Why the Broadside Ballad?
Some of you might be asking not “Why the broadside ballad?” but “What broadside ballad?” or even “What is a broadside ballad?” That last query is actually a very good question, and the increasing difficulty I have in answering it—despite, or rather because of, my twelve years of experience as founder and director of UCSB’s digital English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA)—is one indication of why the broadside ballad is the perfect focus for this collection concerning experiential or experimental humanities. EBBA to date has guided my understanding of the complicated experiential processes involved not only in answering “why?” but also “what?” Indeed, EBBA’s ongoing collaborative building of a digital archive of pre-1701 broadside ballads aligns well with the new movement of “critical making” that Andrew Griffin observes at work in the digital humanities as an analogue to physical craft-making, such as the work involved in this project, The Making of a Broadside Ballad. Reaping knowledge that I have gained from the experiential archive-building of EBBA, I want to first provide a hard-won working definition of “what?”, together with a cultural context for the object of study. I then want to give you some background about how broadside ballads emerged prominently on the scene of print culture as “things,” and finally to demonstrate briefly how making a broadside ballad archive is analogous to making a broadside ballad itself, even capturing a sense of its experiential dissemination and reception, though at a digital remove.
Devoted to archiving broadside ballads pre-1701, EBBA holds its tiller to the “heyday” of the English Renaissance broadside ballad. The broadside ballad's “heyday” took place c. 1590-1640; heyday aesthetics were then revived in ballads printed on smaller sheets c. 1660-1690. The broadside ballad of this period was a multimedia object that prominently featured text, illustration, and tune, and that was often divided into two “parts” (Nebeker 3-5). As illustrated in Figure 1, the ballads were printed on one side of a single large sheet (hence “broad-side”), which simultaneously sported woodblock illustrations or impressions (often four or more running across the top of the page, as well as ornamental headers, footers, borders, and dividers between columns of verse); text or lyric (frequently printed in decorative swirling black letter or what we today call Gothic type); and song or printed tune title (indicating the melody to which the ballad should be sung, which would be either a familiar tune or, if new, one that could easily be taught to the consumer). The topics of broadside ballads changed with the times, but in their heyday they offered consumers a smorgasbord of subjects, including religion, wonders, love, marriage, sex, good fellowship, politics, the latest news, and occasional topics such as the hoarding of corn and rack-renting by landlords. They also featured dialogues between characters represented within the ballads, often voicing different sides of an issue, and even presented opposing stances on the same subject between ballads, sometimes written by the very same author. This tactic was skillfully employed by Martin Parker when he wrote one ballad for and another against marrying widows.
This marketing strategy offered something for everyone, allowing all different sorts to partake at will. In singing the ballad, the participant necessarily adopted the voice of every different subject position, but the singer could still more strongly align him- or herself with one persona or another (Smith e.g. 190-96; Fumerton 2006 145-46). Once disseminated, the broadside ballad made itself available for taking and re-making by consumers, who most likely revised stanzas, dropped parts of the text, and changed the tune according to their fancy. Sung as a communal experience, the ballad could be adapted by a group collectively, but each individual also played a role in shaping what was heard. In this sense the adaptive possibilities offered by broadside ballads were akin to the selective adjustments one typically makes in day-to-day living.
Cultural work beyond the EBBA archive has revealed that broadside ballads were an integral part of the day-to-day lived experience of early modern contemporaries (see especially Rollins and Marsh 225-87). Copies of them likely circulated by the end of the sixteenth century in the millions (Watt 11). Ballads were printed in London and then sold at printers’ and publishers’ shops and stalls, and hawked
on street corners and at open-air assemblies (from markets to executions) as well as in enclosed public gathering places (such as alehouses). They were sung in more private spaces, from workplaces to homes (in the latter perhaps by a wife or maid as she spun her wheel), pasted up on street posts and walls, and carried far into the countryside in the packs of chapmen for rural circulation. Broadside ballads were the most disseminated form of literature in the English Renaissance. They were mass marketed, aimed at all classes but especially at the low. They were cheap—sold for around a penny toward the beginning of the seventeenth century and dropped to a half-pence by its end—and they could also be bought at bulk rates (Watt 11; Fumerton 2013, 16n6). They were openly denigrated by the social and literary elite as “low” literature, but they were unavoidably experienced—dare we say enjoyed?—by all. Their immense popularity as well as their relative fragility as a single sheet of paper explains why only about 11,000-12,000 pre-1701 English broadside ballads survive today. Such ephemerality took the form of disposability; ballads were used by contemporaries for such transitory purposes as to line a pie or a bird cage, or in the oft-told anecdotes, by Ben Jonson to light his pipe and by Sir William Cornwallis to wipe his bum (Marsh 233, 263). But the low survival rate of ballads also suggests heavy use. Things carried around from place to place in one’s pocket wear out or get misplaced, and even when proudly situated on the milk-house or alehouse wall, they were vulnerable to being whitewashed over.
Figure 3: “Ballad Singer” (by Inigo Jones)
Broadside ballads were ephemeral and denigrated, but clearly also much cherished and used “things.” Yet their status as objects has faced resistance from scholars and they are barely represented in Griffin’s assertion that “It was the early 1990s when, once and for all, books became things.” Ephemera like the single sheets of broadside ballads took longer than books did to gain the status of "things" in the eyes of scholars. Ephemera studies now are all the rage, as indicated by the Studies in Ephemera edition (2013), which Griffin cites in the first section of our introduction (and to which I proudly contributed). Broadside ballads slipped onto the scene in the 1990s with Tessa Watt’s groundbreaking study Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640 (1991). In accord with the “macro-scale accounts of the print market” that Griffin notes, Watt treats the broadside ballad as an object in terms of its print history (see also Thomason and earlier, Blagden) as well as situating it within a larger cultural context of piety. Watt was also one of the first to focus on broadside ballad woodcut illustrations, which she discussed as religious iconography. With growing interest arising in the 1990s, others looked to the dissemination of broadside ballads in terms of performance and reception (see Wurzbach and Smith), though most stayed focused on historically-contextualized themes, such as disorderly women, infanticide, witchcraft, and alehouses (Wiltenburg, Symonds, Williams, Hailwood). Only recently has there been a notable turn to look beyond the textual object to embrace as meaningful the other media that make up the multimedia ballad artifact: woodcut illustrations (beginning with the seminal work of Franklin and Fumerton 2002) and tunes, as named on the ballad sheet (esp. Marsh, McIllvenna).
What has plagued and delayed the emergence of scholarship of the broadside ballad in its full multi-dimensional “thingness” is that the word “ballad” has traditionally prompted, and continues to prompt for the general public, thoughts not of a thing but of a non-objectifiable aural song, specifically a narrative “folk” song. The idea of the ballad as a “pure,” “traditional” oral form that is expressive of a communal “folk,” and that, most importantly, is uncontaminated by print began in the eighteenth-century antiquarian movement, led most prominently by Thomas Percy, and culminated in the nineteenth century with prodigious folklorist Francis James Child. Child and his followers sought out pure folk song in the remote highlands of Scotland and Appalachia or in isolated groups such as the gypsies, seeking songs that had been passed down orally within their cultures, or at least transcribed into manuscript form. Child’s influence was enormous and persisted well into the 1990s. Indeed, I would argue that the broadside ballad became established as “thing” only with the growth of access to printed ballad ephemera through the expansion of EBBA, which, as of the current moment, has archived over 7,000 pre-1701 broadside ballads.
Child denigrated broadside ballads, specifically scorning the enormous Pepys and Roxburghe collections of over 1,800 and 1,500 broadside ballads respectively. These collections—the first that EBBA archived—Child dismissed as “veritable dunghills” (cited in Brown 254). Ironically, however, in creating his own published ten (later turned into five) volumes of “pure” oral ballads, he not only used manuscript sources but also printed broadside ballads, as Mary Ellen Brown astutely notes in her illuminating article, “Child’s Ballads and the Broadside Conundrum.” Even more ironically, his collection of 305 “pure” ballads, which include multiple variants for each song, is literally of his own “making”: his rendering of what might we might term a serial or “composite” ballad. He selected specific elements from different variants, put his variations together, and labelled them as one ballad. In this sense, the antiquarian movement that he led was deeply involved in dismembering and remaking as much as it was dedicated to recovering the wholeness (and the holiness) of the oral. Even more ironically, Child's method of picking and choosing the elements that he assembled together to make a ballad is part of a long history that stretches back to seventeenth-century contemporary approaches to the heyday broadside ballad.
As I have discussed at length in “Remembering by Dismembering,” early modern contemporaries would have created their own mental collection of preferred ballads and parts of ballads, including selections of text, illustrations, and tunes. After all, they would have encountered broadside ballads daily in a makeshift, fragmentary way as they walked the streets, catching parts of stanzas or glimpses of woodcuts pasted up, or hearing sections of ballads being hawked aloud. They would also frequently re-encounter parts of texts, individual woodcuts, and tunes (sometimes renamed, though the melody would be the same) appearing on or sung to different broadside ballads. In cataloguing these artifacts for the EBBA archive, my team encountered what early modeners would have experienced as lived experience: the essential fragmentariness and mobility of the artifacts, both as a whole and in their component parts. We found that in the heyday ballad, text, illustration, and tune title exist on the ballad sheet like migrant workers only temporarily at rest. They are assembled together on the sheet by an often anonymous author, printer or publisher in a bricolage-like, makeshift fashion, and thus must be seen as at all times as independent, potentially moving parts that could at any moment, as individual identities, separate from their coworkers in the process of a single or subsequent print-run or entirely new printing. In my 2002 article, “Not Home,” I termed such a migratory and patchwork process “an aesthetics of displacement” (Fumerton 2002, 504). In working on the mobile poor, many of whom labored at times as itinerant ballad sellers, I renamed it “an aesthetics of unsettledness” (Unsettled, 146). Today, in my book in-progress on the multi-media of broadside ballads and their multifaceted cultural context and effects, I have reinvented my terminology yet again and dub it “an aesthetics of moving media.”
As digital archivists making EBBA, we as a team had to grapple with this constant flux and find a way to render it in a systematic and easily-accessible fashion. I have singly and with other members of my team published articles that document this Menealean archival process of wrestling a veritable Proteus to the ground because it tells us as much about the nature of broadside ballads and their production and reception as it does about the continual remaking practice of creating a digital archive.
Our first challenge was deciding on something as basic as what artifact or object we wanted to capture: the ballad as it was collected, where it was often trimmed, cut in two and pasted onto facing or subsequent pages of an album book, or pasted onto a large piece of backing paper? Or a close-up of the ballad artifact, whether visible in parts or as a whole, separated from its cultural collecting context? Of course, some ballad sheets, though trimmed, were often collected simply in a pile, and now exist in folders boxed in libraries; thus these artifacts do not offer an album or “collected” viewing. In the end, we decided to present multiple viewings in order to recreate something of the different ways that one might experience a broadside ballad. We present the ballads as collected in an album book or on backing paper, if they were so collected, showing all of the album page or backing paper (album facsimile); as reconstructed into a single whole if the ballad had been cut apart and with borders restored if it has been trimmed, thus approximating the way the broadside ballad would have looked when it came off the press (ballad sheet facsimile); and as transcribed into modern font, with the transcription carefully imitating the original formatting and placed amidst the original illustrations of the ballad sheet facsimile, thus approximating for modern viewers the easy readability that would have been available to the more literate consumers of the period (facsimile transcription).
Finally, we made available to viewers the bare-bones text transcription of each ballad, generated by TEI/XML, with a link in the upper right-hand corner to the code for use by programmers.
Deciding on rules of transcription and, and even then on how to proceed in transcribing unusual contractions, wording, and formatting was a vexed process of continual adjustment and creative judgement, which Charlotte Becker discusses in this volume as an extension of similar judgement calls continually being made on the part of the print-shop compositors.
Our multi-pronged viewing strategy paid off when we archived the Euing ballad collection, held at the University of Glasgow. This was also the first time we found evidence of a collector not only remembering by dismembering (cutting ballads in two) but also of the same collector, or of his or her successor, subsequently reconstituting a new broadside ballad from remnants. We found two instances of this practice: Euing 173 and 186 (EBBA 31928 and 31941). In both cases, if we had simply cut away the backing paper and presented what was left as the ballad sheet facsimile, we would have conveyed a major misconception of what was being viewed. What turned out to be surprising and deft machinations of the collector were first discovered by an undergraduate making a facsimile transcription of Euing 173. She opened the file in Photoshop in an enlarged size for detail work, and she noticed a difference in the coloring of the paper and the alignment of the lines on the sheet when she was trying to match the formatting. If you look closely at this apparent broadside ballad whole, pasted onto backing paper, you can see that in fact it consists of four pieces of printed paper that have been carefully put together.
On further investigation, the EBBA team discovered that the collector had pasted together bits and pieces of a broadside ballad that had been stripped of its first and main illustration. We knew approximately what the original looked like because at the time we had two other copies of the same edition of the ballad in EBBA (Pepys and Roxburghe collections, EBBA 21774 and 30756); as of now we have four (with the addition of ballads from the National Library of Scotland and the Houghton Library, EBBA 32656 and 34471). The Crawford ballad from the National Library of Scotland shows us how the Euing ballad would have originally looked.
Our remaking of the Euing ballad sheet facsimile thus became a whole with a hole.
In addition to such revelatory multiple viewings of the broadside ballad, which offered to capture something of the way that contemporaries might have encountered ballads in their own time, we have tried to recreate something of the aural experience of the broadside ballad. Our ethnomusicologists have searched out tunes and our singers have recorded them, usually sung a capella as they would have been sung on the streets of the period, and sometimes to instruments in imitation of theater songs that adopted ballad tunes (and vice versa). We have also begun manually cataloguing the woodcuts in cyborgian conjunction with an automated image-matching tool (the brainchild of Carl Stahmer). As evident in the advanced search page, we sought extensive granular cataloguing and drop-down interfaces to eliminate confusion and increase standardization. One rule we adopted is that every manifestation of a broadside ballad—every printing even of what seemed like the same edition based on title and imprint—had to be treated as a unique assemblage of individual artifacts. For each artifact, title, date, author name, imprint, printer/publisher name, tune imprint, standardized tune title, keywords, woodcut keywords are fully catalogued, transcribed, and XML/TEI encoded anew. Broadside ballads shift format and words even in a single print run, as the printer made changes along the way or the type became loose or the paper slipped. We saw the effects of this phenomenon in making a digital broadside ballad archive. We experienced the process first hand in the sense that we were making a digital archive, though we were still at one remove from the actual setting of physical type and printing a ballad re-enacted for this Making collection.
Deciding to catalogue every item of a broadside ballad as a unique object was a hard-won decision born of our observation of the hodgepodge aesthetic principle adopted by contemporaries in creating and even consuming broadside ballads. Other decisions were even harder to earn, as when we tried to catalogue meter and rhyme scheme and, six months later, gave up in the face of an exceedingly irregular printed verse form, which did not at all meet the definition of ballad measure offered by the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics: four-line stanzas usually rhyming abcb with the first and third lines carrying four accented syllables and the second and fourth carrying three (118). As William Gahan observes, the Encyclopedia, “restricts this designation to those Scottish and English ballad compiled by Francis James Child” (17). We since learned first-hand, through the actual writing and singing of a broadside ballad for this Making project, why irregularity is inevitable and must be met by constantly adjusting text to tune (and vice versa). Even the process of establishing keywords flummoxed us: woman or women? Child, infant, youth, or boy? Every team member, we found, was entering different terms. We had to bring Proteus to the ground and set a limit on the number of keywords we would use. We also had to standardize them. We began by looking to Samuel Pepys, since his collection was the first that we had archived, and he handily supplies the viewer with a Table of Contents indexing the ballads by format, volume, and subject.
But even Pepys’s system broke down on him, as evident in his conflating “Love Pleasant” and “Love Unpleasant” in volume 4, pp. 1-72, using the sign for “ditto” to indicate that the same pages covered both topics. He even added an extra grouping of ballads to his first volume that he didn’t place in the Contents page, titling that section, tellingly, “Promiscuous Supplement.” After we had catalogued all of the Pepys and Roxburghe collection, we left behind Pepys’s categories (as only for Pepys) and felt confident we could provide fifty more helpful “Keywords” in the advanced search page, each carefully defined. Even so, as we added more collections to the database, wordings for the Keywords have changed and the number has risen to 52.
Indeed each new collection brings new challenges that make us better understand the processes of archiving and the nature of broadside ballads: we encounter sixteenth-century broadside ballads among the Huntington’s Britwell collection that include more prose than verse. Are they singable, which is a requisite of a ballad? Elegies, flytings (or personalized arguments), and religious topics dominate those early ballads, whereas in the heyday period the topics expand greatly and become more secular. But about the mid-seventeenth century, we encounter a return of the elegy, as well as the eulogy, in enormous numbers. Are these ballads? At the same time we see the rise of one-page verse poems that look a lot like ballads but don’t quite feel like them, perhaps because they are often written in iambic pentameter (though one immensely popular ballad tune, “Fortune my Foe,” maddeningly could fit iambic pentameter verse) or because many of these verse poems ran over onto the verso of the sheet (and are thus technically “broadsheets” not “broadsides”). In some, the topic feels too elite, as if we were witnessing an imitation of a ballad by a courtly writer, of the kind that Sackville wrote and Pepys then distributed at a dinner party in 1665, jokingly attributing it to three naval officers (Pepys VI:2). White-letter ballads, printed in roman type, dominate political issues and also are often written as if for a more elite audience; other late seventeenth-century ballads, such as those concerning love, could be printed in white letter as well. And with the white-letter typeface artifacts, especially of the political sort, we also tend to see the elimination from the page of woodcut illustrations and tune titles. (Both would reappear in the eighteenth-century broadside ballad revival, though black letter became obsolete c. 1700.) Towards the end of the seventeenth century, we also see white-letter ballads that are illustrated with musical notation, often appearing to be of a “nonsense” kind, simply for ornamentation.
The problem such notation raises for archivists is trying to figure out whether the notation is “nonsense” or singable. Often it appears to have meant to be the former, apparently to capitalize on, by imitating, the emergent fashion of song books.
But increasingly dominating the scene as the century closes and we enter the eighteenth century were broadside ballads that were no longer “broad”sides: they were mere slips of white-letter text (printed four or five to a sheet and then cut apart for individual sale), without images, or with one small image at the top.
These “slip songs” flooded the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ballad market in England and America.
When the famous Dicey printers published a catalogue of their items for sale in 1754 and in 1764, their advertisement notes that they have “Old Ballads” but also “Broad-Sheet and other Patters, Garlands” and “near Two Thousand different Sorts of Slips; of which the New Sorts coming out almost daily render it impossible to make a Complete Catalogue.” The Diceys appear to be making a distinction between printed ballads and other kinds of songs, including slip songs (Dugaw 80, 83). But that distinction was also repeatedly broken by contemporaries. The Duke of Roxburghe and his fellow collectors included many such “slips” in their broadside ballad collection.
We continue to adjust the EBBA database as new collections are added, presenting new challenges to our efforts toward inclusion but also stability and cohesion. Our efforts have involved a constant process of adjustment, re-stabilization, and innovation. This digital “critical making”— or rather unmaking and remaking—is necessarily ongoing as long as we continue to expand, for the broadside ballad is an immensely protean creature. EBBA is constantly revising its rules and its digital interface, and human cataloguer and programmed machine (as in the human working of the printing press) are crucial cyborgian components in making the final product, which, of course, is never final.
We have learned a lot about broadside ballads from digitally archiving them. We’ve tried to capture something of the lived experiences of viewing and listening to them. But we continually come face to face with as many questions as we solve, and continue to seek answers. This edition goes a long way not to answering all our questions but to expanding upon our experiential “critical making” by looking behind the curtain. In 2013, as if in a veritable leap beyond the the archival, I decided to stop conjecturing about the kinds of paper that ballads were printed on, whether a wear or break on a woodcut was caused by age or another factor, why the type seemed to slant off to the left on the page, and how the singers came to fit tune to words. I concluded that the best way to find out was to do it: to recreate the processes of making the thing itself. In retrospect, it was just a matter of time before I and my team, and others who joined our adventure, turned our eyes to what Griffin calls the “analog—even antiquarian” project of looking behind the digital interface and even behind the original product—the printed sheet of paper—to recreate how the original was in fact made. This is when we became really hands-on, when our hands got really dirty (not to mention bloody at times), and we experienced our own equivalent to the multi-faceted reception and archiving of the broadside ballads at the level of production.
As a team effort, those of us involved in EBBA were already on the right track, since broadside ballads are never individually produced. They are the product of a series of teams: teams of papermakers, printers, woodcutters, authors, publishers, hawkers, and audiences. Our team now intimately engaged with things, not simply with the printing press analogue of the computer, but with water, rags, wood, knives, ink, lead, and gravity, the last of which turns out to be the greatest threat in typesetting. We learned a lot about the production of broadside ballads in digitally archiving them in multifarious and granular ways. But we have learned much more in physically making them, including the difficulties and delights of performing them. We have especially been able if only minimally, as an apprentice, in Griffin’s words, to inhabit what it was like to be craft-workers engaged in the praxis of the production and performance of printed ballads. Some of the discoveries that we have made along this journey of making we have made also in creating the EBBA archive: that every sheet of paper, every cut into a woodblock, every setting of type is unique, for instance. But, as the following essays testify, we also opened up whole areas of experience that have changed again for us how we understand the protean broadside ballad, a form that can only be truly understood in praxis.