Golden Age of Balladry

The Golden Age of Balladry.

By Paul Dickfoss, 3rd New York Reg't.

To properly portray a soldier of the 18th century it is essential to understand the civilian life. Ballads were a vital part of that life. Seamen included them in the back of log-books, the wealthy horded them like a secret vice, milkmaids attached them to dairy walls and learned them as they churned, tavern walls often were posted with them as an entertainment for guests (in addition to quotes below see Palmer, 1979, p. 7). But what is a ballad?

The best way to answer this question is by reading the scattered primary documentation many of which are found in hard to get books. The following gives an in depth picture of what a ballad is and those who sold them by citing the plentiful documentation. I've included notes to describe points that written accounts do not fully illustrate. I have included more sources than I have cited since these complete the picture of 18th-century balladry in one tidy place.

"Who makes a ballet for an ale-house doore, Shall live in future times for ever more." Written between 1597 and 1601 in Würzbacu (1990)

"I will now lead you to an honest ale-hose, where we shall find a cleanly room, lavender in the windows, and twenty ballads stuck about the wall." The Complete Angler by Izaak Walton, 1653 in Bold (1979, p. 71).

"I cannot for my heart leave a room before I have thoroughly studied the walls of it, and examined the several printed papers which are usually pasted upon them." Addison, early 18th century in Shepard (1969, p. 61).

Modern terminology differentiates between traditional (oral songs) and broadside (printed songs) ballads. There is no clear line between these distinctions and ballads frequently changed from oral to printed tradition and back throughout history. Just as often, ballads moved from place to place originating in England, being imported to America and back to the old country continually evolving at each location.

Broadside ballads of the 18th century were of the whiteletter type (roman type) and on single slips of paper about 16 inches long and 4.5 inches wide. These were often published on cheap, dirty gray or brown paper. Virtually all had some sort of crude decorative woodcut picture at the top, a title underneath it, frequently advertising it as "A New Song," and often with a second woodcut at the bottom. These woodcuts were not necessarily related to the song and one woodcut was occasionally used for more than one ballad (Lawrence, 1975; Shepard, 1962).

Ballad Singer woodcutBallads were sold by the poor going door to door, in cheapjack stalls by chapmen, from peddlers' satchels or in the streets and fairgrounds (known as: chaunters, ballad mongers or sellers, patterers). Written accounts suggest these people were of the lowest class and often had to avoid the authorities. There are many pictures of ballad mongers for a few examples see Palmer (1979, p. 5 and 6).

"... the uncountable rabble of ryming Ballet makers and compylers of sencelesse sonets, who be most busy, to stuffe every stall full of grosse devises and unlearned Pamphlets ... ", A Discourse of English Poetrei, by William Webbe, 1586 in Shepard (1962, p. 57).

"... See this bundle of ballads not one of them later than 1700, and some of them a hundred years older. I wheedled an old woman out of these, who loved them better than her psalm-book", Sir Walter Scott, early 19th century, in Shepard (1962, p. 103).

"Pray now, buy some. I love a ballad in print, a'-life: for then we are sure they are true," Shakespeare's, "A Winter's Tale."

"... Even the poorer sort of both sexes are daily tempted to all manner of lewdness by infamous ballads sung in every corner of the streets," Andrew Fletcher, 1703, in Shepard (1962, p. 58).

"When thou canst read, read no Ballads and foolish Books, but the Bible," Thomas White, 1702, in Neuburg (1968, p. 19).

"Hate vulgar impious songs, a wretched chime, Where fulsome nonsense jingles into rhyme," An American textbook, 1770, in Neuburg (1968, p. 19).

"It is indeed a great Blessing of God, that Children in England have liberty to read the holy Scriptures, when others abroad are denied it. . . Let not your Children read these vain Books, profane Ballads, and filthy songs. Throw away all fond and amorous Romances, and fabulous Histories of Giants, the bombast Achievements of Knight Errantry, and the like; for these fill the Heads of Children with vain, silly and idle imaginations," Written in an anonymous book The History of Genesis, 1708 in Neuburg (1968, p. 19-20).

The process of how a monger sold a ballad was printed into the following poem (anonymous, 1731 in Palmer, 1979, p. 7):

Strait to some market place or alley,
And sitting down judiciously
Begin to sing. The people soon
Gather about, to hear the tune --
One stretches out his hand, and cries
Come, let me have it, what's the price?
But one poor halfpenny, says I,
And sure you cannot that deny.
Here, take it, then says he, and throws
The money. Then away he goes,
Humming it as he walks along,
Endeavouring to learn the song.

Bibliography With Notes

Bold, A., 1979, The Critical Idiom: The ballad; Methuen & Co. Ltd., 105. Very difficult reading but describes the oral tradition of balladry and major changes between 17th, 18th and 19th century traditional ballads.

Chappell, W., 1965, The ballad literature and popular music of the olden time, volume 2; Dover Publications, Inc., New York. An excellent source of popular ballads printed with music, history and documentation.

Holloway, J. and J. Black, 1975, Later English broadside ballads; Routledge & Kegan Paul, London. Shows excellent examples of 127 ballads from the 18th century including the woodcuts at the top of the ballads and references to where the tunes can be found but the words to the songs have been typed eliminating characteristics such as random italics.

Lawrence, V. B., 1975, Music for patriots, politicians, and presidents: Harmonies and discords of the first hundred years; Macmillan Publishing Co. This book includes a number of photographs of political broadside ballads including the history of the songs.

Neuburg, V. E., 1968, Milestones in children's literature: The penny histories; Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. New York. A book dealing with chapbooks which often include ballads.

Palmer, Roy, 1979, A Ballad History of England from 1588 to the Present Day; B. T. Ratsford Ltd, London, 192 p. Excellent. Includes photographs of ballads.

Shepard, L., 1962, The broadside ballad: a study in origins and meaning; Cox and Wyman Ltd., London. An excellent book dealing with the evolution of printed ballads. A whole chapter is devoted to "Whiteletter Balladsheets" and many examples of actual broadside ballads and chapbooks with their measured dimensions and descriptions are included in the book.

Wells, E. K., 1950, The ballad tree a study of British and American ballads, their folklore, verse, and music: together with sixty traditional ballads and their tunes; The Ronald Press Co., New York. This book includes chapters on "The English Ballad Revival in the Eighteenth Century and Bishop Percy," "The Scottish Revival and Sir Walter Scott" and "American Folk Songs and Singers".

Würzbach, N., 1990, The rise of the English street ballad, 1550-1650; Cambridge University Press, New York. Interesting account of the ballad's popularity.