Broadside ballads and the origins of pop

Broadside ballads and the origins of modern ‘pop’

Let’s consider the possibility that the origins of two key forms of modern culture – the pop song and the comic strip - lie in broadside ballads of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Where music is concerned, most authors seem to trace pop back only as far as the 1950s, with never a thought for the 1590s.[1] The comic strip is said to have had slightly deeper roots, extending back to the late nineteenth century, but again few have considered the part that early-modern ballad woodcuts may have played in its development.[2]

A strong case can be made for the foundational status of early-modern black-letter balladry in the history of modern pop culture. In the period covered by this website (1557-1711), numerous London publishers developed a specialism in broadside ballads and worked hard at maximising the potential of the genre. As explained in the essay on The Ballad Business, some concentrated on publishing new songs, while others - notably the 'Ballad Partners' who dominated the scene from the 1620s onwards - focused instead on buying up existing songs that had already proved successful. Publishers in both categories developed the format – establishing pictures and tune titles as standard features, for example – and experimented regularly with new looks, lengths and layouts. They also developed relationships with London's printers and build a national system of distribution, based around itinerant singers and sellers. Those specialising in new songs forged strong relationships with ballad-writers (usually anonymous), while the Ballad Partners concentrated on buying the rights to songs that had already been written and published. Through the same period, a system for registering song copyrights developed under the auspices of the Stationers' Company in London, though the Partners were more likely to engage with this system than were the more speculative publishers of new material. In short, specialist publishers of ballads built an industry that had never before existed in so organised a form. This short essay will consider the place of ballads in the history of pop, looking first at the songs before briefly discussing the artwork that appeared on most black-letter ballad-sheets of the seventeenth century.

Admittedly, there are some significant differences between early-modern balladry and modern pop music. As this website reveals, major hits of the seventeenth century included songs about religion, morality, death and history; none of these topics features heavily in the pop charts today. In the early modern age, there was, of course, no method of recording the sound of a song, a facility that is so crucial to modern pop. The cult of the celebrity performer played very little part in seventeenth-century balladry, and there were no definitive renditions of songs by stars with household names. Instead, ballads were sung in many different ways by all sorts of people, each individual doing his or her own thing with the text and tune recommended on the sheet. Most early-modern performances, as far as we know, were solo and unaccompanied – a world away from the highly produced and multi-layered sound of today’s pop songs. And the recycling of whole tunes, a regular occurrence within early-modern balladry, is a rarity today.

Some of these differences, however, are perhaps not as stark as they appear to be. Modern pop does not typically feature chart-topping religious songs but there are exceptions: a list of the 123 songs that sold over a million copies between 1952 and 2012 includes Rivers of Babylon, Mary’s boy child (both by Boney M) and Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen’ song, covered by Alexandra Burke).[3] Moreover, the powerful influence of gospel music over the pop genre and many of its artists is well-known (it can be clearly heard in the songs of Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, amongst  many others). Something similar might be said of songs about death: they do not form a significant statistical category among the million-sellers of recent times but this list of modern super-songs nevertheless includes Elton John’s Candle in the wind (1997), Art Garfunkel’s Bright eyes (1979) and Killing me softly by the Fugees (1996).[4] And although modern pop songs do not typically recycle entire melodies, there is still a great deal of referencing and appealing to sounds from the past, heard particularly in the techniques know as ‘sampling’ and ‘interpolation’. Such re-deployment of older musical recordings and materials is currently on the increase, benefiting publishers and proving highly appealing to listeners. In the words of Justin Shukat, an American music publisher, familiar musical snippets ‘bring us to a moment that is already identifiable in our world. And that’s why interpolations work – they bring us back’. The singer-songwriter, Jenny Owens Youngs, makes a similar point: ‘No new hook will ever be a hooky as hook that’s already hooked you’.[5] Finally, we may indeed be obsessed with global superstars and their gold-standard performances, but fans still sing their favourite songs at concerts, at karaoke sessions and more privately in the shower. Admittedly, their aim is often to imitate the stars but the Do-it-yourself musical habits of the early modern period are not entirely dead.

There are also a number of potent parallels between early-modern and more recent pop music. Seventeenth-century balladry, just like modern pop, was a commercially-driven enterprise that aimed at a mass audience. ‘Good People come buy’, sings the ballad-singer at the start of THE Rare Vertue of an Orange, and the probate records of some leading ballad-publishers suggest that they were astute businessmen (and sometimes businesswomen) who accumulated considerable wealth during their careers. The most successful - often members of the Ballad Partnership - held significant property and made generous bequests to the poor. They anticipated burial inside their parish churches,  and they set aside cash to buy rings, gloves and ribbons for their mourning friends.[6] These were all signals of respectability, even social eminence. Successful song-producers in all periods might claim other motives than money but the bottom line is clearly visible for all to see. Early-modern producers were also like their modern successors in concentrating heavily on songs about romantic relationships. Of the 120 hit ballads on this website, 48 (or 40%) tackled this theme, making it easily the largest category. Our own count of the ‘topics’ covered by the songs as a whole indicates that the leaders were ‘Gender’ (particularly ‘masculinity’, ‘femininity’ and ‘courtship’), ‘Bodies’ (especially ‘looks/physique’) and ‘Emotions’ (most notably ‘love’). Romantic relationships also dominate modern pop, and 86 of the 123 songs that sold over a million copies in the sixty years to 2012 focused on this theme (amounting to 70%).[7]

Like modern record producers, seventeenth century ballad publishers pandered to popular tastes while also seeking to shape the market. They offered consumers songs designed to help them think through and cope with their own difficulties, particularly in romantic and other relationships. Relatability and resonance were vital components in both periods. Producers of pop,  past and present, also directed responses and built expectations, usually for more of the same but sometimes for contrary alternatives. Pop songs, arguably, appeal in all ages by simultaneously articulating and manipulating our emotions. Furthermore, just as the modern record industry appeals to consumers through a combination of sound, image and lyrics, so too did its early-modern ancestor (see Texts, tunes and pictures and Audiences, performances and recordings). Producers in both eras also depended heavily on the work of song-writers, salespeople and performers. Styles of performance differed greatly, as did the rewards, but the ‘ballad-singer’ (a term first used in c. 1592) held a reputation for dissolute living that was shared by the later ‘rock-star’ (a term first used in c. 1957).[8] Both types, despite or because of their association with controversy, were absolutely vital to the overall enterprise.

If Stock, Aitken and Waterman, the celebrated music producers of the 1980s, could be brought into a tavern with Coles, Vere and Gilbertson, prominent ballad publishers of the 1660s, it seems likely that the two groups might happily share a drink while seeking out common ground, despite the temporal gulf between them. Their conversation might start with the term ‘ballad’, familiar to them all. To Coles and his colleagues, ballads are songs of all varieties but perhaps particularly those that are printed with lyrics and pictures in single-sheet format for public sale and then ‘sung up and down the Streets’.[9] Many of their successful ballads are sad tales of love, a fact that probably strikes a chord with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. For them, of course, a ballad is ‘a slow song or piece of music – especially one of a sentimental or romantic nature’.[10] In between the respective eras of the two groups, ‘ballad’ had continued to describe cheap printed songs in general, though the term had also been attached to many of the ‘parlour’ songs of the late nineteenth century, produced in their thousands and aimed particularly at the aspirational middle classes of Victorian England. These covered a variety of topics but sentimental love was certainly one of the most prominent.[11] In our imaginary tavern, there is therefore much for the producers to discuss, and they might also talk about copyright issues, working with song-writers and artists, and the recycling of old material in the pursuit of profit. Perhaps they also trace out a line connecting some of their top titles (for example, The two Constant Lovers, published by Coles, Vere and Gilbertson in c. 1660, and Especially for you, recorded by Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan for Stock, Aitken and Waterman in 1988).

Broadside ballads of the seventeenth century also deserve a place in the history of the modern comic strip. Their importance has hardly been noted in published accounts of this history, and comic strips are generally said to have originated in nineteenth-century Europe before really taking off in early twentieth-century America. Earlier precedents are sometimes noted – action friezes on ancient Greek vases or the eleventh-century Bayeux tapestry, for example – but early-modern ballads are largely overlooked.[12] These sources may, however, represent the first attempt ever made to tell stories in pictures for a mass audience. In many of our hit songs (and others too) we see at least the germ of the idea that cheap, commercial publications could be ‘illustrated’ by carefully arranged pictures, designed to help communicate or enhance a narrative. The fact that the pictures used were often recycled from other songs should not prevent us from noticing that interesting experiments in the deployment of cheap art were taking place (see also Texts, tunes and pictures).

If we consider the woodcuts that appear on this website, it is striking that many of the songs reveal a basic awareness of the value of simple art in tracking and enhancing a story. Take, for example, The lamentable Ditty of Little Mousgrove, and the Lady Barnet, on which four recycled pictures combine to summarise the narrative: on the left, we see Little Mousgrove standing next to Lady Barnet (who looks suspiciously like Queen Elizabeth I); then, on the right, two existing pictures are brought together to present the climactic scene, in which the couple are caught in bed together by Lady Barnet’s angry husband. In the nearby text, we are told that when Mousgrove awoke, ‘he then espied/ Lord Barnet at his beds feete’, and the picture-combination is obviously intended to capture this moment. Admittedly, there are too many people in the bed scene, and Lord Barnet is dressed as a Roman soldier, but an attempt has clearly been made to ‘illustrate’ this tragic tale through the redeployment of old woodcuts. Another notable example is The Crafty MISS: Or, An Excise man well fitted. Here, four recycled images are used to reveal how the man approaches the ‘crafty miss’, who later steals his horse and money, leaving him in a state of shock. More simply, several ballads use a picture-combination of single individuals and happy couples to track narratives in which romantic couples either make up or break up (see, for example, A constant Wife, a kinde Wife, A loving Wife, and a fine Wife, and A good Wife, or none).

Where special woodcuts were commissioned to illustrate particular ballads, these too were sometimes arranged in order to track the high points of a narrative. On A Godly Warning for all Maidens, for example, two such images reveal the suicide of Bateman, a jilted lover, and the subsequent supernatural abduction of the woman who betrayed him by marrying somebody else. As in some of the cases mentioned above, the pictures on this sheet are situated directly over the most relevant portion of text (surely a deliberate policy). Other specially-commissioned woodcuts adopted the alternative strategy of combining several key narrative moments into a single image, encouraging viewers to track the narrative through the picture for themselves. The results look less like comic strips, of course, but the technique nevertheless expresses the instinct of illustrators to use images in order to pick out the most important moments in a story. The main picture on The Lamentable and Tragicall History of Titus Andronicus, for example, includes a series of mini-scenes, each of which is described in the text: a hunting trip; the city of Rome; Titus’ mutilated daughter, Lavinia, using a staff to scratch out the names of her attackers in the sand; Titus cutting the throats of these attackers while Lavinia catches their blood in a pan; the Empress feasting unwittingly on a pie that contains the crushed bones of her sons; and the wicked Moor, half-buried in the ground as a mode of execution (it is a crowded composition). In some cases, the mini-scenes that make up the composite picture are neatly boxed to separate them from one another, returning us again to something that looks like a direct ancestor of the comic strip (see, for example, The Honour of a London Prentice). And the specially-designed woodcuts on Save a Theefe from the Gallowes and hee'l hang thee if he can even include the early-modern equivalent of speech bubbles!

Perhaps the most striking example of woodcuts arranged in comic-strip style appears, however, on an edition of The Shepheard and the King, which tells the story of King Alfred’s famous failure as a home baker. On an edition published in the mid-seventeenth century (unfortunately not featured on this website but easily accessible as EBBA 32007), three specially-commissioned woodcuts are neatly arranged to mirror the story, with each appearing directly above the relevant column of text. In the first, Alfred meets the shepherd (the king should be in disguise but he is pictured with a prominent crown, presumably because this helped the ballad to attract attention in the marketplace). In the second, we see Alfred fulfilling his agreement with the shepherd ‘To keepe his sheepe in Field and Fold’ for a year. And in the third, Gillian, the shepherd’s wife, harangues her unrecognised monarch for failing to turn the cake in the fire, leaving it to burn on one side without cooking on the other. Presented with such picture-schemes, early-modern consumers were becoming familiar with a style of narrative art that supposedly achieved mass circulation only 250 years later.

One of the aims of this website is to encourage a deeper awareness of the long history of ‘pop’ music and culture in England and elsewhere. If pop is defined restrictively in terms of particular technologies – the 45 RPM vinyl record spins into mind – then clearly it has no history before 1952. If, however, we define pop in terms of the commercial aims of its producers, the breadth of its audience, and the benefits that it brings to vast numbers of people – entertainment, escape, solace, amusement, identity-formation, sociability and so on – then clearly we need to be more adventurous in our time-travel. Derek Scott has noted that ‘popular musicologists’ rarely conduct any research on periods before the 1940s, and he comments, ‘there is no convincing argument for restricting popular musicology in this way’.[13]

Christopher Marsh

[1] See, for example, Keith Negus, Popular music in theory (Cambridge, 1996), ch. 5 on ‘Histories’; Paul Morley, Words and music. A history of pop in the shape of a city (London, 2003); George Lipsitz, Footsteps in the dark. The hidden histories of popular music (Minneapolis, 2007); Bob Stanley, Yeah, yeah, yeah. The story of modern pop (London, 2013); and Kelefa Sanneh, Major labels. A history of popular music in seven genres (London, 2021). Fortunately, there are some exceptions to this general neglect of the deep past: Russell Sanjek, American popular music and its business: the first four hundred years, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1988), vol. 1; Peter van der Merwe, Origins of the popular style. The antecedents of twentieth-century popular music (Oxford, 1989); and David Taylor, From Mummers to Madness. A social history of popular music in England, c. 1770s to c. 1970s (Huddersfield, 2021). Steve Roud’s exceptionally wide-ranging Folk song in England (London, 2017) also includes excellent work on the long history of ‘popular music’, though his principle focus is on folk song (as he demonstrates, the categories cannot easily be separated).

[2] Jerry Robinson, The comics. An illustrated history of comic strip art (New York, 1974).

[3] Official Charts Company, The million sellers: the UK’s greatest hits (London, 2012), pp. 88-89, 98-99, 252-53

[4] Official Charts Company, The million sellers, pp. 106-07, 186-87 and 196-97. The PopCultureMadness website features a list of ‘100 songs about death and dying’:

[5] Switched on pop (podcast): ‘Invasion of the vibe snatchers’ (13 September 2022).

[6] National Archives, London, Prerogative Court of Canterbury Wills, PROB 11/316/396 (William Gilbertson, 1665), PROB 11/377/415 (John Wright, 1685) and PROB 11/391/380 (Thomas Passinger, 1686).

[7] Official Charts Company, The million sellers.

[8] Robert Greene, The third and last part of conny-catching (London, 1592), C4r; Oxford English Dictionary, ‘rock star’.

[9] John Kersey, A new English dictionary (London, 1713), ‘ballad’.

[10] Oxford English Dictionary, ‘ballad’.

[11] Derek B. Scott, The singing bourgeoisie: songs of the Victorian drawing room and parlour (1989; 2nd edition, Aldershot, 2001).

[12] Robinson, The comics. An illustrated history of comic strip art.

[13] Derek B. Scott (ed.), The Ashgate research companion to popular musicology (Farnham, 2009), ‘introduction’.

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