06 Feb 23

What is a broadside?


Sound News

Lisa Knapp at the Bodleian Library

Hack-Poets Guild is a new collaboration between three of the UK’s most innovative and prestigious folk artists, Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann, inspired by broadside ballads.

The artists release their debut album Blackletter Garland on Friday 10 March, followed by a live tour from 17-26 March. Here we introduce you to a broadside and explain how they were used from the 16th - 20th centuries.

What is a broadside?

A broadside (also known as a broadsheet) is a single sheet of inexpensive paper printed on one side, often with a ballad, rhyme, news and sometimes with woodcut illustrations: a cheap format because there is no need for folding, collating, or binding.

When and how were they used?

Arguably the forerunners of our modern news media, from the 16th to 20th centuries 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, often accompanied by woodcut illustrations.

Broadside ballads were displayed and sung daily in Britain's streets and inns. Although part of living traditions of folksong, popular art and literature, these illustrated printed sheets are now rare and preserved in only a few libraries.

Broadsides offer a vivid insight into Britain's muscial and political past whilst striking a chord with universal themes still relevant today. Songs about love, loneliness and kindness are interwoven with intriguing, humanist and dark stories.

Digital collections and catalogues have improved access to these fragile survivors of popular culture in print. The Bodleian Libraries holds nearly 30,000 broadside ballads, many of them unique survivals, printed from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

Digital facsimiles and an online database were first made accessible in 1999. In 2013, the Libraries launched Broadside Ballads Online, which is a digital collection of the Bodleian’s broadside ballads together with links to digital collections at other libraries and institutions. You can explore the collection here:

Photo of Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann

Hack-Poets Guild

The artists spent time at the Bodleian Libraries, researching, talking with experts, and handling the Broadside Collection.

Inspired by these historic broadsides, Hack-Poets Guild have rejuvenated and reinvented these stories. Delving into the inky archives at the Bodleian Libraries and beyond, Marry Waterson, Lisa Knapp and Nathaniel Mann lead a five-piece band bringing broadsides vividly to life for a new generation and offering a rare insight into Britain’s history.

Fascinating interpretations and original compositions tell intricate tales of birth, love, conflict and death, with all the imagination of the folklore from which they’re based.

You can watch the first two music videos from the forthcoming album on our tour event page and see all the March 2023 live tour dates at the link below.

Tour dates

For further reading about Broadsides, visit the Traditional Song Forum website.