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History of Broadside Ballads

From the 14th century onward, the Ballad has been a song form with narration as its core defining feature. The term loosely refers to a song whose tune repeats for each stanza and sometimes has a recurrent refrain (Ballad 541).  A subset of the genre grew up in the 16th century known as the broadside ballad, which was printed on one side of a folio sheet and sold for a penny in the streets of London (as well as Germany, Sweden, the Low Countries, and many Hispanic countries) (545). Pre-eighteenth-century broadsides, printed in Gothic lettering, are known as black-letter ballads to differentiate them from later white-letter ballads typically printed using plainer Roman typefaces. The range of topics covered by broadside ballads is quite phenomenal: lyric songs, pastorals, devotionals, literary criticism, political and religious propaganda, personal attacks, historical pieces, love songs, and a wide array of journalistic ballads chronicling the events of the day.

Famous Lyric Poets as Ballad Writers

Some of the lyric black-letter ballads were written by the most noted authors of the day. A sampling from the anthology, The Renaissance in England reveals Henry Howard the Earl of Surrey (The Lover Comforteth Himself), Lord Thomas Vaux (The Aged Lover Rennounceth Love), Christopher Marlowe (The Passionate Shepard to his Love), and Sir Walter Raleigh (The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd) (247).  Indeed, the earliest extant printed ballad is "The Ballade of the Scottysshe Kynge" written by Henry VIII's poet laureate, John Skelton, in 1513 (Shepherd History 49-50). Shakespeare even places the words of William Elderton's ballads "Pangs of Love" and "God's of Love" into the mouths of Mercutio and Benedick (Rollins 274).  The miscellany, a more respected and literary format for printed poetry, often included poems originally printed as broadsides. Collections such as Tottle's Miscellany, The Paradise of Dainty Devices, and A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions all contain black-letter ballads. A Handful of Pleasant Delights is entirely composed of reprinted broadsides (Rollin Baker 247).

Villification of the Journalistic Ballads

Despite the more prestigious examples of the form, black-letter ballads were roundly disparaged by poets and playwrights in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.  Ben Johnson even asserted that he knew "a man who lighted his pipe with a ballad and who, having a sore head the next day, swore he had a great singing there and thought the pain was due to the ballad" (331).  Ballad writers were labeled as "meter mongers" and "scald rhymers" by the more literary writers of the day (280).  However, this harsh criticism appears to be leveled specifically at the subgenre of journalistic ballads, which are typically about the historical and sensational events of the day, (a kind of musical version of the modern newspaper). They had such titles as "A Very Lamentable and Woful Discours of the Fierce Fluds, whiche Lately Flowed in Bedfordshire, in Lincolnshire, and in Many Other Places, with the Great Losses of Sheep and Other Cattel. The v.of October, Anno Domini 1570" (Shepherd Study 54-55). In general these ballads have attenuated storylines with no climax and include, what to the modern ear appears to be superfluous, verses of conventional moralizing and entreaties for the reader to believe the author's words. However it is worth noting that the chroniclers, Stowe and Holinshed, record many of the same events, even the birth of monstrous pigs and children (Rollins 268-9).  Hyder E. Rollin observes in his seminal article on black-letter ballads that from the extant ballads combined with the ballad titles that are entered into the Stationer's Registers "one could compile a history of Tudor and Stuart England."  Rollin also points out that despite an unfortunate tendency to make up information if they could not obtain an interview with a reliable witness, the ballads were usually about actual events described in a relatively factual way. "As a general thing, they were far more trustworthy and far less absurd than the pamphlets exclusively devoted to news that sprang up in the last years of James I" (271).

Flyts: Ballads Used as Personal Attacks

Ballads were also used a vehicles for personal attacks (flyts), as well as political and religious propaganda, in much the same way television ads are used today. It was a common place in London for two politicians of divergent views to write ballads filled with invectives about the other, so that the people of London went about their daily tasks humming the ditty to themselves and laughing at the wit of the songs. However, William Gray and Thomas Smyth carried their political duel of words to such extremes that they and their printer were summoned before the Privy Council in 1540. The printer successfully blamed another printer, but the two authors spent several weeks in Fleet Prison (Shepherd History 54-6).

Licensing and Censorship

In theory all such ballads and books were passed before a censorship authority. From 1557 onward the Guild of Stationers in London was given a monopoly on the printing of books and broadsides. All printers had to pay a small fee, four pence for a broadside and six pence for a book, in order to license the printing of the work. Although the Guild imposed censorship to avoid the printing of indecent ballads, this only encouraged illegal presses. And often, it appears, the definition of "indecent" carried a religious or political overtone rather than a moral (54-55). From the years 1557 to 1709 around 3,000 ballad titles were registered. During that same time it is estimated that around 9,000 unlicensed titles were printed illegally. (Shepherd History 33-34)

How a Ballad was Published & Sold

Licensing protected the printer from another printer stealing the work. It did not protect the author, since the author had no rights to his own work. Once the ballad writer released his creation into the hands of the printer, he had no legal claim to the work (Rollins Baker 82-84). After purchasing the ballad from the author, the printer would typeset it on the press, using whatever woodblock illustration was most appropriate, and print off copies. He would then parcel out copies to the street singers in his employ. They in turn would carry them "to the doors of theatres, to markets, fairs, bear-baitings, taverns, ale houses, wakes, or any other place where a crowd could gather..." (308-9).  Crying out to draw a crowd, "Ballads! my masters, ballads! Will you have any ballads o' the newest and truest matter in London?" (Shepherd History 81). After a sufficient crowd gathered the peddler would sing the ballad to teach it, if needed, to the people who were buying. Although occasionally a ballad would be written to a new tune, most were simply set to well known tunes and were used over and over (81).

A favorite place to sell printed works was St. Paul's Churchyard, which was so packed with stalls in 1625 that it was said in a quote from Holland's "Continued Inquisition" to be

"no wonder
That Paul's has so often been struck with thunder:
Twas aimed at these shops, in which there lie
Such a confused world of trumpery." (Rollins 323)

Ballads Show "the Complexion of the Times"

Ballads were considered such a touchstone for the feelings of the populous that Queen Elizabeth's minister of state "had all manner of books and ballads brought to him,... and took great notice how much they took with the people; upon which he would, and certainly might, very well judge of their present dispositions".  Even ambassadors posted to England from other countries read the new ballads carefully and reported on them (Rollins 335). The great ballad collector of the seventeenth century, John Seldon, once commented,

"Though some make slight of Libells: yet you may see by them, how the Wind sits. As take a Straw, and throw it up into the Air; you may see by that, which way the Wind is; which you shall not do, by casting up a Stone. More solid things do not shew the Complexion of the Times, so well as Ballads and Libells." (Shepherd History 31)



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