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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.