The history of the project

The history of the project

The 100 Ballads project has its origins in two perceptions. First, it was noted that historians and literary scholars were making extensive and increasing use of English broadside ballads – songs printed on single sheets – from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but without attempting to establish which of the several thousand surviving examples were particularly successful at the time. This seemed an important omission; an awareness of commercial success clearly has the potential to tell us a great deal about common preoccupations and tastes during the early-modern period. The growing use of ballads by academics was facilitated by the dramatic improvement in access to these sources that came with the exceptionally useful online databases, Broadside Ballads Online from the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford) and the English Broadside Ballad Archive (University of California). Both these websites have always concentrated on the laudable goal of publishing online as many surviving ballads as possible, and it therefore seemed worthwhile to develop an online database that would complement this approach by focusing more intensively on a much smaller group of highly successful songs. Of course, identifying such songs is a tall order but the potential value of attempting to develop a suitable methodology seemed clear (see Methodology).

Second, it was apparent that musicians with an interest in early-modern popular song were tending to perpetuate and disseminate an impression that most ballads of the period were characterised primarily by sexual humour. CDs with titles that emphasise the bawdry of balladry have been issued quite regularly, and one Wikipedia entry speaks of ballads in general as ‘this often profane repertoire’.[1] Understandably, free-lancing performers aspire to sell their recordings and swell their audiences, and a concentration on the lewd is clearly considered the best way forward. It is clear, however, that publishers in early-modern England also issued numerous ballads that concentrated on morality, religion, history and politics, and some of these were immensely successful. Part of our purpose, therefore, was to question the notion that early-modern popular ballads were almost inevitably smutty (it is notable that few if any of the songs that appear on ‘bawdy ballad’ CDs have met the criteria of popularity that have been applied in the development of this project). For lovers of the lascivious, it should be added that there are some rude ballads on this website – try The Nightingales Song, for example – but they can hardly be said to dominate the content.

With these perceptions in mind, I opened up a conversation with Angela McShane, an expert on political song and ballad publishing, and Vic Gammon, a leading folksong scholar. Both duly became ‘co-investigators’, though Vic withdrew at an early stage because he felt that the project did not suit his particular interests closely enough (he made an invaluable contribution, however, in encouraging us to investigate the extent to which seventeenth-century ballads survived to become folksongs in later periods). At this early stage, I also approached Andy Watts of The Carnival Band and began talking with him about the possibility of an ambitious musical collaboration to produce new recordings and stage a series of public concerts. In addition, we consulted Paddy Fumerton and Carl Stahmer, lynchpins of the English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA), and they provided data and advice that fed into our discussions of methodology.

Having established that the project seemed both viable and valuable, we sought funding. A twelve-month fellowship from the British Academy allowed the methodology to develop and also financed our first concert with The Carnival Band (part of the Belfast Festival in 2012). Subsequently, a  Research Project grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) enabled us to hire numerous singers to work with the Carnival Band in making 100 new recordings of the selected ballads, and to put on a series of additional concerts in York (at The National Centre for Early Music), London (at the Spitalfields Music Festival) and Brighton (at the Brighton Early Music Festival). In addition, we were able to obtain all the digital images that appear on this website and pay for expert support from the Digital Humanities Institute at Sheffield University (particularly Mike Pidd and Jamie McLaughlin). Our focus, at this stage, was on spending the money within the time-frame agreed with the AHRC, but we also began to prepare the various editorial materials, commentaries and essays that now appear on the site. This work has continued to the present day, and it helps to account for the long delay between the end of the funding (2017) and the launch of the website (2024).

Our gratitude to the people mentioned above, and to many others, is recorded in the Acknowledgements (see also Project Participants).

Christopher Marsh


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