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20 Feb 17

Discover more about broadsides

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Blog post by Dr Meraud Ferguson Hand

The Broadside Ballads Project brings together three contemporary English folk artists, giving them access to the Bodleian’s printed ballad collections, online digital ballad archives, and hands-on experience of past printing techniques. The aim was not to reconstruct ballads as they were originally sung, but to allow the artists to respond to the physical archive, the songs, and the history of how they were made, in whatever ways their own creative interests led them.

What is a ‘broadside ballad’? A broadside is just a single printed sheet of paper: a cheap format because there is no need for folding, collating, or binding. The broadside was used for a variety of purposes: news of strange events, the texts of royal proclamations, and notices of auctions or trials and executions, among other things.

The most well-known use of the format, though, was for ballads. A ballad is a song that tells a story, usually in the form of short four-line verses. They were composed on a range of subjects from love affairs to murder and other extraordinary or historical happenings; they were often accompanied by woodcut illustrations which add their own layer of eccentricity to the overall effect.

Printed ballads were produced from the sixteenth century onwards (though the most recent ballads in the Bodleian collection date from the 1950s). For much of their history they were sold not just by booksellers but on street corners by itinerant peddlers, who travelled the country selling (and singing) the songs. The ballad-seller must have been a familiar character: Autolycus, the ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles’ in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, roams the country in a peddler’s guise picking pockets, cheating the unwary, and cheerfully mixing this with singing snippets of ballads he seems to have picked up along the way.

Ballads seem to have been enjoyed by a broad social range: though they were cheap and non-literary in content, the majority of printed ballads survived because they were collected by relatively wealthy and well-read individuals (Samuel Pepys being the most famous).

Communal singing is an ancient practice; in the past, people would sing at social gatherings, but they would also sing while they worked. Many songs were passed by word of mouth, but it is human nature to be eager for novelty: printing a new song, a new story to sing, made good commercial sense. Though public literacy was increasing, in the early centuries of ballad printing many people would still not have been able to read the ballad themselves: access to them would have been aural, so they were a crossing-place, a permeable border between the printed word and the oral dissemination of traditional songs.

In the 19th century, industrialization changed England’s social fabric beyond recognition and thousands of families migrated from rural areas to find work in the expanding cities. Communities in cities came from dispersed traditions; jobs were found in factories where the din from the machinery made singing redundant. The rhythm of work became the rhythm of the machine, not of the voice.

It seemed that traditional songs were endangered as a result of these changes, so collectors set out to catch them while the traditions were still alive. The social trauma of the industrial revolution meant that these songs, which reminded collectors of a dying pace of life, became somewhat romanticized. Ascribing increased cultural value to these traditions was at the heart of English Romanticism: Wordsworth and Coleridge’s ‘Lyrical Ballads’ (DATE) attempted to rehabilitate the aesthetic of the popular ballad in the eyes of the cultural elite.

The process of collecting added to the mystique: collectors were mostly middle-class, and would have little personal contact with working-class people other than as servants or a distant ‘mob’. Travelling into the depths of the countryside (via the new railway system), seeking out elderly singers in small, smoky inns, was in itself a form of exotic activity, a transgression of middle-class (and urban) social norms.

As a result, traditional songs (christened ‘folk’ songs in the 19th century) gained a touch of mystery, and the opaqueness of some of the phrasing or subject matter encouraged folk-song enthusiasts to look for a deeper, older, pre-industrial wisdom in the material. Collectors were working with what appeared mainly to have been an oral tradition: songs passed down by word of mouth, sometimes over a number of generations. This, too, added to the sense of mystery and exoticism for educated, highly literate people whose schooling had taught them to venerate the oral sources of ancient Greek literary culture. Many ballads, however, turn out to have moved in and out of the printed and oral traditions at various points in their history.

Spending time among the ballads, seeing the broadsides themselves, you almost feel you can hear and touch the world that made them. This almost-ness, the alienation effect of looking into this sometimes forgotten world from a modern perspective can become a fascination in itself. Now that the broadsides are digitised and online, they are freely available to millions more readers: but fewer people than ever will seek out the real thing, and know how they feel to the touch, how papery they smell. 

Broadside Ballads tours 25 Feb - 01 March