, HA President

Both Kennedy and Gore were interested in foreign policy, but by the 50s had already differed on South East Asia. Neither was an intellectual, but Kennedy drew academics into his advisors.  Both made the effort to learn, though different ways.  Neither was a member of the Senate Club, which critics thought stymied reform, but members respected its hardworking ministers. Likewise, both found themselves at odds with Lyndon Johnson.  Gore tried very hard to get on with him, but they hated each other. He admired Johnson’s legislative skills but thought he was a cruel bully, and resented his exclusion from administration.  Meanwhile, Johnson didn’t take Kennedy seriously as a senator.  But Kennedy understood Johnson’s power as majority leader, which is why he made him vice president. 

Another similarity between Gore and Kennedy was that both were targets of Hoover. Kennedy was put under watch because of his sexual liaisons, while Gore was put on a list ‘not to be contacted’ as long as Hoover in charge of FBI.  Both also supported civil rights, at least to an extent; they were not hugely active but made the right noises.  Gore felt that the race issue divided his poor white and black constituents and wanted to concentrate on economic issues. Kennedy established good relations with southern leaders and thought he could work with them, though his faith was tested during his presidency.  Gore hoped that LBJ’s civil rights legislation would be softened enough to enable him to give it support, and had Kennedy lived, it might well have been.  But LBJ had different imperatives and in the end it wasn’t so Gore didn’t support it, making him almost irrelevant.

Gore, however, still supported Kennedy’s presidential campaign of 1960 and during Kennedy’s presidency, the Gores were regularly entertained at the White House.  Kennedy used Gore as sounding board, for example over the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Nevertheless, there were tensions between Kennedy and Gore.  The interstate highways policy caused problems because Gore supported them as essential for the economic development of the south, whereas Kennedy thought the policy would cause problems for the north.  There were also problems when the vice presidency was opened up to the floor, and over tax cuts.  Finally, Gore watched with alarm as Kennedy administration was sucked into Vietnam.  He read reports about what was going wrong, and he wanted Kennedy to pull troops out.  Then Kennedy was assassinated. Albert Gore worked closely with Ted Kennedy after Bobby’s assassination, but couldn’t persuade Ted to stand for president.

Gore had allowed himself to support the Tonkin Gulf resolution in August 1964, but he was one of the the first senators to call for a negotiated settlement.  The Kennedys couldn’t come out against in cased they were seen as going against their brother’s legacy.   During the 1970s, the anti-war stance became mainstream and younger senators respected Gore’s expertise in the Nixon years. He became Nixon’s number one target in the 1970 campaign, which focussed on race and evangelical religion and made the south the bastion of republicanism. White southern voters saw the civil rights movement help African Americans, women, gays etc, but not themselves. 

Al Gore didn’t go straight to politics, but when he got into Washington he travelled home each weekend to hold meetings in his constituency, keeping in touch with the voters.  He steered clear of presidential politics.  The Gores didn’t back the Kennedy family in the 80s, as ‘Kennedy liberal’ was a term of abuse.  When Al Gore ran for the senate in 1984, he wouldn’t have his photo taken with Ted Kennedy.  But by 2000 they were on the platform together, with Gore having got to know Kennedy from sitting next to him in the senate.  When Ted Kennedy died in 2009, Al Gore described him as a champion of Americans who had no voice. 

Prof Badger concluded his lecture by noting that the problems faced by these politicians were no less significant than those faced now, but unlike now, the two families didn’t foster anti-intellectualism and think that a soundbite was a substitute for effective legislation.

The HA conference combines several Continuing Professional Development strands for teachers with general interest lectures for ‘armchair historians’.  The first session that I attended was given by Hugh Richards,  from the Huntington School in York, on helping GCSE students who are swamped by the new GCSE.  In fact, he concentrated on the challenges facing students who need to write essays in an exam, such as self-regulation, recall of information, deploying information and even getting started.  He pointed out that teachers are being asked to beat a system that is designed to differentiate the students, and advised deliberate practice, breaking down the big tasks. He also suggested that  students shouldn’t be attempting the big tasks, such as long essay questions, straight away because they are designed to asses a GCSE student who has done the whole course.  They need to be able to do all the component parts of the task and we need to break that down for them. 

Hugh Richards

Hugh took a sample ‘how far do you agree’ question and broke it down in to its constituent bits:

  • Knowledge
  • Structured response
  • Vocabulary
  • Multiple viewpoints
  • Understanding the question
  • Judgement

His school, like many others, had giving students essay frameworks, but this can make them too used to the ‘life rings’, meaning that they can’t manage without them when they are in the exam and faced just with a blank page.  Instead, he recommended basing teaching on the 3 elements to self-regulated learning:

  • Cognition
  • Metacognition
  • Motivation

He then outlined a couple of teaching techniques which helped to raise achievement for all pupils. 

The first technique was the use of spiderplans – a spider diagram that plans an essay and one of several different visual plans for different types of question.  He argued that spiderplans worked because they are based on a blank sheet of paper rather than a grid or scaffold, so they can easily be reproduced in the exam.  Students draw a circle in middle of the page and focus on putting question in their own words. Then they add points around it, giving them a well-structured response.

The next technique was to get the students to ask themselves ‘What mistakes might I make?’ These mistakes might be different for each student, so it helps them to reflect on the feedback they have received for completed assignments and use it to improve their essay plan.

Once this has been done, the students submit their structures to the teacher, who puts them on the board in a table so that the students can compare different possible structures, for example, answering by decade, by theme, groups of people.  You can ask them which structure they like best and why, because exposing the thought processes makes them reflect on the effectiveness of the different approaches.  It exposes the historical thinking and helps them to see why there might be problems. You can vote on the most effective, which makes the learning point clear but it hasn’t been done by giving model answers.

The next step is to consider as a group the evidence for one structure.  You can then ask again what mistakes they might make. They often remember the mistakes better than their successes, so we need to turn this to their advantage.  Another advantage of this technique is that it avoids wasting their time writing a whole essay that is then wrong, which is demoralising.  He advised asking students cross out their work when it was wrong, to avoid them revising from incorrect material.    

This is the final post in a short series about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

The formal proceedings of the day came to an end with a short presentation from Giles Bergil on digitisation and a roundtable on databases. Giles pointed out that one advantage of the internet is that it is very good at linking things. Furthermore, one unique feature of digital resources is that they can provide points of comparison and an overview of the collection. It means that you can use algorithms to track the development of aspects of the collection, for example.

Jeroen Salman commented that it would be nice to have one portal with access to different sources from different countries and open them up for a notation.  It would create starting point for comparative scholarship on ballads and other sources.  Astrid Nora Ressem reiterated a point that Giles had made: that mainstream library catalogues can’t keep everything in order, and that ballads are particularly hard to catalogue in mainstream ways because they don’t fit the standard patterns of metadata. Nevertheless, there are also problems using a specialist catalogue because it might not be future-proof and might not be updateable in 10 or 20 years.

Angela’s point was that digital re-mediation has an impact, and that editorial decisions need to be made very clear.  We should also ask ourselves what can the digital do that other methods can’t? Her answer was that it can stop us reinventing the wheel: with better links to existing multidisciplinary scholarship, people can see what work has already been done on things.

The debate was then opened to the floor. David Atkinson pointed out that there are many ballads that aren’t digitised nor will be in our lifetimes, which led Angela to comment that many scholars think that the digital is everything that there is.  Databases are not open about what’s missing.  Astrid reminded us that you have to decide what to put in and what to leave out by creating definitions, and that it can be hard to define what is or isn’t a skilling print. Giles argued, however, that index cards created more strictures. Once something is available digitally you can call it as many things as you want so removes the problem of definition. Nevertheless, people still find it moving to see the real thing. Oskar Cox Jensen suggested that big data should come with a warning: there are huge problems over how complete the databases could ever be given the way that things do or don’t survive.

Mark Philp pointed out that institutions don’t think in terms of the long-term investments, and you can’t get money to keep things alive online once the initial set up is completed.  You need money to keep up with the platforms as they modernise.  On the other hand, as Giles reminded us, special collections also require ongoing financial input so this should be possible.

After the discussion, Alexandra Franklin invited us across the road to the print shop in the Bodleian Library. It was fascinating, as it’s not something I’ve ever seen up close before

Oxford, it has to be said, was looking glorious in the spring sunshine:

Siv kindly invited us for a drink at her home before dinner. At Siv’s invitation, Anne Sigrid Refsum sang a couple of verses from one of her songs about Ole Høiland, and I sang two from A joyful new Ballad, declaring the happiy obtaining of the great Galleazzo, a ballad from the period of the Spanish Armada. Then we walked round to the Old Bookbinders, where we had a lovely meal.

The following morning dawned drizzly, but not to worry – there was plenty of food for thought after a very interesting day.

This is the fourth in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

Our British ballad lightning presentations took us up to lunch, which again we had in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre. I was fascinated to see two eras of printing juxtaposed in the room, with a modern computer printer visible behind the old printing press!

The afternoon was dominated by another set of lightning presentations from scholars working on European news ballads, chaired by Siv. The first paper was given by Alison Sinclair – ‘What is news if you are in Spain?’  She started by asking if Spain might be different because of the population distribution being affected by geographical features such as mountain ranges.  Her sources are the Spanish chapbooks collection, the Mapping Pliegos project, and Iberian Books.  ‘What is news?’ sets up a dichotomy between the passing versus the enduring. Alison argued that if it’s a good story it will carry on.  What counts as a good story is different in different places and at different times.  She wondered how far the ballad is a special form of red herring, questioning whether something in verse is already culturally constructed and the ballad is therefore another stage.

Regarding ballads’ claims to tell the truth, she pointed out that some cultures make a linguistic distinction between what we know because we saw it, and what we know about because we’ve heard about it.  In fact, the themes and functions of ballads might be a difficult area to study.  After all, she noted that we can’t assume that everyone had a particular reaction to didactic material. 

Next up was Jeroen Salman, who organised the EDPOP conference that I attended in Utrecht last summer. Jeroen talked about ‘News Ballads and Street Sellers in the Low Countries (1500-1700)’. He described himself as more of an expert on the infrastructure around the dissemination of popular print than on the ballad itself.  His priority is to try to recover the people who were involved in the dissemination of cheap material, not least because oral culture influences political culture.  He argued that the ballads should be seen in the context of other material.

The Low Countries were rather different in the period because of the reformation context. The Dutch Republic saw better literacy and transport so the book trade spread out across country.  There were still lots of pedlars and street sellers even after the widening of the book trade.  In the Low Countries, these people can be divided into four sorts: the occasional pedlar, who only sold items seasonally or in times of need; pedlars of printed matter and other goods; pedlars of printed matter exclusively; and the specialist pedlar who sold only songs. It seems that there were no singers that didn’t sell?

There is a turning point in Low Countries in 1550 at beginning of the Dutch revolt.    Now ballad sellers considered seditious and considered to be selling seditious material. Instead, books of beggar songs incorporated former single sheet songs. Nevertheless, some ballad singers became famous as well-known local entertainers. 

Una McIlvenna then gave a short presentation on Italian ballads.  Her biggest headache is that nothing is digitised. Italian ballads have no tune indication but there are only 3 metrical forms:

  • Terza rima: 1st person accounts in the voice of noble person who is repentant for their crime
  • Ottava rima: provide a linear chronology of events that happened – eg songs about battles
  • Barzoletta: fun, satirical songs with a chorus (the world means jest or joke).

This means that there is a repertoire of tunes that you can sing to each metrical structure. 

David Hopkin spoke next, on ‘Broadside Ballads in Nineteenth-Century France: Accounting for an Absence’.  He argued that folksongs are important because they show what is taken into common memory, and there are few if any folksongs that would have been topical songs when they were written. When French folksong collectors they tried to collect them, there were few historical ballads in the canon and the historical memory in song had vanished.  There are, however, printed ballads.  In these, crime becomes the dominant theme because it’s less political.  They have a very prominent black and white picture.

But although these things are printed, they have no impact on the oral repertoire. David wanted to think about why this might be:

  1. More than half the murder ballads are to the same tune.
  2. Canards (ballads) in France are in competition with popular imagery, which is a much more popular form of cheap print because they are in colour, not black and white like the images on the ballads.  They also have a song, but the visual element is more important and the song isn’t part of how they are sold.  They are more complicated to make because they require stencils for the colouring, but they have huge print runs.  The people who make the prints come from a different background in playing card manufacture rather than moveable print.
  3. Lyricization – there are elements of the historical ballads in the tradition, but people have cut out the historical reference in the songs to leave just the timeless story – eg the boy talking to the girl. This process happens very quickly, and the folklorist doesn’t always pick this up as being the same song as the historical ballad.

The next panellist was the first doctoral student to work on the Norwegian skilling ballads, Anne Sigrid Refsum. She reminded us that Norway was a province of Denmark for 400 years until its push for independence resulted in 6 months of independence before a further union with Sweden.  The subject of her presentation was ‘Ole Høiland – a Sung Hero of the Norwegian Lower Classes’. Born to poor parents in 1797, he was notorious criminal with a Robin Hood-like reputation (although that analogy was invoked to help we Brits understand, rather than being a contemporary Norwegian one!).  As he escaped from prison several times, he became a symbol of the Norwegian push for liberty. 

Høiland was the subject of a long list of songs.  These ballads were not moralising, but instead used his exploits as a way to debate liberty and independence between Norway and Sweden. Høiland’s only critic is a colleague (and competitor), the second-most famous criminal of the time.

Anne Sigrid asked whether we can consider the songs to be the voice of the people?  They seem to have been written for them.  The printer, Hansen, sold the songs from his home in the poor area of town, suggesting that he was writing for and selling to his neighbours.  Even if they were not the authentic voice of the people, ballads about these criminals were part of a political discourse which reached the lowest levels of society.

The final paper in this set was presented by Karin Strand: ‘On Swedish Execution Ballads’. Karin is working on infanticide, comparing the execution ballads to the verifiable details of the crimes in order to shed light on women’s history.  She described how the newsworthiness (or perhaps balladworthiness) of these songs was not the crime itself but the punishment –the beheading of the condemned woman.  Interestingly, the Norwegian ballads are in the future tense, implying that the execution hadn’t yet happened.  The songs are headlined with the name of the criminal, as well as the date and place of execution.  But in the ballad text itself we have the first person lyrical confession of the woman and the story of their journey to salvation (it was, after all, never too late for forgiveness).  By the early 19th century, after the establishment of news media and mass production, we see the genre develop into a combination of prose texts and songs.  The ballads provide an emotional, subjective exposition of the event.

This is the third in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

After coffee (or in my case, tea) and pastries (yum!) in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre at the Weston Library, we were treated to a viewing of some of the Bodleian’s collection of ballads in the Horton Room. It is always lovely to get a close up look at the ballads, especially the ones in different formats, because most of the time, I work on the digital facsimiles on EEBO or EBBA.

One of the ballads included this fascinating image of a printer shop! Siv had pulled out a 16th-century ballad especially for me, and I was thrilled to discover that it was a piece by William Elderton that I had been writing about only a few days before attending the workshop, as it is one of the broadsides that I included in my EDPOP paper (I am currently putting the finishing touches to the publication version).

Next, it was time for a series of lightning presentations of 8-10 minutes on British ballads, charied by Giles Bergel. First to speak was Angela McShane. She talked about ‘A Ballad: News and No News’. The title of the paper comes from the poem in Pills to Purge Melancholy, which satirises the idea of news.  Angela reiterated her belief that ballads don’t tell the news – you need to already know the news to understand them.   She pointed out that the historiography sets the ballad against newspapers in competition.  She argued that we need to get rid of the competition, because it’s not about one being replaced by the other.  Acknowledging the seventeenth-century distinction between type faces, she claimed that campaigning ballads are in white letter, whereas the rest appear in black letter. Although there is drop in numbers once the periodical press appears, this is of white letter ballads, and they reappear, so the drop is not sustained.   She pointed out the peaks in printing the whole range of publications and the ballad publications specifically are in the same place.

Anglea asked why we talk about ballads and their newsworthiness rather than news which is ballad-worthy?  She suggested that we need to think about the interaction between ballads and pamphlets, as some printers produces both.   They do something different.  Interestingly, this is something else which has cropped up in the article version of my EDPOP paper, and it’s something I was already planning to develop over the summer by using corpus linguistics.  There will be more on that in another post, I think!

Anyway, Angela argued that the function of a ballad is crucial to understanding it.  The two areas most commonly identified as ballad topics are the military song and the execution ballad. These are the topics that have led to the perceived ‘competition’ between ballads and newspapers.  She suggested that ballads were reissued for their emotive use; for example, ‘The Honour of Bristol’ was reissued every time there was a recruiting campaign.  Again, the point was made that protest songs demonstrate the fraught relationship between producer and market; Angela argued that one of the key things about political songs is that they lead to something, either inspiring action or creating public debate.

Oskar Cox Jensen’s short paper ‘The Blooming Beauty of Surrey’ aimed to set nineteenth-century broadside ballads in the context of the previous 300 years.  Many of these are about neighbourhood and the community, often making them local songs.  He suggested that these ballads are either anachronistic or what we understand about 1865 London is wrong. 

The ballad singer he studied was arrested for his part in the nine-hour-wonder of the marriage of Alice Cross. At the age of 20, this sole heir to her family’s fortunes eloped with George Smith.  As they were not able to get married, Smith charged with abduction.  Then the girl’s father allowed the marriage, and the couple were surrounded by sympathetic crowds when they got married.  The authorities had trouble preventing a riot.  The ballad singer was drunk, singing a ballad and surrounded by a crowd. His singing caused a complete obstruction of the street. Oskar argued that the authorities’ reaction not only illustrated contemporary fears that the ballad singer was capable of creating a disturbance, but also fears about the vagrant singer as masterless and mobile.  

The third paper in the series was mine, and I chose to bring to the table a summary of my recent and current work, since in doing so I would address many of the questions that Siv had circulated before the workshop as starting points for our papers and discussions. It also meant that people would know my general areas of interest in case there was any potential for fruitful comparison or cooperation. First, I talked about my book, Singing the News, and its aim to treat the news ballad as part of the ballad genre in mid-Tudor England:

  • It focusses on ballads as song as far as it is possible to do so
  • Looked at the music and process of contrafactum (re-use of tunes)
  • Many of the songs style themselves as news and make claims about truth
  • Some have more information than others, but then so do modern newspapers!
  • There were fewer topical songs in the manuscript collections than print
  • They rely on oral transmission, especially of the tunes, therefore their social context is one of the keys to understanding them. 
  • We know that people talked about the issues raised by the songs they sang and heard

Then I mentioned the comparative work with Massimo Rospocher for EDPOP, looking at the similarities and differences between Italian and English news ballads:

  • Italian ballads were not printed on broadsides but in pamphlets, and their heyday is the earlier sixteenth century
  • There are more surviving tunes from English repertoire
  • Italian ballads contain much more foreign news, which I suspect (although I haven’t really tested this theory yet) is due to the different nature of English foreign policy – it was much less active than Italian foreign policy in the relative periods for which we have more topical ballads (so the beginning of the sixteenth century in Italy compared with the end of the sixteenth century in England)
  • There was quite a bit of overlap between pamphlet and ballad news and some degree of textual overlap. I even found one early Stuart ballad which points out that you can get more information from a pamphlet. In the immediate future, I am going to look in more detail at what is covered by topical ballads in the late sixteenth-century and investigate their relationship with pamphlets in some depth.
  • We also looked at the idea of sensationalism, as understood by Joy Wiltenburg, who wrote that ‘sensationalist text uses emotional resonance to draw its audience, assuming a given emotional response’ in order to shape ‘shared values and individual identity’.[1] 

I described how my next major project will be on Ballads, Thomas Cromwell and the Pilgrimage of Grace, so not directly on ‘news’ ballads but on the role of songs in bringing people together, the problem of noise and disorder, the process of ballad transmission, and their potential for sedition.

Joad Raymond’s lightning presentation argued that ballads are not primarily a news form.  They tell a story. This is not to say that ballads aren’t published in response to significant events, but that they are about packaging the story in an interesting way.  News isn’t about forms or truth, but instead works by bundling different things together.  People get their news for more than one source and they expect to do so.  He suggested that ballads need to be supplemented by social performance as I had pointed out, and that they provide the occasion for people to get the context. 

Joad pointed out that historians have gravitated towards text, but we need to think about the ways music changes things.  The nature of creativity means that performance changes the messages and makes them more didactic, adding layers of meaning and an emotional perspective.  By positioning them as news we miss the point that the text serves as an occasion for music. He suggested that we would be better served by thinking of them as a set of materials for making a performance.

Matthew O. Grenby’s presentation was on the 18th century election ballads from Newcastle Upon Tyne between 1774-80.  Elections like these throw up a welter of cultural articles, including ceramics, as well as an upsurge in print. There were lots of election ballads. Some were printed, but others were manuscript ballads which were collected at the time. A printed compendium was made because people didn’t want them to disappear.  Election ballads were often unillustrated. Their tunes were named, and these melodies included traditional, high cultural and original ones. Particular tunes were associated with one side or another

These songs don’t claim to have been written on behalf of the candidates but instead employ a dispassionate tone (despite being on one side or another.)  Matthew argued that they required quite a high degree of political literacy, which points to many more people being politically literate than actually have a vote.  They are markedly literary, having footnotes to explain dialect etc.  Matthew claimed that they were too complicated to be understood if you heard it once or twice therefore they were written to be read at leisure.  Furthermore, they were not on the market but were targeted at clearly defined groups.

It was fascinating to hear him say that these songs could be an immediate intervention in what was going on because they have no life beyond the day they were written.  Their aim to drive the vote out, as every day the newspapers and poll books recorded how many people had voted for each of the candidates. He therefore plans to look at whether any of the ballads can be shown to have affected the course of voting


[1] Joy Wiltenburg, ‘True Crime: The Origins of Modern Sensationalism’, American Historical Review, 109:5 (2004), pp. 1379-80.

This is the second in a short series of posts about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

After Una McIlvenna’s fascinating keynote on the similarities and differences between news ballads across Europe, there were some interesting discussions. It was suggested that there was, in fact, some evidence that nineteenth-century Norwegian ballads were not sung, as they contain no indication of their tunes, and another contributor suggested that we cannot assume that every ballad was sung. Una, however, countered this with the point that no tune indication does not necessarily mean an absence of tune, just that there was no particular need to label it. Siv pointed out that there are some skilling ballads with choruses, and it is hard to see why they woud have a chorus if it were not to encourage audience participation. We considered whether it might be safer to talk about a continuum of performance, which would allow for people to learn tunes from each other, to make up tunes where they wanted or needed to, to chant rather than sing melodically, or even to read the verses aloud rather than sing them.

David Atkinson and Steve Roud

David Atkinson and Steve Roud then talked about their forthcoming book on cheap European Street literature.  This material was very wide spread.  The British model does not work right across Europe, so they are hoping to produce a second volume to explore this further. There are themes that emerge: for example, they deliberately called the material cheap print, because the term ‘street literature’ is not applicable everywhere if there isn’t a street!  The book is not about ballads as such, but most contributors chose to include them at least in passing. Likewise, it is not all about news.

In Britain we are lucky to have EBBA and Bodleian Ballads Online, as our material is cataloged and indexed much faster.  This probably accounts for the explosion of interest in ballads in Anglophone scholarship.  However, we can’t look at news ballads across Europe until we have established what we are working with in more general terms. The advent of cheap printing was at different times in different places, while the formats are different across Europe.  Even chapbooks are not the same everywhere.  Steve and David pointed out that we can tell things simply from the layout, such as whether the words or picture are more important: depending on their relative size, printers can choose to accent illustration or text. They questioned whether this might tell us what people want, or whether it says more about what they are being told.  Each country has its own chronology, not least over at what point they developed cheap print in their own language (vernacular).  We  should look at whether vernacular cheap print appeared early on, or later when printing techniques had developed, as the social movements and technology changed over time. If you were part of an empire, your cheap print might not have been printed in your own language, and this has important implications for the control of the medium.

They raised the important point that there are always worries about who was talking to the people, and what was not mediated by the elite.  Across Europe, there were attempts to assert control by licensing the printers or the distributors (publishers) or the pedlars. Although the elites tried to do it everywhere, they had mixed success. In England, their attempts were not terribly successful but some places they really did stop people producing anything other than officially-sanctioned material.

If it was not in the local language because the locality was part of an empire, cheap print was more closely controlled. Some countries seem not to have had their own cheap print, which might help to explain why pictures are more important in some areas than others.

Not all the news in cheap print, however, was true.  Steve commented that as a folklorist, he was annoyed that ‘fake news’ has been stolen by Trump.  It was the stock in trade of folklorists to recognise it in the way that people approached the news.  A lot of what we knew and thought we knew was influenced by myths and legends, and historians hadn’t cottoned on.  Folklorists recognise stories (often known as ‘tall tales’) that are common throughout history, but historians don’t always recognise them for what they are.  We know that tall tales sometimes have an effect just like news. People act on them so presumably they believed them. Some of the 19th century street ballads that David and Steve had studied were spot on and give you the facts of the matter; others don ‘t. But the problem is that you can’t always tell the difference just by looking at them. Their example was taken from the evidence given by a contributor to the EFDSS Broadside Day on ballads about the opening of new railway lines.  Often these songs are absolutely right, but others are a complete fiction, and in some cases the same song is reprinted multiple times, just changing the station name!  Unfortunately, we can’t normally tell what the people believed and what they didn’t. We tend not to know whether the individuals who bought these songs were treating them as news or entertainment.

David gave an account of a ballad in chapbook which is printed with prose account of the same story, but as far as we know this Whittam ballad is entirely fictitious.  He noted that the similarity of some stories is also striking. The balladeers seem to have been using the news ballad as a format for  folk stories and urban myths.  ‘The Berkshire Tragedy’, for example, was reprinted many times but was probably not true.    

Finally, they reiterated the comment that by the 19th century there are plenty of newspapers but ballads seem to be doing something different.

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