Monday, July 7, 2014

Broadside Ballads: Scurrilous Songs and Serotonin

by Piers Alexander

THE Coffe-house Trade is the best in the Town.
Young sparks that have money they thither repair:
The Affairs of the Nation they have written down,
To blow up their Noddles as light as the Air.
Stories, Stories, Lies and Stories;
There's nothing but Stories when they begin.
Pox on your News Letters, they lye both and flatters;
They are but a Trap to wheedle Men in.

From The City Cheat discovered: OR, A New Coffe-house Song.
Perswading all civil and sober Men not to frequent the Coffe-houses so much

The English vernacular is seditious, rhythmic, musical. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, important pieces of history are set to music, to rhyming couplets: Shakespeare built on that custom. The printing press led to an explosion of creativity, with millions of “Broadside Ballads” being printed in the seventeenth century; so many that they were used as toilet paper, as kindling, to line pie tins.

Singer and researcher Vivien Ellis is one of the contributors to the  100 Ballads Project, which is compiling the most popular songs of the era, and enthuses to me about their democratic, empowering nature.

Most ballads were constructed around a small number of well-known melodies: Lillibulero for comic songs like the one quoted above; Queen Dido for tragic love stories; and so on. Balladeers would write about an execution, or a play, or a political event, and sell copies in the street; and because everyone knew the tunes, they happily bought the broadsides (sheets of paper) and took them home or to the tavern to share them. The Bodleian Library has thirty thousand such street ballads, and according to Vivien Ellis these are only a fraction of the total number printed. 

It was easy for songwriters to express themselves, since the metre and melody were so well-established; but easy for singers too, as there were no recordings or radio. All interpretations were allowed; there was no Melodyne, no mastering, no musical perfection.

But there was a deeper reason for the popularity of ballads and rounds: in Vivien’s words, “Shared singing kept people alive in that brutal time.” Experiments have shown that serotonin levels and pain thresholds rise when groups sing together; singing promotes social cohesion and personal bonding.

Dr Chris Marsh, a collaborator on the 100 Ballads Project, says: “Though we all like to think of the trad song as seditious, the ballads were in many ways deeply conservative in terms of the core social values expressed.”

Many ballads were scurrilous, gossipy, comical. Men (women were of course excluded) would meet in coffeehouses, pick up their broadsides and sing salacious rounds with complete strangers. It was a shorter-lived, more violent and diseased time; but was it less happy? To launch The Bitter Trade, we’re conducting a social experiment: booksellers, coffeehouse fanatics, readers and historical reenactors will be meeting at a coffeehouse in London and singing rounds together. They don’t know it yet, but we will crack that modern reserve and sing out in our native vernacular – wish us luck!


Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a novel of coffee racketeering and treason during England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688

The Bitter Trade is available on all ebook stores and as a paperback from Amazon.

Vivien Ellis is a Grammy-nominated singer and social reformer who specializes in early, folk and new music. She is a contributor to the 100 Ballads Project.

The 100 Ballads Project is compiling the hit songs of the seventeenth century

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a wonderful idea! Pity I don't live in the UK. I think the broadside songs with their existing tunes may have been the first examples of filk songs. ;-)


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