- Flimsy sheets of paper, sold cheaply in the streets, at fairs, and wherever working people gathered. On them were printed songs, prose accounts of horrible crimes, scandals, newsworthy items, pictures, wonders, tales, religious tracts, parodies, political sqibs, the 'last dying speeches of murderers' sold at the foot of the gallows while the body was still hanging, or any other piece which the printers thought would sell. Given the fact that the printers copied freely from each other and tried to mirror the public's taste, many items included were traditional in their own right, such as the 'Pack of Cards Spiritualized', or the 'Letter from Our Lord Jesus Christ'. From the late 18th to the late 19th centuries, the printers of broadsides were at the decidedly lower end of the trade and, indeed, many of the sheets were appallingly printed, but others gave good value for the cost of a penny or halfpenny, giving two or more songs, with woodcut illustrations (often having little if any connection with the song itself). A typical mid-19th-century sheet would be quarto size (about 10 in. x 8 in.) with two songs and two cuts, but many sellers chopped the sheets in half to make two 'slips', and others sold much bigger sheets which could hold as many as 50 songs - in very small print.Much of the broadside trade was centred in London, and some printers such as James Catnach, John Pitts, and Henry Such had a national reputation, but there were also important regional centres in Newcastle, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, and most small towns had a printer who turned out broadsides as and when he or she could. Between them, they churned out hundreds of thousands of sheets.In the earlier period, from the mid-15th to the late 17th centuries, most sheets were printed by better class printers, in the old gothic script, called 'Blackletter'. In addition to general songs, those engaged in religious and political controversies often used the broadside form to carry on their public debates, and these sheets were much prized by collectors and examples are still preserved in major collections such as the Pepys, Roxburghe, and Bagford.Devotees of the traditional *Child ballad and many folk *song scholars were particularly scathing about broadside ballads, but much of the evidence used in folk song research is perforce taken from printed examples. Appearance on a broadside is often the only way a song can be dated, and few song researchers have not used broadside texts to complete fragmentary versions they have collected, or to elucidate obscure or incoherent phrases. The exact relationship between traditional song and broadsides has never been quite determined. Certainly, very many of the songs collected from the people have appeared on broadsides at one time or another, and it is also known that many traditional singers learnt songs from print, and some even made collections of their own. Broadsides could be stored away in scrapbooks, passed around from hand to hand until they fell to pieces, or pasted on the wall: 'I will now lead you to an honest ale-house, where we shall find a cleanly room, lavender in the window, and twenty ballads stuck about the walls' (Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler (1653)). A purely oral folk song tradition has probably not existed in this country for centuries. Nevertheless, a minority of songs do not seem to have appeared widely in print and, as broadsides did not give tunes yet song collectors found versions of songs with similar tunes all over the country, an element of orality must have existed, and so we must assume that a flexible mix of print/ oral traditions was the norm.■ Leslie Shepard, The Broadside Ballad (1962); Leslie Shepard, The History of Street Literature (1973); Claude M. Simpson, The British Broadside Ballad and its Music (1966).
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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