Living Broadside Ballads: An Immersive Conference Experience

Mark Hailwood (I’m now on twitter: follow me @mark_hailwood)

As many readers of the ‘monster will know, April is one of the academic year’s prime conference seasons – and this year I threw myself into it with gusto, delivering three different papers on two continents in the space of a week. Now I’ve recovered, I wanted to offer some reflections on a unique conference experience that I enjoyed at the Huntington Library’s ‘Living English Broadside Ballads, 1550-1750’ event, convened by Paddy Fumerton of EBBA fame.

‘Immersive’ history has been an important theme of many posts on this blog; that is, an approach to history that concerns itself not only with surviving written sources, but also with the sights, sounds and material traces of past society. So it was fascinating to attend a conference that sought to ‘bring to life’ the various aspects of early modern printed ballads, not just as texts but as songs, dances and visual objects. This isn’t a conventional paper-by-paper conference report, but rather a selection of some of the highlights that spoke to this idea of ‘immersive’ history:


The conference followed the usual structure of panels of papers, but was also punctuated in the lunches, breaks and drinks receptions (and, in fact, in some of the papers) with ballad performances. These varied from solo unaccompanied renditions, through those supported by fiddling, to mildly raucous group sing-alongs, and the tone ranged from the bawdy to the genuinely moving. The precise character of ballad performances is something I have mused about on the blog before, but the real value of hearing a number of performances at this conference was that it highlighted the range of contrasting styles that ballad performers could adopt, with each bringing their own distinctive approach to their renditions.

Erik Bell and Chris Marsh: two of many wonderful ballad performers

Erik Bell and Chris Marsh: two of many wonderful ballad performers

No doubt seventeenth century ballad consumers had their favourite styles and hawkers, and may have been attracted as much by the charisma or skill of the ballad-seller’s performance as by the content of the song itself. They were, after all, a form of live music, and much like when witnessing performers at a music festival (or on Jools Holland), it is often the look and mannerisms of the performers that captivates the attention as much as the song they are performing, and this was no doubt a more important part of the operation of the ballad market than I, at least, had appreciated before now. Unfortunately, it is perhaps the most difficult aspect to recover from the historical record.


We know ballads were intended to be sung, but were they meant to be danced? In a thought-provoking paper Bruce Smith of USC persuaded us that they were. Although ballads only rarely styled or titled themselves as dances—and made few explicit calls for their listeners to throw some shapes—Bruce argued that many ballads contained implicit ‘traces of dance’. These took the form of descriptions of motion in ballads—with characters leaping, turning, jigging, jogging and thrusting—that would have served as ‘kinetic cues’ to listeners to mimic these actions.

A dance ballad? Pepys 4.106 (from EBBA)

A dance ballad? Pepys 4.106 (from EBBA)

There is some science behind this argument: descriptions of motion trigger motor-neurons in listeners, engaging their ‘kinetic intelligence’, so that ballad audiences would have felt a ballad as well as thinking about it and hearing it. Its an interesting argument, and invites us to imagine more physically energetic ballad audiences and performers swaying, bouncing and swirling as they recited the trials and tribulations of a brave adventurer or the twists and turns of a bawdy courtship tale.

I’m still a little unsure why more ballads were not more explicit about prompting listeners to dance if this was their intention, but in the spirit of ‘living’ these ballads I joined in with the efforts to dance along: it was certainly a fun way to experience a ballad, but exposed a severe shortage of ‘kinetic intelligence’ on my part.

Exercising my kinetic intelligence with Paddy

Exercising my kinetic intelligence with Paddy


Ballads were seen and not just heard. Indeed, we know that they were pasted on the walls of cottages and alehouses in the period to provide decoration, adorned as they were with ornate borders and woodcut images. These woodcut images have, however, received short-shrift from ballad scholars, who have often dismissed them as crude, unsophisticated additions that generally bore little relation to the content of the ballad song itself. Not so, argued fascinating papers by Megan Palmer Browne (UC Santa Barbara) and Chris Marsh (Queen’s University, Belfast), who both demonstrated that the woodcut images used on ballads were often carefully chosen to supplement the meaning of the words.

Master Disaster

Master Disaster

Often this was done by deploying certain woodcut characters, who appeared again and again in association with certain ballad themes: such as the figure dubbed ‘Master Disaster’ by Chris, whose dismayed arms aloft pose was routinely used to indicate to readers that some unexpected misfortune was heading the way of that ballad’s protagonist. Chris argued that many such woodcut characters carried these kinds of prior associations for ballad consumers, and helped to construct the ballad product. Perhaps ballad consumers had their familiar favourites and, like baseball cards or panini stickers, would buy a ballad to add to their collection of broadsides detailing the adventures of ‘Master Disaster’. I’m eagerly anticipating Chris Marsh publishing on this topic, and in the meantime I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of these characters in my own research.

We also had the chance to look first hand at the Huntington’s collection of woodblocks, believed to have been owned by the Newcastle printer John Wright, complete with worm holes and all. Sadly, they didn’t have a ‘Master Disaster’. We didn’t go as far as creating our own woodblocks, but others have done.

A woodblock from the Huntington's collection.

A woodblock from the Huntington’s collection.

Broadsides as Digital and Material Objects

Online digital collections of ballads, such as EBBA and Bodleian’s Broadside Ballads Online, have been integral to the renaissance in early modern ballad studies over the past decade or so, allowing scholars and ballad enthusiasts to access ballads for free from their own desk. But they also raise some questions. For one, they tend to provide us with a two-dimensional image of what is in reality a three-dimensional material object, and as such do not preserve or convey important pieces of information about the broadsheets.

In the future, however, they might. Carl Stahmer, another member of the EBBA team, blew our minds by taking us through the latest developments in digital technology. More advanced imaging techniques make it possible to determine the quality of paper a ballad was printed on; to identify variations in the positioning of printed type on prints of the same ballad; or to identify minute discrepancies in printing caused by the wear and tear of the type itself over time. All of these can help us to piece together better records of when ballads were published, and by which printer, valuable information in our quest to reconstruct the ballad market. All this information could, one-day, be provided through these online collections too – if the funding can be found to support this imaging.

I’m still trying to get my head around some of the technical wizardry at work, but you can find out more here. What is certain is that digital technology opens up some amazing possibilities for the future of ballad scholarship.


Inspired by our immersion in the multi-media nature of broadside ballads, it seemed like the logical next step that the delegates would soon turn their hand to producing their own songs and ditties. The EBBA team and the conference organisers were the first to try their hand, and produced their own ballad-style conference review:

Conference summary in ballad form

Conference summary in ballad form

Things got a bit more scurrilous by the time we reached the bar on the last night of the conference, and the ballads became more libelous than celebratory. But they were complete with their own tunes and kinetic cues, and received a boisterous rendition or two: perhaps this was not so far away from that seventeenth-century drinking song experience I had long been searching for.

By the time my head cleared the next day I certainly felt that the conference’s attempt to explore the ‘living’ dimensions of ballads as songs, as performances, and as material and visual objects, had given me a much more sophisticated way of thinking about these fascinating and ubiquitous artifacts of early modern culture. To simply read a ballad is to misread it entirely.


** Rutgers also held an event recently in which they recreated seventeenth-century protest songs: there is a short video about their event here.

4 thoughts on “Living Broadside Ballads: An Immersive Conference Experience

  1. This sounds like a great conference Mark, I’m very jealous, although I had a very nice time talking about the Ten Commandments in Ghent at around the same time!

    The whole question of the value of this sort of immersive experience is a fascinating one. Leaving aside the impossible question of whether or not we can accurately reproduce period practice, we’re left with the even more impossible issue of trying to decide the historical value of the testimony of our own individual experience. Even if somehow we could listen to a ballad performed in exactly the way it would have been originally, what can that actually tell us about how contemporaries heard and responded to such a performance?

    This goes beyond just ballads of course. One of the most profound disagreements I ever witnessed at a conference was over the issue of whether early modern women would have experienced childbirth in the same way as women do today. Clearly the basic process has not changed(!), but the cultural construction of pregancy, labour, childbirth, and even pain, has changed dramatically. These sorts of questions seem to suit musical experience particularly well though, perhaps because it is a performative and ephemeral medium. Projects like ‘The Experience of Worship’, funded by an AHRC/ESRC grant of almost £350,000 at Bangor, are breathtaking in their scope, ambition, and in the amazing resources they provide for students and scholars (see But how do we as academics process this sort of data?

    One way (I suppose) is to assume that a shared, common humanity facilitates some basic understanding of past experience. Another is to reach for theory (I’ve done this before, by likening congregational singing to Durkheim’s idea of the ‘collective effervescence’). A third is to try to reconstruct contemporary experience through first-hand testimony, which I’m sure all historians aspire to, but we so rarely have the sources, especially for the the level of society below the literate elite. I’m sure there are other methodological approaches – I’d be really interested to hear your (and others’) thoughts on this…

    • Thanks Jonathan. It is, of course, a very important question here (and in fact it came up in the comments/discussion of an earlier post on the blog: but I’m not sure I have any satisfactory answers. On the issue of assuming a commonality between the sensory experiences of the past and of the present I feel as though at a theoretical level this is highly problematic, and I am not at all confident that we can assume that sights, sounds, smells, pain, intoxication – and certainly not emotions – would have been experienced in the same ways 400 years ago.

      That said, when you engage in these kinds of recreations the theoretical objection does tend to get pushed aside, and I find myself thinking ‘that line was certainly intended to get a laugh’, or ‘this tune would definitely have had an uplifting effect’ – I am more inclined to see a timeless quality to how a ballad was intended to be received and experienced when I encounter them being performed as opposed to reading them on the page, where I can remain more detached and questioning. That is not to say that recreations have convinced me that there is a continuity in the functioning of human faculties: it probably simply means that as these kinds of recreations are new to me I have not yet developed a critical enough approach to them.

      Regardless of how we answer this question I think there is real value in these kinds of activities in another sense: I don’t generally see it as a way of providing a bridge to the experiences of people in the past anyway, as a way of recreating and recapturing, if you like, ‘how it really was’ for them. Rather, how it helps me as a historian is it makes me more aware of the ways in which performances, images, tunes and contexts could all serve to reinforce, or even reconfigure, the meanings of the written ballad word. Of course, I have read such things many a time, but it is a lesson that is most effectively absorbed by seeing this process in practice. This is not to say it necessarily helps you to pin down the meanings ballads held for contemporaries – to capture with precision their likely responses – but it teaches you to appreciate the variety of possible meanings that a ballad could hold, both then and now, especially as it took on a life beyond the written word.

      I’m not sure if that really deals with the key question you pose, and I’m sure my thinking on this contradicts itself in places, but it is a really important and interesting issue to wrestle with. I’d love to hear your response, and the thoughts of others out there…..

      • Thanks Mark, that’s a really useful way of capturing something which I’ve never really managed to define so neatly before. The value of these sorts of immersive experiences could perhaps therefore be described in similar terms to value for historians of using theory. It’s not that it provides a neat explanatory model, but it can occasionally provide us with a framework for asking more interesting questions. Likewise, a performance is not necessarily a re-creation, but it does provide a space within which we can start to experience and interrogate the range of different affective meanings such performances were capable of communicating or engendering. I’m definitely with you there!

        Also, just to mention that there was a great event in Sheffield at the weekend. Emma Rhatigan organised a choral evensong, during which Erica Longfellow preached an abridged version of John Donne’s Sermon of Valediction at his going into Germany, originally preached at Lincoln’s Inn, 18 April 1619. This was deliberately not a ‘re-creation’, but the chance to experience Donne’s sermon preached; as a performative rather than a textual artefact, in a liturgical setting, this was certainly rather special.

  2. Pingback: Hangovers, Marxists, and Plebs: Tales from the Blarchive | the many-headed monster

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