From a fairly early period, folk scholars have tended to distinguish between broadside ballads and traditional ballads, although the precise nature, degree and implications of this distinction have varied across time. The categorical distinction between the ballad of tradition and the printed broadside is complicated by the fact that a high percentage of traditional ballads have circulated in commercial printed form at some point; in fact, broadsides are often the earliest existing version of ballads placed in the traditional category. The distinction is also closely intertwined with a series of paired concepts including print and orality, art and commerce, popular and traditional, old and new, rural and urban, and (often tacit) assumptions about the status and origins of the songs and their relationship with the different cultures that produced them.
The term ‘broadside ballad’ refers to a form of popular literature emerging in the early modern period – songs printed on a single sheet of paper to be sold cheaply in the street. Broadsides dealt with a range of themes including, love and courtship, religion, politics, history, war and crime. They reached the peak of their popularity between 1550 and 1700, though they continued to be produced and consumed in relatively large numbers up until the end of the 19th century and were still being printed until the mid-20th. Broadside ballads were works of known individual or collective authorship and often created expressly for the print market, frequently in response to current events, making it sometimes possible to determine their composition date with some degree of certainty from internal evidence.
The term ‘traditional ballads’ refers to material of uncertain authorship and date that has been passed on through oral transmission. These are songs thought to predate their first printed version and even print culture itself. For early ballad scholars, like Percy, they were thought to be the products of a much earlier culture of minstrelsy, and thus to have a far greater aesthetic and antiquarian value than the typical products of the commercial ballad trade of his own time. Nevertheless, collectors including Percy used the collections of broadsides made by gentlefolk in the seventeenth century (such as Samuel Pepys), as well as the stocks of ballad printers such as Cluer Dicey, as sources for their published collections of ‘ancient’ songs. They were often scathing about these materials of commercial provenance, however; Motherwell referred to broadsides as ‘a great quantity of sad trash’ (Fumerton & Guerrini 2010, 36), while the great American collector Francis James Child famously described the Pepys and Roxburghe broadside collections as ‘veritable dunghills in which, only after a great deal of sickening grubbing, one finds a very moderate jewel’ (Palmer 1996, 158).
So, what were Child and his predecessors looking for, and how did they distinguish the jewels from the trash? Percy hoped to recapture the work of a historical creative elite – the minstrels of the feudal past. Child was looking for the last remnants of a tradition of ‘popular’ song, using the term in a slightly unfamiliar sense: for Child, these songs were the product of a radically different kind of society from the one that had given birth to the ballad culture of the broadside era. Child saw the popular ballads as the natural form of self-expression of a culture at a specific stage in its development:
The condition of society in which a truly national or popular poetry appears … is a condition in which the people are not divided by political organization and book-culture into markedly distinct classes, in which consequently there is such community of ideas and feelings that the whole people form an individual. (Child 1994 , 214)
For Child, the ballads were popular not in the sense of belonging to the lower echelons of society but because they were the product of a period before such distinctions existed. The transition between this older, less stratified society and the world of the broadside ballad was characterised by the decay of traditional ways and their replacement by a highly stratified, commercial society. As part of this process, an older, oral, culture unified by tradition was supplanted by a literate culture characterised by social and political division. The broadsides were part of a commercial culture that drew on but inevitably distorted traditional materials. The goal was to separate the authentic poetic tradition from later commercial derivatives, and scholarly judgement was necessary to reveal the authentically ‘popular’ strand hidden within the mass of highly adulterated material.
Orality and literacy have often been understood as a zero-sum game: as literacy and print culture spread, orality and the domain of tradition have been thought to inevitably recede. According to this way of thinking, the two concepts are not just opposites but distinct developmental stages. The assumption that print culture-followed-manuscript culture-followed oral culture shaped the epistemological stance and the editorial practices of collectors; because scribal culture was felt to represent a transitional stage between orality and print, written sources were closer than print sources to a tradition located firmly in the historical (pre-Gutenberg) past. Manuscript sources were also favoured over oral versions by many collectors. As Dave Harker and others have noted, there was an implicit class dimension underlying this preference for writing over print; MS sources were often acquired from aristocratic informants, and therefore deemed inherently more trustworthy than either print (commercial) or oral (peasant) sources.
Scholars such as Motherwell, Percy and Child thought they could separate out the traditional wheat from the commercial chaff though certain internal markers that indicated the origin of songs in a pre-literate tradition. Motherwell identified the ‘commonplaces’ which helped the reciter unaided by print to find their path through the story as evidence of oral origin. These theories have developed in the work of subsequent scholars into a stylistics of the ballad. Traditional ballads, according to Gerould tell a story by ‘letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and [tell] it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias’ (quoted in Atkinson 2002, 13). Atkinson (2002, 12), identifies some other key markers including ‘repetitive textual, metrical, and melodic structures’; ‘conventional vocabulary and epithets’ (‘lily-white hand’; ‘milk-white steed’ (ibid.). He also suggests that traditional ballads, rather than being self-contained works, refer to other ballads within the tradition, something he calls traditional referentiality. This intertextual quality presupposes a certain competency on the part of the listener; meaning is not contained in the text but emerges in the relationship between the singer and their audience as joint possessors of a shared cultural heritage. Additionally, traditional ballad culture incorporates a body of common song tunes which have an unstable relationship with texts as well as traditional stylistic traits, a ‘recurrent vocabulary of melodic, rhythmic, and dynamic technique’ (ibid.).
According to a narrative in which industrial print culture gradually replaces an older popular tradition, then it makes sense to attempt to strip away the corrupted material to get back to the purer, oral versions that preceded it. However, contemporary scholarship has begun to question the notion of orality and literacy as opposites and recognise that song culture has from a very early period rested on a combination of oral and literate practices; rather than one replacing the other, ‘oral, scribal and printed media fed in and out of each other as part of a dynamic process of reciprocal interaction and mutual infusion’ (Fox quoted in Pettitt 2009, 429). Rather than to attempt to reconstruct an authentic oral tradition, recent scholarship has sought to trace the relationship between these different modes of transmission. While broadsides have often been used as sources for this type of reconstructive research, songs originally written for the broadside market have also passed into oral tradition: Pettitt (2009; 2013) has investigated the ways in which the oral transmission of this material transforms the content and stylistic features of ballad narratives, looking at the example of the early 19th century song ‘The murder of Maria Marten’, which first appeared in print in 1828 and was subsequently recorded from oral sources in the 20th century.
With their combination of entertainment, moralising comment and reportage, broadsides anticipated the tabloid newspaper. The ballad which told the story of Maria Marten’s death at the hands of her lover William Corder in 1827 existed alongside prose accounts of the murder and included a certain amount of quasi-journalistic detail. Comparing an early broadside version with contemporary prose accounts and later oral versions, Pettitt found that the ‘traditional’ (or ‘memoral’) versions had a reduced text which removing the incipit (the conventional opening which hailed the listener and introduced the main characters), and much of the detail and sentimentality to focus on the ‘emotional core’ (Coffin 1961, in Pettitt 2009), the relationship of the Maria with her mother. This focus on the tragedy of the victim shifts the centre of gravity away from the moral lesson supplied by the murderer’s fate which was a common feature of the Victorian ‘good night’ ballad.
Pettitt also noted the removal of interlinking explanation creating a succession of separate but interlinked images, and a preference for telling the story through direct speech rather than third person reportage. Lines from the ballad were also reformulated to create incremental repetition (e.g., ‘the very first stroke as they struck’) and a parallelism or ‘balancing’ of events (e.g., the words used in the mother’s ‘prophecy’ are echoed in the description of the father’s action when discovering the body); departures (William takes Maria Marten to the barn at the beginning while the father takes her away (dead) at the end – an inversion of the normal marriage rite; the opening conversation between mother and daughter is echoed in that between mother and father. The result is a depersonalisation of protagonists: they become less real, historical individuals than social archetypes; and an emphasis on relationships in which the mother-daughter dynamic takes centre stage.
Given that ‘Maria Marten’ circulated first as a broadside and the evidence which suggests that this version is the origin of the later recorded versions, Pettitt’s work indicates that the ‘oral’ features identified by earlier collectors are indeed a function of oral song culture. He attributes the changes to the processes of memory and oral performance, which, he argues, ‘can be compared to the weathering of rock or the wearing of cloth to reveal the underlying structures and their patternings that hold the whole together’, or ‘the decay of a corpse in which the softer tissues disappear and reveal the skeletal structure beneath’.
Such research is of value in beginning to understand the changes that songs undergo as they circulate between print and oral transmission. Recent scholarship has begun to uncover the complex interplay of oral and literate practices at work within popular song cultures. Increasingly, the relationship between the broadside and the traditional ballad is seen less as one of corruption of oral ‘texts’ by commercial forces than as a ‘dynamic, mutual reinforcement’ in which the ‘oral and the written or printed word – function continuously in support of one another’ (Atkinson 2002, 25). Instead of a search for hard definitions, perhaps it is necessary to acknowledge the multiplicity of the ballad, simultaneously a part of literary and popular cultures, an early media phenomenon and a set of principles of oral creation which link the present with the distant cultural past.
Atkinson, David. (2002) The English Traditional Ballad: Theory Method and Practice. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Child, Francis J. (1994 ) ‘“Ballad Poetry”, Johnson’s Universal Cyclopaedia, 1900’, Journal of Folklore Research, 31(1/3), 214-222.
Fumerton, Patricia and Guerrini, Anita. (2010). Ballads and Broadsides in Britain, 1500–1800. Farnham: Ashgate.
Roy Palmer. (1996) ‘“’Veritable Dunghills”: Professor Child and the Broadside’, Folk Music Journal, 7/2, 155-66.
Pettitt, Tom. (2009) ‘Written Composition and (Mem)oral Decomposition: The Case of “The Suffolk Tragedy”’, Oral Tradition, 24/2, 429-454.