About this Recording
8.557672 - PENNY MERRIMENTS: Street Songs of 17th Century England
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Penny Merriments
Street Songs of 17th Century England


‘Ballads! My masters, ballads!
Will you ha’ o’ the newest and truest matter in all London?
I have of them for all choices, and over all arguments too.
Here be your story-ballads, your love-ballads, and your ballads of good-life’.

The songs on this recording were the pop music of their day. Churned out by anonymous hacks, often working from dingy rooms at the back of London’s print shops, they were printed in their thousands on crude penny broadsheets and known as Broadside Ballads. Sung, whistled and hummed in all walks of life they were as likely to be bought for domestic entertainment or heard on the London stage as pasted up on the wall of a country tavern.

Broadside ballads were very much an urban means of expression, a mass form of communication before the days of newspapers and magazines that reported on just about every aspect of life. Here we read of historical events like the Great Fire of London, the Spanish Armada and the longed-for return of Charles II; of bygone heroes, tradesmen, notorious criminals, the passing of the seasons and the fear of death. Like today’s tabloid press, ballads also offered sensationalism—lively, lusty tales of sexual exploits, jilted suitors, shrewish wives and fumbling husbands. There is comedy too, with stories of Peeping Toms, not-so-innocent maids and country bumpkins (a popular butt of jokes throughout the century), and a plethora of pastoral characters whose amorous adventures no doubt satisfied the new city-dwellers’ nostalgia for their own rural heritage.

Broadside ballads were the direct descendants of the long folk ballads of the Middle Ages. Their heyday was the seventeenth century, between the reigns of Elizabeth I and William and Mary, and although those recorded here are taken from broadsheets dating from the Restoration period, many were already widely known through oral tradition, finding their way onto the printed page as publishing became cheaper and literacy more widespread. Interestingly some were to drift back into the oral tradition again, only to be ‘rediscovered’, albeit often in altered form, by the great song-collectors of the early twentieth century such as Cecil Sharp and Vaughan Williams.

The musical arrangements here reflect a variety of settings where ballads were performed. A theatre might employ a small mixed band to play between the acts, often accompanying a singer or two in a comic interlude complete with ‘scurrilous songs and obscene gestures’; a ballad singer with, perhaps, a fiddle or cittern might find an appreciative audience in a crowded street or the dark corner of a local tavern; the newly fashionable Coffee Houses were notorious for providing lusty male part-singing; while across the river in Southwark, London’s infamous red-light district, the doxies would entice customers with ‘a ripe selection of filthy songs’.

Most people, though, would have heard the latest broadside ballad from the mouth of an itinerant pedlar, a rough singing professional who, unlike the old minstrels of the pre-Elizabethan era—a respected breed of musicians whose lineage could be traced back to the old Medieval bards—rarely had any musical skills. Some of them would be trained up for just a few weeks by the printers and sent off around the country ‘with a dozen groatsworth of ballads’ on a sale-or-return basis; others were simply ‘idle youths who, loathing honest labour and lawful trades, betook themselves to vagrant life, singing and selling ballads full of ribaldry and scurrilous vanity’.

With such a coarse company of performers all sorts of tricks were needed to entice customers. A good picture was always an attraction and the majority of broadsheets contain crude woodcut illustrations. Demand always exceeded supply so printers would buy in a job lot of old worm-eaten cuts and use them again and again regardless of whether or not they bore any relation to the accompanying text.

Many ballads described topical events much like newspapers so a quick turn-around was vital. It was said that ‘scarcely a cat could look out of a gutter but out started a halfpenny chronicler, and presently a proper new ballad about it was indited’ . Broadsheets frequently printed the ‘last words’ of some notorious criminal about to be hanged even before he’d uttered them and, if an earthquake or fire frightened Londoners on one day, the next morning saw the publication of at least one ballad describing the disaster and urging people to repent before the next.

Out on the road the resourcefulness of the pedlarcum-ballad-singer knew no bounds. With his pack stuffed full of broadsheets, ribbons, buttons and general knick-knacks, he would travel the length and breadth of the country doing business at fairs, market places, bearbaitings and taverns, and sometimes even in a large country house where a well-to-do family would be eager to purchase a copy of the latest hit song from the London stage. Having established his patch, he would begin his song. As the crowd became involved in the story he might stop halfway through announcing that if they wanted to hear the rest, they must purchase a copy. Other sources describe singers working in league with gangs of thieves. Perched on top of a barrel the singer would have a good view of his audience and stop for a moment to warn them to watch out for pickpockets. Instinctively everyone would pat the side of their belts that held their leather money pouches; the eagle-eyed cutpurses would take note and, as the singing resumed, speedily relieve them of their cash.

Broadsheets rarely contain any musical notation since most of the tunes were already familiar favourites or at least catchy enough to be learned from the ballad singer on first hearing. Instead they offer instructions like ‘To the tune of Wolsey’s Wilde’ or, even more frustrating for us today, ‘To a new Northern tune’. Connecting tunes to texts, therefore, often requires quite a bit of detective work, particularly since publishers were in the habit of renaming an old tune after the title of the latest or most popular ballad to which it had been sung. Playford’s The Dancing Master (eighteen editions between 1651 and 1728) is a good source of tunes; others can be found in a handful of song collections, in particular Thomas Durfey’s ‘Wit and Mirth or Pills To Purge Melancholy’ (six volumes published between 1698–1720). The ballad operas of the eighteenth century are another valuable storehouse, most notably John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera 1727/8 in which more than sixty songs are set to common broadside ballad tunes. In addition, Claude M. Simpson in his monumental book The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (1966) reconnects over five hundred ballads to their original tunes, many of which only survive within arrangements for harpsichord, lute or viol consort.

The broadside ballads performed here have been selected from sources including the Pepys Collection (Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge), the Euing Collection (University of Glasgow), the Bagford Collection (British Library), the Roxburghe Collection (begun by Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, 1661–1724)) now in the British Library and Durfey’s Pills To Purge Melancholy.

Lucie Skeaping

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