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Recording Early Broadside Ballads

by James Revell Carr (2007)

Little is known about the performance style and practice of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century British broadside ballad singers. We do know that ballads were sung by a broad range of people––men and women of all ages and walks of life––so ballads must have been performed in many different styles and with a range of vocal timbres and inflections. There were also many different contexts for ballad singing that would have each required different approaches to ballad performance. For example, a ballad sung on a theatrical stage was performed differently from a ballad sung in one’s home, and a ballad seller on a busy street corner required another style altogether. In the few descriptions of ballad singing that have survived from this period, the singing of ballad sellers is rarely described in favorable terms. For example, William Brown wrote in 1616 that a ballad-monger's singing was "as harsh a noyce as ever Cart-wheele made."1 But for every unpleasant street singer we also can be sure that other singers approached the performance of ballads with sensitivity and accuracy. Some ballad tunes were repetitious and potentially boring, but a great number of them were beautifully composed melodies which required both skill and practice to sing well. It is likely that ballad texts and tunes were changed to suit the interests of the singers and were adapted and performed in ways that we cannot imagine today. One way to investigate the singing of broadside ballads is to try singing them yourself, experiencing the ballad as a combination of tune and text embodied and interpreted by the singer.

There were thus a myriad of ways to sing broadside ballads in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it is impossible for us today to know exactly how the ballads sounded. What we do know about the vocal timbre and inflection of British ballad singing, as it has survived in contemporary traditions, comes from two sources: field recordings made in the twentieth century by folklorists seeking orally transmitted balladry, and recordings of professional singers who specialize in historical performance. The latter recordings, by singers with classical training, have relied upon information that is very murky in regard to timbre and even style, since all we have from the period are adjectives whose meanings are very malleable. And while the folk ballad singers may capture some of the roughness or stridency of the street ballad singer, we have no way to know if this resembles a style of the seventeenth century, or if it is a development of subsequent centuries. For this project we have researched both of these sources, and while they both inform our vocal production, we wanted to avoid imitating these twentieth century singers, and allow our singers to develop their own individual styles. We have especially tried to avoid imitation in regards to accent, which makes our singing more "natural," but makes some pronunciation choices difficult. While we, as singers raised in the United States, do not attempt to imitate English accents, we find that certain rhyme schemes and scansions work better when we adopt archaic speech patterns. For the most part, we choose to use a comfortable, speaking tone, attempting to give clear articulation, with minimal ornamentation and vibrato, so as to not obscure the basic melody or text. In some cases we use conventional ornaments when we feel it will enhance the effect of the lyrics. In most cases, however, the ornamentation we use comes directly from the sheet music. However, this sheet music must also be questioned because the tunes were usually transcribed for use as dance music, meaning that the written ornaments were intended not for the voice but for lute, harpsichord or violin.

We also decided to record most of the ballads a cappella, for several reasons. Our primary purpose is to help people connect the ballad with the tune, and a solo voice gives an unadorned version of the melody, clearly illustrating the connection between words and music. While instrumental accompaniment was appropriate in the seventeenth century in many contexts, particularly in the theatrical ballads and jigs of the period, the ballad tradition is a singer’s tradition, and we wanted to highlight the art of unaccompanied balladry. By keeping our presentations simple and unadorned we seek to make the ballads as intelligible as possible.

But the collections also contain many examples of theatrical ballads, some with tunes written or adapted by Henry Purcell, upon which we are accompanied on a virginal (a small harpsichord). To capture a feel for Pepys’s "Frauncis' New Jigge" (EBBA 20102, Pepys 1.226-227), we employed a small ensemble (using violin, baroque guitar, and theorbo), which demonstrates the styles of period accompaniment. This piece is an example of a theatrical jig, a predecessor of the ballad opera, which consisted of a comic dialogue or group song and often dance, with bawdy subject matter that commonly served as an afterpiece in British theaters. This particular jig features four characters and four different tunes, each tune marking a shift in the jig's dramatic development. For this recording our intent is to present a full theatrical rendition, with multiple singers and period accompaniment, to illustrate the street ballads' role on the popular stage.

As was discussed in the essay "Ballad Music and its Sources," broadside ballads rarely include notation, only providing the singer with the title of a ballad tune. Part of our job has been to identify the correct tunes that correspond with both the title given and the meter of the text as printed. There are only a handful of books on the tunes of the broadsides, starting with William Chappell's two volume Popular Music of the Olden Times (1855-1859), which laid the foundation upon which subsequent collections were built. Chappell's collection is extensive and thoroughly researched, but instead of faithfully reprinting melodies from his sources, he arranged the tunes for piano, adding harmonies and altering modes to suit nineteenth century tastes. Today, the most comprehensive and well-researched collection is Claude Simpson's The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (1966), which provides transcriptions of unadorned melodies, painstakingly researched and reconstructed, combined with detailed references to the historical sources of the tunes. Simpson's sources include the many editions of Playford's English Dancing Master and D'Urfey's Wit and Mirth, which are now readily available to researchers in the form of e-books, but he also drew from over a hundred other sources, including a great number of manuscript collections. Simpson arranged the tunes alphabetically, using standardized titles, with an index that cross-references tunes with multiple titles. This organization of tunes has been adopted by EBBA, which uses Simpson's standard titles in addition to variants. Even though his compendium has been the main source for the singers in EBBA, however, we have in a few cases found tunes that were not included in Simpson's collection, and we have occasionally also discovered connections between tunes and titles that Simpson does not mention.

Fitting the tunes with the text is the most difficult task of the singer. Many of the tunes include complex melodic passages, and there can often be more than one way to scan a line of text to make it fit the tune. Although many of the tunes fit a typical "ballad meter" of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables, many texts require compression or elongation of words to fit the chosen melody. Often, for the singer it requires a process of trial and error, especially when learning a tune for the first time, to understand how to best set the text to the music. The singers frequently find that the more they sing a particular tune, the easier it becomes to sing the texts. Due to the sheer number of ballads we are recording, we have not had the time to extensively rehearse the texts. As a result, some of the recordings have line readings that may be idiosyncratic, not matching exactly the transcribed version of the text. But we embrace such "promiscuous" moments because the unrehearsed quality of our renditions captures the immediacy and impromptu character of ballad singing in its time. Thinking along similar lines, we have chosen to make our recordings not in a studio but in a variety of locations. This approach has the added advantage of making the singers more relaxed and natural.

The eventual goal of this project is to provide sound recordings of every ballad for which there is a known tune––for the Pepys collection of approximately 1,800 ballads alone, there are over one thousand known tunes. This is a project of unprecedented size, which would be extremely challenging for any troupe of professional singers, and yet we have undertaken the job with a small but dedicated group of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as a few staff, from the University of California at Santa Barbara. Each of these singers comes from different backgrounds––some from conservatory backgrounds, some from folk music scenes, and yet others who work with groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism–– and each has brought their own personality to the ballads they sing. While these singers' renditions of the broadside ballads should not be considered "definitive," we hope that these recordings will inspire other singers and researchers in many fields to explore the world of ballad singing.


1 William Brown, Brittannia’s Pastorals. The second booke (London, 1616), p. 11.

Works Consulted

Brown, William. Brittannia’s Pastorals. The second booke. London: Thomas Snodham for George Norton. 1616.

Chappell, William. Popular Music of the Olden Time. 2 vols. London: Cramer, Beale, & Chappell, 1855-1859.

D’Urfey, Thomas. Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy. London: Henry Playford, 1698. Subsequent editions 1699,-1720.

Playford, John. The [English] Dancing Master. London: Harper and Playford, 1651. Subsequent editions 1653-1728.

Simpson, Claude. The British Broadside Ballad and its Music. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1966.