The skinny on broadside ballads

Oct 11, 2018 | blog, Renaissance, Will Kemp | 0 comments

In our upcoming production, “Will Kemp Returns! A Jigs Revival,” we’ll present ballads “in the broadside tradition.”

But what is the broadside tradition?

In today’s lingo, a ballad is a slow, sad song, maybe with romantic undertones, like something by Whitney Houston or Celine Dion.

But in Renaissance England, the term ballad referred to any type of song that was written in verse form that told a story. These often-long songs could be either serious or funny and were popular domestic entertainment, ideal for post-dinner living room amusement as well as performances by roaming theater troupes who sang them in the streets. Some famous broadside ballads from back in the day include “Robin Hood,” (a story that retains its resonance to this day!) “Packington’s Pound,” and “The Ballad of Chevy Chase” (which refers not to the famous comedian of National Lampoon fame but rather a range of hills on the Scotland-England border).

The term “broadside ballad” comes from how these 16th-century ballads were published; they were printed on one side of a single long piece of paper — a “broadside.” Then, the ballads were and sold in city streets and at fairs for a half-penny to a penny a piece.

“Ballads were the entertainment of the time,” says Ross Duffin, a professor emeritus of music from Case Western Reserve University and expert in the ballad tradition. Says Duffin, “In terms of cost, it would be like going to a movie today.”  

Broadside ballads were sometimes vulgar in subject matter, but could be about anything from love to legends, drinking songs and even natural disasters and political events.

Typically, ballads were set to a popular tune of the day, so anyone could read the lyrics and know exactly how the song was supposed to go, even though very few people knew how to read music.

Some ballads became so popular that they became cultural flashpoints. Shakespeare referenced popular ballads in his plays, relying on his savvy audience to “catch” the mention. For example, in Twelfth Night, the raucous, party-loving Sir Toby Belch breaks into of “There Dwelt a Man in Babylon,” a popular ballad of the day. (Listen to Newberry Consort singer Aaron Sheehan singing a portion of the song on the CD Shakespeare’s Songbook: Vol. 1.)

“These things are integrated completely into Shakespeare’s plays,” Duffin explains.

In the 19th century, historians began collecting various broadside ballads and editing them, turning them into books of poems, which is how many of these ballads have survived to this day.

But unfortunately, because they didn’t also include the musical notes and sometimes didn’t even say what tune should be used, it’s not always clear what melody a specific text would have been sung to. There’s even controversy where the tunes are specified because the names of tunes shifted over time. As Duffin explains, “They would call a tune by its current name until a newer ballad would become so famous that it would go by that name instead.”

To figure out how Renaissance ballads are supposed to sound, Duffin — who has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Renaissance tunes — looks at how many lines are in each stanza and how many poetic feet are in a line to determine which popular tune they may have been sung to.

“They sometimes used some of the same rhymes that were used in other songs. And there are other word connections that lead me to propose one tune over another,” Duffin says.

Curious to hear these treasures of Renaissance England? Come hear us perform “Will Kemp Returns! A Jigs Revival,” Oct. 19 to 21!

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