Hit songs and their significance in seventeenth-century England

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University of Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Hist, Anthrop, Philos & Politics

Abstract

A broadside ballad was a song, printed on one side of a sheet of paper, that sold for a penny in seventeenth-century marketplaces and other public spaces. Typically, it featured a text of twelve or more verses, several simple 'woodcut' illustrations and the name of a suggested melody. The pictures and tunes were frequently well-known already, having been 'recycled' from previous songs. Ballads were the pop songs of their day and it can be convincingly argued that the modern music industry - commercially driven and predominantly urban - has its roots among the publishers of broadsides in seventeenth-century London. In terms of the subject matter of balladry, love led the way, but there were also songs about religion, politics, sensational happenings, heroic adventures and terrible crimes.
Our research will identify, contextualise and publish online an authoritative sample of seventeenth-century England's best-selling ballads. New musical recordings will be commissioned from the acclaimed Carnival Band. In addition to a core of 100 songs, we will include the following: images of the ballads in later editions and versions of the songs drawn from manuscript sources, printed songbooks and later folk song collections; information about other ballads that were closely related to the core songs in terms of their texts, tunes or pictures; transcripts of all the song texts in modern type; a range of supporting information - bibliographical and contextual - that should help users to interpret the ballads; and links to other on-line ballad resources. All in all, the site will include 500 images of the selected ballads (some of the ballads were printed in two parts and will therefore require two separate images), 100 recordings and extensive supporting information prepared in collaboration by the academic participants. In effect, the website will display full scholarly editions of these ballads in an electronic format appropriate to the twenty-first century. Other outputs will include co-authored scholarly articles and conference papers, a PhD thesis and two public concerts.
Historians of all sorts are increasingly making use of ballads in their work, though they tend to concentrate on the texts to the relative neglect of the tunes and the pictures. The current project aims to encourage a more rounded interpretation of balladry by presenting newly-commissioned recordings and high-quality images of the original songs. Scholars are also in the habit of quoting ballads somewhat uncritically as they seek lively evidence to support arguments on other topics. The new website, by identifying a sample of the most successful songs, will demonstrate the value of distinguishing between ballads on the basis of their seventeenth-century impact. Obviously, ballads that enjoyed commercial success are likely to have been more reflective of popular tastes than those that failed to impress on such a scale. In these and other ways, the project will make a contribution to the debates that are currently taking place among historians and literary scholars about broadside balladry and its wider cultural significance.
The website is not intended, however, to be useful only to professional academics. Access to the resource will be free, and it is hoped that this will facilitate its use by a wider audience (including musicians, lovers of 'early music', radio and TV producers, and history students at school and university). The aspiration to broad relevance is reflected in the fact that the project will involve collaboration not only among academics but between them and a group of musicians. Towards the end of the the 3-year period, a concert programme will be performed on two occasions and in two different locations. It is hoped that this will help to publicise the venture well beyond academic circles.

Planned Impact

In the seventeenth century, ballads belonged to everybody, and it is therefore appropriate that this project has been designed to reach well beyond academia. The benefits should begin to emerge as soon as the website is live and the other outputs have appeared. We anticipate that 'Hit Songs' will make an impact upon the following groups:

1. Musicians, whether amateur or professional, who specialise in 'early music'.
Very few of the featured ballads remain well-known today, but the Carnival Band's renditions should help to stimulate their revival. Potentially, the recordings and the on-line texts will help to extend the song repertoire of musicians, especially those with a particular interest in the music of the seventeenth century.

2. The listening public, especially those with a taste for historic song.
It is hoped that the recordings (and of course the concerts) will be of a quality sufficient to attract the attention and enhance the lives of many of those who listen to them. There is already a considerable audience for English 'early music' and the freely-accessible new recordings and images should prove appealing to many of its members.

3. All those with an interest in the history of English folklore.
Even the briefest online search reveals that followers of folksong are numerous and widely dispersed across the English-speaking world. Several of the featured ballads enjoyed later lives, and perhaps earlier lives too, as orally-transmitted folksongs, and it is hoped that the new recordings will stimulate considerable interest (they may encourage, in particular, further reflection on the somewhat controversial relationship between oral and literate culture in the past).

4. Programme-makers (radio and television) and their audiences.
Programmes dealing with aspects of early modern English history are broadcast regularly, and there is always a need for lively musical examples to contribute to the soundtrack. Recordings from an earlier project run by the PI have already been used by Radio Four, and it can be anticipated that the superior renditions of the Carnival Band will enjoy a life beyond the website.

5. Journalists (and their readers) who seek the historical roots of several modern preoccupations.
Possible topics might include teenage pregnancy (represented, for example, by the song entitled 'The amorous virgin'), medical fraud (one tune was entitled 'This will restore my Maiden-head again') and celebrity infidelity (represented by songs such as 'A Lamentable Ballad of Fair Rosamond, King Henry the Second's Concubine'). In addition, there were best-selling songs about sensational murders, near-death experiences, racial tension, domestic violence, inter-generational antagonism, role reversal, national identity and suicide.

6. Museum curators and their visitors.
The images and recordings may also be of value to those who are planning exhibitions and displays that feature aspects of seventeenth-century life. An exhibition on the Reformation could, for example, be enhanced by access to the song about a Protestant heroine entitled 'The most Rare and excellent History, Of the Dutchess of Suffolk's Calamity'. Visitors could be encouraged to explore the site through computers available within the display space, and the sounds of the music might help to generate an appropriate atmosphere.

7. School teachers and their pupils.
'Hit Songs' would also provide a valuable resource for teachers of early modern history. Given the nature of most curricula, interest would probably focus upon the political and religious songs, but creative teachers might also find ways in which to use many of the other ballads.

Publications

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Title Audio recordings of 100 broadside ballads of the seventeenth century 
Description We have worked with the Carnival Band to make new recordings of 100 seventeenth-century ballads. The recordings are all complete and some of them have already been used in podcasts and broadcasts. Eventually, they will be freely available on our website (currently under construction). 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact One of the recordings was used in a podcast connected with the AHRC-funded Thomas Nashe project (this is listed elsewhere in our submission). 
 
Description First, we have established the first ever robust and reliable list of best-selling songs from seventeenth-century England. A key feature of the list is the prominence of serious subject matter, particularly tragedy, history, religion and morality. Given that many scholars have tended to characterise the textual content of ballads from the period as dominated by sex and humour, this is a significant finding. It tells us that 'popular' tastes in music were rather more sober than we have previously supposed.

Second, the project establishes the importance for scholars of focusing not only on the texts of broadside ballads but also on the tunes to which they were sung and the woodcut pictures with which they were illustrated. A ballad was effectively a multi-media production and needs to be experienced and interpreted in a manner that pays attention to all of its component parts (and to the ways in which it was performed). Our published work has begun the process of disseminating this finding, and the website - currently under construction - will continue this work.

Both of these findings have also been developed and discussed through the series of public concerts that we have staged for non-academic audiences.
Exploitation Route 1. Many historians make use of ballads in their published work, and our findings will help them to develop more sophisticated and reliable approaches to these sources.
2. The musicians who have participated in the project will continue to make use of our songs in their concerts and educational activities.
3. When the website goes live, hopefully in 2020-21, it will provide a major new resource for all manner of interested parties (including historians, literary scholars, folklorists, singers and those involved in the design and production of radio and TV programmes. Our key findings will be strongly emphasised on the website, a fact that will help to ensure broad dissemination within and beyond academic circles.
Sectors Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://www.dhi.ac.uk/100-ballads/
 
Description Members of the Carnival Band, the musicians on this project, were invited to perform and be interviewed on Radio 3's Early Music Show in May 2017. They spoke at length about the project and, with Vivien Ellis, performed several of the songs that they have encountered through their work with me. In addition, the numerous musicians from the project have begun to use some of the songs in broader educational work in which they participate. For example, Andy Watts taught some of the songs to young musicians at the Dartington Summer School in the summer of 2018.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

 
Description 'Sound and song' (Podcast: part of the 'Thomas Nashe Project') 
Organisation Newcastle University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I was interviewed for a podcast that has now been published as part of the 'Thomas Nashe Project', hosted by Jenny Richards at Newcastle University. Recordings from my own project were also used within the podcast.
Collaborator Contribution The Newcastle team designed the product and organised the interviews.
Impact 'Sound and song' (Podcast: part of the 'Thomas Nashe Project'). It is a multi-disciplinary collaboration involving literary specialists, historians and musicians.
Start Year 2017
 
Description Concert at the Brighton Early Music Festival on 6 November 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In the concert, the Principal Investigator presented a programme of music performed by the Carnival Band and the singer, Vivien Ellis. All of the songs were seventeenth-century ballads, identified as best-sellers during research for the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Concert at the National Centre for Early Music on 18 Feb 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In the concert, the Principal Investigator presented a programme of music performed by the Carnival Band and the singer, Vivien Ellis. All of the songs were seventeenth-century ballads, identified as best-sellers during research for the project. With co-funding from the project and the NCEM, two members of the Carnival Band stayed in York for an additional two days, holding workshops with the young musicians of Folkestra, an ensemble from Newcastle.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
 
Description Concert at the Spitalfields Music Festival, 11 June 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In the concert, the Principal Investigator presented a programme of music performed by the Carnival Band and the singer, Vivien Ellis. All of the songs were seventeenth-century ballads, identified as best-sellers during research for the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Concert by the Carnival Band at Beverley, Yorkshire. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact In the concert, the Carnival Band and the singer, Vivien Ellis, performed a set of seventeenth-century ballads, all identified as best-sellers during research for the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Concert given by Carnival Band and Vivien Ellis on 28 May 2017 as part of the Beverley Early Music Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The concert was entitled 'Heroines and Tricksters: Women in Balladry'. Vivien Ellis and the Carnival Band performed a series of the ballads that they have been working on as part of our project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Concert/Lecture at the 'Voices and Books' conference at Newcastle, 17 July 2015. 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact In the concert, the Principal Investigator presented a programme of music performed by the Carnival Band and the singer, Vivien Ellis. All of the songs were seventeenth-century ballads, identified as best-sellers during research for the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Lecture given by invitation to the Royal Historical Society, London. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact I gave a public lecture under the auspices of the Royal Historical Society on 22 September 2017. The title was "'The woman to the plow and the men to the hen roost': Wives, husbands and best-selling ballads in seventeenth century England'. The talk included several live songs, performed by Vivien Ellis with accompaniment on fiddle by me. The lecture was open to members of the public. It was also filmed, and the lecture is now available to view on the RHS website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://royalhistsoc.org/marsh-ballads/
 
Description Members of the Carnival Band, our musical collaborators, were interviewed about the project on Radio 3. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Andy Watts, leader of the Carnival Band, was interviewed by Lucie Skeaping, the presenter of Radio 3's Early Music Show. He spoke about the project and about the songs that he and the other musicians have been working on and recording for the website. Vivien Ellis and other members of the band also performed three of our hit songs as part of the programme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017