Audiences, performances and recordings


The audience for seventeenth-century broadside ballads was socially and geographically extensive. Ballads were collected by privileged gentlemen and aristocrats but they were also well-known to people in the lower ranks of society. Indeed, scholars sometimes associate ballads particularly with ‘the people’ or ‘the street’, taking their lead from early-modern literary commentators.[1] Several arguments have been proposed to support the case for broad accessibility: the presence of pictures and tunes meant that literacy was not essential for consumers because ballads could also be appreciated as music and/or art; the use of very cheap paper kept the cost of a ballad down to a penny or less, allowing everyone but the very poor to contemplate a purchase; the language of ballad-texts, and the tunes to which they were sung, were often simple, easily comprehensible and highly memorable; much of the subject matter, led by courtship and sex, was, in Bernard Capp’s words, ‘light’, ‘sensationalist’ and ‘escapist’, calculated to achieve maximum appeal; and a national system of distribution by ballad-sellers carried the sheets to all corners of the land, despite the fact that they were almost always published in London (until the very end of the seventeenth century). According to Patricia Fumerton, the aim of ballad-makers was ‘to market something for everyone, aiming at the widest group of consumers, especially the large market base of the middling and the low’.[2]

Having said this, it is important to remember that access to balladry was also highly variable. The sheets circulated widely but they turned up in some locations and social settings more regularly than they did in others. To begin with, no system of country-wide distribution could compensate fully for the fact that London was the beating heart of the ballad industry. In the capital, ballads are said to have fluttered freely, but in distant corners of the land they were probably encountered rather more sporadically. London also had the highest levels of literacy, and the ability to read transformed the nature of engagement with ballads, even if it was not essential to enjoyment. We should also think critically about the suggestion that the language of balladry was universally simple and direct. In most cases, admittedly, this characterisation is accurate enough but there were notable exceptions. The following lines are all drawn from highly successful black-letter songs that appear on this website: ‘Mournful Melpomony,/ assist my quill’ (The Lamenting Ladies last farewel); ‘With a Floud of Obrian, we fill up each Vein,/ All the Spirits of which lov’s Alimbeck must drain’ (The Delights of the Bottle); and ‘What if a smile, or a becke, or a looke,/ Feed thy fond thoughts with many a sweet conceiving’ (A Friends advice). Were such lines immediately comprehensible to the average rural labourer and his wife? In fact, one of the most notable characteristics of the ballads on this website is their wordiness.

Similarly, ballad-tunes were sometimes rather more complex than is generally acknowledged, extending to as many as twenty-six musical lines and making significant demands on the singer (listen, for example, to New Mad Tom of Bedlam). The success of ballads set to such tunes may imply that trained and accomplished musicians played a more important role in the performance of some ballads than is usually realised. The complicated and unusual seven-line tune for Poor Robins Dream is described in the sub-title as ‘well known by Musicians, and many others’, an expression that perhaps anticipates the part to be played by the former group in the ballad’s dissemination. We cannot be sure, but the high success of several musically-complex songs may also suggest that people who had experienced formal music lessons  – particularly those from the upper-middling and higher social ranks – were at least as significant a component of the audience and market for ballads as those whom they considered their inferiors. Let us not forget that many ballad-tunes only survive at all because they were transcribed into manuscripts kept by members of the gentry, often in the hand-writing of their music-teachers. One of very few versions of the melody for Poor Robins Dream, for example, occurs in a manuscript volume of verse kept by Elias Ashmole, founder of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.[3] The active participation of the highly privileged in ballad culture is also suggested by the presence of home-made ballad texts, based clearly on printed songs, that can sometimes be found in the manuscript records kept by gentry households.[4] With this in mind, the regular appeals to ‘gentlemen’ that are found in the opening verses of printed ballads take on a fresh significance (see, for example, Robin Hood newly reviv’d). Such appeals flattered consumers of lower rank but they also acknowledged the important role played by people of prestige in English ballad culture.[5]

It should also be remembered that our habit of associating balladry primarily with the lowly in society derives ultimately from highly-charged seventeenth-century commentary. This association expressed an elite prejudice and became a literary trope, the chief purpose of which may have been to distance the gentry and aristocracy from a genre to which they felt uncomfortably drawn. Ballads were a guilty pleasure and they had to be put in their place. Sophisticated writers who connected ballads with cobblers and dairy-maids were not basing their comments on careful, painstaking sociological research. Instead, they were articulating an instinct to flatter and amuse their own readers (the humour presumably lay in the tense interplay between attraction and repulsion in elite attitudes to ballads). The representation of balladry as a low form of literature may not have been fabricated but it was certainly exaggerated.[6]

Furthermore, one of the clear findings to emerge from our research is that highly successful ballads were not in fact dominated by bawdry and knockabout humour. Overall, the long-lasting ballads that appear on List A are characterised more significantly by heavyweight morality, cautionary tales, heroic and anti-heroic histories, social conservatism and conventional religion.  It might be suggested that these subjects probably appealed more strongly to those with a stake in society than to the poor, disadvantaged and marginal. If these were the songs that rose up the chart, then we must consider seriously the possibility that the market for balladry may actually have been dominated by those who were wealthier and more established than has previously been realised. Balladry is often characterised as light and fluffy but the evidence of successful songs implies that it was often the very opposite (though there are, of course, exceptions: see/hear, for example, A New little Northren Song called, Under and over, over and under).

We should clearly avoid thinking in terms of a single and homogeneous audience for ballads. There were multiple audiences, partially distinguished from one another by age, social rank, wealth, gender, taste and so on. Different groups probably bought and sang different types of ballad, with the young – perhaps – specialising in the many available songs about courtship and sex. There are plenty of hit songs on this website that suggest the prominence of youth within the ballad audience; several ballads, for example, urge the importance of allowing the young to choose their romantic partners freely, castigating those who stand in their way (see/hear, for example, A constant Wife, a kind wife and The Merchants Daughter of Bristow ). We might note in passing that obstructive relatives were perhaps more powerful where property was involved, reinforcing the argument that highly successful ballad-narratives often tended to reflect the preoccupations of the relatively prosperous, rather than those of the poor. And few of our courtship hits are flippant or humorous, suggesting again that super-songs were generally more sober and solid than we might have expected.

Overall, there is no denying the social reach of balladry; cheap, illustrated songs could touch the lives of people who probably had little contact with other forms of literature. Perhaps, however, we should think in terms of an epicentre among London’s prosperous and literate middling ranks that sent out waves of steadily diminishing force into society as a whole. Anybody, anywhere, could engage with a ballad but those whose social placement was optimum were the people who made a good living in the capital, where proximity to the centres of production meant that they were exposed to ballads constantly. They also had money to spare and they probably lacked the complicated prejudices against balladry that often troubled their supposed superiors. And, arguably, they tended to purchase more songs on serious subjects than raunchy numbers about promiscuous maidens and lusty lads.

On another note, historians and literary scholars are also increasingly aware of the importance of women as consumers of balladry. Their significance, relative to men, is, of course, very difficult to assess but evidence drawn from the songs on this website is, at the very least, suggestive. 65 out of 120 songs feature important female characters, and many of the women who appear prominently in the ballads were clearly intended as admirable role-models (see/hear, for example: The rarest Ballad that ever was seen, Of the Blind beggers daughter of Bednall-green; An Excellent Ballad, intituled, The Constancy of Susanna; and A worthy example of a vertuous wife). Such characters generally work within the conventions of patriarchy but they do so in a manner that is often brave, resourceful and virtuous. Unusual evidence about female taste in relation to stage-plays of the later seventeenth century, uncovered by Jacqueline Pearson, suggests that these were exactly the female characteristics that women hoped to see and hear represented when they went to the theatre. The fact that clever and resourceful women are so often portrayed in successful songs implies that the female portion of the ballad market was commercially significant. Of the 77 long-lasting hits on List A, 31 include references in the title and/or the first or last verse that explicitly summon the attention of listeners or readers. Of these, ten highlight women and only three aim specifically at men (the remaining 18 appeal to both sexes). The more topical songs on List B, dominated by political topics, seem to have aimed more directly at male consumers, but it is clear that the ballad-makers behind the long-lived songs on List A took the female market very seriously. It is a striking fact that seven songs by the Elizabethan balladeer, Thomas Deloney, appear in our chart, and they all concentrate heavily upon female characters. Deloney wrote many ballads on other subjects too, but his songs about women were the ones that continued to sell for decades and, in some cases, centuries.[7] It seems possible that songs in which admirable women featured prominently were carried up the rankings primarily by female purchasers, and we might also wonder whether there were unknown women hidden within the ranks of anonymous authors. Perhaps we will never know.

On the subject of audiences, it is also important to note that ballad-consumers appear to have been highly active, engaged and assertive – this, at least, is what much of the literary evidence suggests. Fictional ballad-singers on the stage from Shakespeare’s Autolycus onwards deal with inquisitive consumers who know what they want and are not afraid to express themselves.[8] The implication of this is that we should not imagine those who heard or read ballads as the passive recipients of messages designed by the ballad-makers. Instead, they engaged with and interrogated the songs, bringing their own experiences and prejudices into play as they sought out meanings for themselves. The evidence of the best-selling songs indicates that ballad-makers understood this very well and designed their publications purposefully to stimulate debate between those who might be expected to take up different positions (was Patient Grissel right, for example, to tolerate the cruelties inflicted by her husband?) Fortunately, this approach to ballad-engagement sits happily alongside a wealth of recent scholarship on modern pop music which asserts, similarly, the potency of an ‘active audience’. The producers of songs are in a dominant position and they try to guide our reactions but they can never be entirely sure of consumer responses. It has been cleverly observed that the consumers of pop-songs get what they’re given but take what they want.[9]


Ballads were clearly composed and designed with performance in mind, and they reveal the cross-fertilising inseparability of oral and literate cultures in this period more strikingly than any other source.[10] Clearly, the style and mood in which any song is sounded can have a profound influence over its reception and impact. To take one example, the first part of the hit song, A sweet Sonnet, wherein the Lover exclaimeth against Fortune for the loss of his Ladies favour, might have shifted in significance and meaning according to the style and context of performance. This expression of male romantic woe, engendered by a misguided perception of rejection, was to a considerable degree verbally fixed by its text, but it would have been experienced very differently if sung in the following styles and contexts: slowly, by an unaccompanied man whose sweetheart has abandoned him and who sings alone for his own solace; loudly and more briskly, in an alehouse, by a group of drunken men who sing for each other, perhaps expressing collective and misogynistic anger at the anti-patriarchal power of women over men in matters of love; mockingly and satirically, by a woman amongst women, where laughter is stimulated by the pathetic neediness of the male subject.

Much of the evidence on ballad performance survives in plays and literary commentary, and the challenges of deploying this material have already been noted. Sometimes we can supplement it with other types of evidence – the ballad texts themselves, court records and so on – and, overall, we have the clear impression that ballad performances took many different forms, reflecting the broad spectrum of consumers. Most surviving evidence is dominated by the figure of the ‘ballad-singer’, plying his or her trade primarily on the urban streets. The term seems to have arisen in the 1590s, probably reflecting the fact that the distribution of ballads was steadily becoming more organised and therefore more noticeable. By 1641, there were said to be 277 ballad-singers at work in London, though the reliability of this estimate is impossible to judge.[11] This was far too many for the comfort of most literary commentators and, throughout the seventeenth century, ballad-singers were heavily disparaged in a wide variety of supposedly superior texts. Henry Chettle called for all ‘runnagate song-singers’ to have their tongues burned by public authority, and Nicholas Breton referred to ‘the foul furd [ie furred] throat of an itchy ballad singer in a fair or market time’. Ballad-singers were not noted for their musical prowess, and on more than one occasion their singing was likened to the harsh squeaking of cart-wheels. They were, according to Henry Crosse, ‘the divels quirristers’ (choirboys from hell).[12]

This is all a little puzzling because ballad-singers were also attacked for their ability to attract large crowds and hold them entranced during their performances, clearly suggesting a capacity for engaging and charismatic rendition. They were often accused of working with pickpockets in the throng, taking advantage of the fact that all eyes and ears were on the singer. In 1665, the Mayor of London banned ballad-singers from working the streets during the plague outbreak because of the fear that their crowd-pulling performances would turn into what we currently call ‘super-spreader events’.[13] The literary evidence indicates that, in calmer times, ballad-singers used a range of tactics: some only performed the first part of a song, urging listeners to buy their own copies if they wanted to follow the narrative through; many engaged their audiences through banter, finding out what people wanted to hear and doing their best to provide it; some reportedly put on a range of voices in order to differentiate the speaking characters within a song; the use of dramatic gesture and expression is also suggested by Marchamont Nedham’s reference to ‘a Face-wringing Balladsinger’; and they frequently raised themselves above the throng by standing on stools or stalls.[14]

The ballad business was highly commercial, and authors worked hard to ensure that their texts assisted the sellers in their performances. Arresting titles, followed by sub-titles that provide surprisingly full summaries of the narrative, were clearly designed with this in mind (spoiler-anxiety does not appear to have been widespread in seventeenth-century society). The texts themselves include ‘gather round’ lines that appeal directly to passers-by, sometimes highlighting women, men, or the young. And, in the final verses of ballads, there is often an interesting transition from the first-person to the third-person as the ballad-singer is encouraged to step out of the narrative and turn to the business of selling.

Occasionally, commentators broke ranks and noted how effective and compelling were the performances of ordinary ballad-singers. In the early eighteenth century, for example, Roger North – no great lover of ballad music – heard a woman singing in the street ‘with a loudness that downs all other noise, and yet firme and steddy’. He added, ‘Now what a sound would that be in a theater, cultivated and practised to harmony!’[15] Such evidence, though thin on the ground, should probably be taken seriously, precisely because it resists the otherwise all-encompassing literary trope of the ballad-singer who sang lewd songs to vile tunes with a grating voice. This trope was the product of anxiety, and it caricatured a style of delivery that necessarily involved high volume because of the many competing sounds in the average marketplace.

Ballad-singers concerned the authorities not only because of their capacity to spread the plague. Periodic efforts were made to restrict their activities because of moral or political anxieties about the threat posed to law and order by large and excited crowds. This concern was at its peak during periods of political unrest, and in September 1649 – a few months after the execution of Charles I by parliamentary authority – magistrates were ordered to apprehend all ballad-singers, confiscate their sheets and send them to the house of correction, ‘there to be whipt as common Rogues, and then dismissed’.[16] Regulations such as this one sometimes stimulated documentation that allows us to glimpse actual ballad-singers at work, as Paula McDowell and Angela McShane have both shown. Some of these singers, furthermore, were female, unlike nearly all of the fictional ballad-sellers dreamt up by playwrights. In July 1649, for example, a woman sang a ballad near Cripplegate in London and was assaulted by an angry soldier. He ‘tore her Ballads’ and continued in a rage until various butchers and other shopkeepers calmed him down and rescued his victim.[17] It has often been suggested that female ballad-singers only became prominent after 1650, though there are also indications that they were already at work well before this.[18]

Although ballad-sellers dominate the record, it is clear that other people also sang ballads for themselves, either from printed sheets or from memory. Literary commentators, often with their tongues in their cheeks, emphasised the social aspects of balladry. Ballads were sung among friends, often in alehouses or inns (where the walls are often said to have been decorated with pinned-up ballads). The paintings of Egbert Van Heemskerck are an intriguing supplement here, regularly depicting uncouth men in an alehouse, gleefully gathered around a singer who holds a ballad sheet.[19] Ballads were also sung in the homes of the wealthy, though the evidence emphasises the role of servants as performers and probably under-represents the involvement of the gentry and aristocracy. One key danger, emphasised by authors, was that the daughters of the household might become romantically ensnared by ballad-singing servants. A play by Beaumont and Fletcher features a female character who ‘fell in love With the old foot-man, for singing of Queen Dido’ (this was surely A proper new Ballad, intituled, The wandring Prince of Troy, one of the ballads on this website).[20] Women also sang ballads for themselves, and they are sometimes imagined in fireside gatherings, passing the long winter evenings in song. At other times, men sang ballads to the women whom they courted, and a good song was an essential item in the young man’s romantic tool-kit. Ballads, finally, were also sung by men and women at work, either to coordinate their rhythmic efforts or to create a distraction from physical strain or mental boredom. Milkmaids, weavers and cobblers were all well-known for their attachment to balladry.

It is difficult to find clear evidence in relation to performance style in these varied settings but, now and again, literary commentators made some interesting observations. According to John Ray, it was common for two singers to share out the verses ‘so that while the one is singing, the other may fetch his breath; and so they sing by turns, until the Song is at an end’.[21] This practice was sometimes adjusted so that different singers took on the different speaking roles that were featured in a ballad narrative.[22] Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, was unusual as an aristocrat who felt able to write positively about balladry, and, in a letter of 1664, she remarked that the best type of voice for ballad-singing was ‘plain’ and ‘vulgar’, rather than refined and sophisticated (interestingly, she considered her own voice suitable, despite her elevated social status). She also remarked, ‘neither should Old Ballads be Sung so much in a Tune as in a Tone, which Tone is betwixt speaking and singing, for the Sound is more than Plain Speaking, and less than Clear Singing’.[23] This perhaps offers us an insight into the tactics used by the relatively unmusical as they performed their ballads. On this point, we might also wonder whether ordinary ballad-consumers sometimes ignored the tune designations presented on the sheets in favour of other, perhaps simpler, melodies that they already knew, leaving more well-informed performances to those with the capacity to remember hundreds of old tunes and learn new ones when necessary. We have no clear evidence on this, though it is notable that very few of the tunes that were attached to folksong versions of our hit ballads in later centuries seem to have been directly descended from the melodies named on the seventeenth-century sheets.

The repetitive burdens, refrains or choruses of songs were designed to be sung by all those who were present, perhaps allowing the main singers to rest their voices for a moment. As the characters in a play by Aphra Behn prepare to perform a ballad, one asks, ‘Here, who sings it? we’ll all bear the bob’ (in other words, sing the burden).[24] There is another puzzle here, however, for some ballads featured burdens that combined basic repetition with significant verbal variation, requiring everyone present to have sight of a text in order to follow the changes (see/hear, for example, The Whig Rampant). Was it anticipated that all singers would have copies of the text before them, or did most groups simply sing the earliest or most memorable version of the refrain at the end of every verse, ignoring the subtle shifts introduced by the author?

Most ballad-singing was probably unaccompanied, though it is also clear that instruments were employed when suitable resources were available. Ballads were commonly ‘sung to a fiddle’, with the instrumentalist either tracking the tune – a great help to solo singers – or providing simple harmonies if the singer was suitably confident.[25] Other instruments that are said to have accompanied ballad-singing include citterns, guitars and lutes. In practice, singing groups probably drew on whatever instruments and players they could find in the vicinity.

We cannot be sure whether people generally sang individual ballads in their entirety or broke them up into shorter sections (many songs are presented helpfully in two clearly delineated ‘parts’). Some of the ballads on this website are very long by modern standards and it is perhaps difficult for us to imagine that they were regularly performed from start to finish. In the 1590s, however, one moralising letter-writer was angry to see ‘rich men give more to a player for a song which he shall sing in one hour, than to their faithful servant for serving them a whole year’.[26] This seems to suggest a full-length dramatic rendition of a narrative ballad, though we cannot know if this was a typical performance. At the other extreme, characters in plays from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly sing short snatches from ballads – often just a single line – as a way of communicating their feelings to others.[27] Clearly, ballad performances could cover the full spectrum from sixty minutes of high drama to three seconds of pithy point-making.

The surviving sources emphasise social singing but we also encounter occasional references to ballad-singing as a personal and private matter, conducted at home for solo recreation. In a play by Margaret Cavendish – clearly a lover of balladry – Mistress Odd-Humour instructs a companion, ‘prethee fetch me some of my old Ballads to sing, for I am weary of working’. Her practice is to sit in her chair, singing to herself, and she becomes flustered if anybody interrupts her.[28] A still more private practice was to read a ballad silently to oneself, as Samuel Pepys did while crossing the Thames by boat on 6 March 1667. If one knows the tune, however, it is surprisingly difficult to suppress it when reading a ballad in silence, and we might suggest that, in this case, a performance of sorts proceeded within the confines of Pepys’ head. If so, he did not enjoy it, considering the song ‘ridiculous’ in its glorification of George Monck, Duke of Albemarle.[29]

The centrality of performance probably explains why early-modern people often seem to have committed songs to memory under titles that derived from opening lines and refrains, rather than from published headings. Many new names for old tunes were generated by the first lines of successful ballads (for example, the melody, 'Fortune my foe', became 'Aim not too high' from the first line of An excellent song, wherein you shall find,/ Great consolation for a troubled mind). And when the leading publisher, William Thackeray, drew up a list of the ballads he held in stock during the late 1680s, he recorded many of them not by the titles under which they were published but instead with names that grew out of first lines and refrains. Presumably, this was because he remembered hearing them sung, and these were the lyrics that stuck in his mind. The song he had published as A Pattern of true Love was therefore listed as 'Dear love regard my grief' (from its first line), while A pleasant new Song, betwixt/ The Saylor and his Love was remembered as 'First kiss and bid me welcome' (from its refrain).

Ballad performance, on all levels and in all settings, enabled people to escape their own lives for a time and step into the shoes of the many compelling characters who appeared in the texts. Clearly, this was an opportunity that often proved irresistible. Song creates its own sense of time and draws performers and listeners together into a temporary collective that can be exceptionally powerful (hence the concern of the early-modern authorities). In performance, several aspects of song interact in a manner that enhances the experience: its status as a kind of super-speech with heightened importance; the role that repetitive cycles of sound play for those present (tunes, refrains, rhymes); the now-and-never-again nature of live performance, particularly before the advent of electronic recording; the memorability of song, which allows listeners to imagine possessing and performing it for themselves; and the capacity of song to regulate and coordinate the emotions and even the bodily rhythms of listeners. In a live performance of a song, everyone shape-shifts in one way or another, both individually and together. And shape-shifting took another form too: the potency of performance was enhanced by the many ways in which ballads encouraged physical movement, a subject upon which Bruce Smith has written memorably.[30] It is no coincidence that the term ‘ballad’ derives from the Latin word, ‘ballare’, meaning to dance. Ballads agitated people, helping to explain why ballad-singers were often considered agitators.

Recordings (see also the essay, The musicians reflect)

Our aim in producing the recordings that appear on this website is to represent to modern listeners a variety of the performance styles that were commonly encountered in the seventeenth century. Nineteen recordings feature unaccompanied solo voices (thirteen male and six female). Eight ballads are performed by two, three or four unaccompanied singers, male and/or female. Forty-eight songs feature one or more voices, accompanied by a single instrument. Most frequently, either cittern or fiddle are used but smaller numbers of ballads are also accompanied by lute, theorbo, bagpipe, curtal, jew’s harp, bones, drum or tabor-and-pipe. The Whig Rampant is accompanied by an improvised bladder-bass, here constructed by stretching a double-bass string across a balloon. A PATTERN of true LOVE features a deliberately anachronistic anglo concertina (in this case, we had to use a modern folk-tune to sing the ballad, so it seemed appropriate for John Kirkpatrick to accompany himself on one of his favourite instruments). Finally, twenty-eight songs feature a voice or voices accompanied by small bands of between two and four musicians, playing some of the instruments listed above in various combinations.

Our singers cover a broad range in terms of background and repertoire. Most of them are highly versatile but – without wishing to cramp anyone’s style – their centres of gravity seem to sit in various distinct areas: folk-song (Ian Giles, Benny Graham, Nancy Kerr, John Kirkpatrick, Emily Portman and Maddy Prior); ‘early music’ (Victoria Couper, Vivien Ellis, Edward Ingham, Lucie Skeaping); classical music (Emily Burn, Clemmie Franks, Nicholas Mulroy, Giles Underwood); and community music and dance-calling (Ian Craigan). Numerous ballads are also sung by the instrumentalists of the Carnival Band, branching out into vocal performance to ensure that non-specialist singers are fully represented (Steve Banks, Jub Davis, Giles Lewin, Steno Vitale and Andy Watts).

Singing styles have not been prescribed and the musicians have made their own choices. Most of the performers sing in a clear, direct and relatively untheatrical manner, though some have also experimented with different approaches. Lucie Skeaping, for example, sometimes blends speech and song in a manner that might have had the approval of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (see above, and try An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel). Lucie’s performances are also more dramatic than most, though Vivien Ellis provides a theatrical rendition of The Lamentable and Tragicall History of Titus Andronicus to set aside her more restrained but no less powerful version of The lamentable Ditty of Little Mousgrove, and the Lady Barnet (listeners can judge which style they consider the most effective). Comedy accents are clearly called for in The Protestant Court of England, and our singers duly oblige (alongside an ‘English-man’, we hear ‘Taffy’, ‘Sawny’, ‘Monsieur’, ‘Teague’ and ‘Hym-heer’). On other recordings too, the singers take on distinct roles, as suggested by the texts of some ballads (Saint Bernards Vision, for instance). In addition, robust group refrains conjure up a sociable atmosphere on several songs, including The Whig Rampant and Saint Georges commendation. In other recordings, the performers share out the singing duties, alternating verses in the manner described by John Ray in 1693 (see/hear, for example, A Strange Banquet and Christ's Tears over JERUSALEM). And the contemporary practice of singing ‘three man songs’ in improvised harmony is represented in England New Bell-man and The most Rare and Excellent History, Of the Dutchess of Suffolks Callamity, with male and female singers respectively. We should admit, however, that the harmonising parts were actually devised by Andy Watt on the basis of historical sources, rather than improvised on the spot (see also The musicians reflect).

In early conversations, we decided that the aim should be to present approximations of seventeenth-century performances in considerable variety, thus avoiding any suggestion that we were promoting a ‘standard’ or definitive style for early-modern ballads. We have not aimed at what is sometimes called ‘authenticity’ for the simple reason that this is now generally considered an impossibility. There was too much variety in seventeenth-century performance, and too much uncertainty in the surviving sources, for authenticity to be a realistic goal. Electronic recording is, of course, wildly inauthentic in itself; the technology was unavailable to early-modern musicians, and it encourages a preoccupation with the definitive ‘take’ that would have been entirely alien in the seventeenth century. And even if modern musicians could play precisely reconstructed historical instruments in demonstrably historical styles, neither they nor their audiences could ever listen with authentic seventeenth-century ears (or, to be more precise, brains).[31]

For this reason, the musicians on our recordings play instruments that existed in the seventeenth century but the actual examples that can be heard are all modern constructions. The performers use their imaginations in deciding how to sing or play, taking inspiration from the improvisational practices that were common in seventeenth-century performance (on our recordings, the fiddle and cittern accompaniments of Giles Lewin and Steno Vitale respectively are the clearest example of this). The singers have not attempted to use early-modern pronunciation, partly because of the time and money that would have been required in order to bring this about but also because historical pronunciation can have the effect of presenting an obstacle in the path of modern listeners (the aesthetics of seventeenth-century balladry can be challenging enough without this additional marker of distance). Nor have we attempted to ensure the avoidance of modern major-minor tonality in the harmonisation of tunes that were sometimes modal (in other words, based on a broader and older range of scales). This would have been to reduce the freedom of the musicians and, in any case, modern tonality was clearly developing steadily through the early-modern period. Authenticity in this regard – as in so many others – is anybody’s guess.

Instead, the performers’ brief was to find a way of bringing each song to life by imagining early-modern performance styles for the benefit of modern listeners. With this in mind, the Carnival Band was an obvious choice, with its broad experience of playing many different types of music, frequently with a focus on the historical. Members of the band are also highly accustomed to playing together, perhaps providing us with a modern version of one of the groups of musicians who lived and worked in any number of seventeenth-century English town. They were also able to use their contacts in the musical world to recruit the numerous additional singers who have contributed. The historians on the project supplied the tunes and texts, and then the musicians – expertly led and directed by Andy Watts – did the rest. Under Andy’s guidance, they rehearsed together, decided upon appropriate performance styles and instrumental accompaniment, worked out how to fit the words to the tunes (sometimes a challenge) and organised the recording sessions. Along the way, historians and musicians have also joined forces to perform a series of concerts in Belfast, York, Brighton, Beverley, Newcastle and London. Experimentation before live audiences has provided an invaluable aspect of our preparation for the recordings. Most of these recordings feature full and entire recordings of the songs, though there are a few examples in which the ballads were so long that small numbers of verses were omitted. It can probably be presumed that this was a common practice in the seventeenth century as well; An Excellent Ballad of George Barnwel, for example, is 98 verses long and takes roughly twenty minutes to perform in its entirety!

Christopher Marsh

[1] See, for example, Patricia Fumerton, ‘Not home: alehouses, ballads, and the vagrant husband in early modern England’, Journal of medieval and early modern studies 32.3 (2002), pp. 493-518.

[2] Bernard Capp, ‘Popular literature’ in Barry Reay (ed.), Popular culture in seventeenth-century England (London, 1988), p. 198; Patricia Fumerton, ‘Collectors, consumers, and the making of a seventeenth-century English ballad public: from networks to spheres’ in Paul Yachnin and Marlene Eberhart (eds.), Forms of association. Making publics in early modern Europe (Amherst and Boston, 2015), p. 200.

[3] Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 36-37, fo. 105, cited by Claude M. Simpson, The British broadside ballad and its music (New Brunswick, 1966), p. 509.

[4] Essex Record Office, D/DW Z4, Estate and family records, from Copped Hall Estate, Epping, Waltham Holy Cross and Walthamstow (seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), number 8.

[5] On this point, see Anna Bayman, ‘Printing, learning and the unlearned’ in Joad Raymond (ed.), Cheap Print in Britain and Ireland to 1660 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 76-87.

[6] For further discussion, see Christopher Marsh, Music and society in early modern England (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 256-66.

[7] Jacqueline Pearson, The prostituted muse: images of women and women dramatists 1642-1737 (New York, 1988), pp. 33-41; Christopher Marsh, ‘Best-selling ballads and the female voices of Thomas Deloney’, Huntington Library quarterly 82.1 (Spring, 2019), pp. 128-29. On women and ballads, see also Sandra Clark, ‘The broadside ballad and the woman’s voice’ in Christina Malcolmson and Mihoko Suzuki (eds.), Debating gender in early modern England 1500-1700 (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 103-20.

[8] For a fuller discussion, see Marsh, Music and society, pp. 240-42.

[9] Keith Negus, Popular music in theory (Cambridge, 1996), ch. 1.

[10] On this relationship, see Julie Crawford, ‘Oral culture and popular print’ in Raymond (ed.), Cheap print, pp. 114-29.

[11] Anon, Downefall of temporising poets (London, 1641), p. 5. See also Gerald Porter, ‘The English ballad singer and hidden history’, Studia Musicologica 49.1/2 (March, 2008), pp. 127-42.

[12] Henry Chettle, Kind-Hart’s dreame (London, 1593), C2v, C3v and G4r; Nicholas Breton, An olde mans lesson, and a young mans Love (1605), F2v; Henry Crosse, Vertues common-wealth (1603), O4r. See also many of the literary sources helpfully gathered in the appendix to Natascha Würzbach, The rise of the English street ballad, 1550-1650 (Cambridge, 1990).

[13] Anon, Orders conceived and published by the Lord Mayor and aldermen on the city of London, concerning the infection of the plague (1665), B3v.

[14] Marchamont Nedham, The true character of a rigid Presbyter (1661), pp. 35-36. On ballad-selling tactics, see also: Würzbach, Rise of the English street ballad, especially ch. 3;  Marsh, Music and society, pp. 239-43; Angela McShane, ‘Political street songs and singers in seventeenth-century England’, Renaissance studies 33.1 (2018), pp. 94-118; and, on a later period, Oskar Cox Jensen, The ballad-singer in Georgian and Victorian London (Cambridge, 2021).

[15] Roger North on music, ed. John Wilson (1959), p. 215.

[16] Acts and ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-60, ed. C. H. Firth and R. S. Rait, 3 vols. (1911), vol. 2, p. 252.

[17] Paula McDowell, ‘ “The manufacture and lingua-facture of Ballad-making”: Broadside ballads in long eighteenth-century ballad discourse’, The eighteenth century 47.2 (Summer, 2006), pp. 151-78; McShane, ‘Political street songs and singers’, p. 109.

[18] James Shirley, The lady of pleasure (1637), C3v. A particular street-seller is here referred to as ‘the woman that holds the ballads’.

[19] Examples can be found on line by searching for ‘Van Heemskerck peasants’.

[20] Comedies and tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (1647), ‘The Captaine’, p. 58.

[21] John Ray, A collection of curious travels and voyages (1693), p. 306.

[22] William Shakespeare, The winter’s tale, ed. Ernest Schanzer (1996), pp. 121-22.

[23] Margaret Cavendish, CCXI sociable letters (1664), pp. 428-29.

[24] Aphra Behn, The Roundheads, or, the good old cause a comedy (1682), p. 56.

[25] Poor Robin's Dream, commonly call'd, Poor Charity; William Shield, An introduction to harmony (1800), p. 6.

[26] Harris Nicolas, Memoirs of the life and times of Sir Christopher Hatton (1847), appendix, p. xxx.

[27] Francis Beaumont, The knight of the burning pestle, ed. Michael Hattaway (1969), pp. 30, 53.

[28] Margaret Cavendish, Playes written by the thrice noble, illustrious and excellent princess, the Lady Marchioness Of Newcastle (1662), pp. 531, 539.

[29] The diary of Samuel Pepys, ed. R. C. Latham and W. Matthews, 11 vols. (1995), vol. 8, p. 99.

[30] Bruce R. Smith, The acoustic world of early modern England: attending to the O-factor (Chicago, 1999), ch. 7.

[31] A stimulating introduction to this and other relevant debates can be found in Thomas Forrest Kelly, Early music. A very short introduction (Oxford, 2011). See also Shai Burstyn, ‘In quest of the period ear’, Early music 25.4 (November, 1997), pp. 692-702.

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