All about those ballads (ft. Oskar Cox Jensen)

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen is an Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the History Department at QMUL, an expert in British song of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a novelist. And that list isn’t even exhaustive… Importantly, he is also a singer of ballads: and he’s recorded a couple for us – make sure you click the links below to listen! Here I (CC) talk with him (OCJ) about the intersections between balladry and nineteenth century notions of health.

OCJ curious 2to3

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen. Photo: Niina Tamura

 

CC: Now while I’m happy with what ‘ballads’ are, Oskar, I was wondering if you could define ‘broadside ballads’ for us?

OCJ: OK! That sounds like a simple question, so I’ll pretend it is, and say: any set of singable verses printed on a single-sided piece of paper. In Britain, these began in 1550 and continued until around 1900. The songs of the people, in short, made accessible by cheap print – you could buy a single song (on a ‘slip’) for a halfpenny, and a ‘broadside’ sheet, often with several songs printed on the same side, for a penny – a price that remained stable for centuries. Crucially, we’re talking about a medium here, not a genre, because all kinds of songs found their way onto these sheets.

 

CC: Where would these ballads be performed and who would likely be in the audience?

OCJ: In the first instance, on the street, by ballad-singers. This was how people learnt the tunes: by ear, from the person – man, woman, or child – who was selling it. In cities and towns, and in the country, especially at fairs, races, and markets, groups of pedestrians would gather round singers on street corners, first to listen to, and then to buy the song. These printed sheets thus became the blueprint for amateur performance: in the pub, at home, at work . . . Of course, many of these songs had begun life in other contexts before becoming broadsides, so many of the words – and the vast majority of the tunes – had already been performed in theatres or pleasure gardens, or even less likely occasions such as the church, the parade-ground, the opera, or the country dance. Records indicate that, although the bulk of street audiences was made up of the poor of both sexes, and the young in particular, ballads were also heard and purchased by the middling and the elite – though these people would be far less likely to admit it! The same songs could often be accessed in other ways too, so that a street ballad might be encountered in a respectable journal or a concert programme. We’re really talking about an almost universal musical culture here: ‘pop music’ in its widest sense, something I’ve come to think of as ‘common song’.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘In a Fog’!

 

CC: I think of ballads as often comic, or bawdy, but Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is poignant and quite heart-rending. The woman ‘Plying her needle and thread – / Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!’ put me in mind of William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (1789) who ‘Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’. In your work, how far have you found that ballads have more of a political or social purpose than we might first think?

OCJ: Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is a great example – there are lots of ‘broadside ballad’ editions, but the first edition, published with the musical score for voice and piano written by one J.H. Tully, appeared in an 1844 issue of Punch magazine, and was subsequently sold on its own for two shillings and sixpence, a price that put it out of reach of the masses, few of whom were musically literate anyway. And yes, it’s heart-rending, though I’ll admit that, for me, the original tune rather overdoes the sentimental tone in a very typically Victorian way!

But, to answer your question: so far as professional historians have been interested in ballads, at least since the 1960s and the work of E.P. Thompson, it’s been for their political and social purpose – academics have always been drawn to the ‘issues’ addressed in these songs. My own work on ballads began with a political question: in Napoleon and British Song, my first book, I look at more than four hundred ballads and their culture to try and get at popular politics at the lowest level during the Napoleonic Wars. And since the sixteenth century, ballads have always been used to contest the controversies of the day. In the Victorian period, this is still going strong, so everything from cruelty to animals to Catholic emancipation is written about in song – often very, very badly. One thing political activists rarely learnt was that a song was neither a sermon nor a stump speech, so that the best and most affecting political songs are those that tell a personal story, rather than advancing an explicit argument. That’s something both Hood and Blake sometimes got right: start with the individual, not the abstract.

 

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The Beggar Girl 1802
2010,7081.835,
AN962980001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: Thomas Hardy grew up with a knowledge of local ballads, but also saw them slipping out of the dominant culture. In this famous passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he marks the contrast – the chasm, even – between Tess and her mother, Joan:

‘Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.’

Oskar, what do you see as the place of ballads within Victorian society and culture, and why do you choose to perform historical ballads today?

OCJ: Hah – instinctively, I cringe when I read Hardy setting up that dichotomy: no offence to the guy, but he’s buying into this typical later-nineteenth-century fiction of the oral tradition and the rural peasant that the famous song collectors (Cecil Sharp, Francis Child, Lucy Broadwood et al.) fashioned into something of a political ideology that, taken to its extremes, ends up in dangerously fascistic-sounding territory. There was no such thing as purely oral transmission of ballads, at least not after the Elizabethan era: songs circulated in print and by ear together, and flowed endlessly between the town and the country. Probably Joan’s folksy old ballads began on the London stage, even if that was the Jacobean stage, and in that sense nothing had changed by the Victorian period.

But I’ve strayed off-topic again. For Victorians as for previous generations, ballads acted as an essential, lowest-common-denominator form of cultural transmission, enabling all classes in all places to access the same products, in its most basic possible form: cheap print on cheap paper, with an orally-transmitted vocal melody. But as literacy levels increased, technologies developed, ‘stamp’ taxes on newspapers were abolished, and the general standard of musical proficiency rose, ballads became less necessary. Once everyone could engage with politics in the more in-depth form of newspapers and meetings, and get their music from the halls, street bands, domestic pianos and the tonic sol-fa movement, the broadside ballad lost its purpose: there were simply better, cheaper ways to access both music and information, and I see this as a very good thing!

So the last thing I want to do is be nostalgic about broadside ballads: when it comes down to it, they were a compromise born of necessity, not an ideal form of song. By choice, I personally write and perform my own songs, accompanied by guitar or piano, informed by the amazing musical developments of the last two hundred years . . . I perform historical ballads, then, because I study them. They were incredibly important: for fully three hundred years, they constituted the dominant form of cultural participation for the majority of British people. And I don’t believe we can begin to understand what that meant without singing and listening to them: they weren’t simply words on a page, but dynamic, interactive things, to be performed and heard. They come alive in performance, it’s the only way to grasp their strengths and limitations, and get a sense of how people might have reacted to them. Also, I will admit: the best of them, the ones that could cut through the noise of a busy street and electrify a crowd, are really, really satisfying to sing.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘The Wonderful Pills’!

 

CC: I guess that ballads, or street songs in general, can tell us about how medical or scientific culture filtered down into popular culture and general parlance. Is there a noticeable trend as to when health concerns become more or less prevalent among the ballads you’ve studied?

OCJ: A good question – and a tricky one! Firstly, I’d take issue with that phrase ‘filtered down’, it’s far too passive. Ballads aren’t about things slowly and neutrally trickling down to the consciousness of the masses: they’re provocative, active instances of popular engagement with important issues. If they’re top-down, then that’s because someone has made the decision to take a cause to the masses, and either thinks it will interest enough people to sell, or is important enough to subsidise by printing thousands of songs for free. If they’re written at street level, then they’re indications of the populace demanding to be part of a more elite discourse.

If there’s a chronology here, then it’s one of terminology: you say ‘health concerns’, which is really interesting. Since the Tudor origins of ballads, there have been songs about plague, disease, quack doctors, miracle cures, and dodgy doctors. What distinguishes the Victorian period is probably the vocabulary: the shift of this discourse from a fundamentally superstitious to a scientific basis. That was a slow process, of course, and certainly medical language was adopted in song before an informed medical attitude took hold, so that a lot of Victorian ballads in this area are really reactionary, employing old conventions of quackery, suspicion of experts, and spurious anecdotal evidence, in order to resist what people saw as authoritarian, imposed innovations in public health. But then, you could say that remains the same to this day, with the songs replaced by blogs and tabloids . . .

 

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The Young Ballad Singers c.1790-1798
2010,7081.2456,
AN1018624001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: When does balladry begin to disappear as far as you can see? Does it get chased out by such things as advertising jingles and the rise of recording technologies?

OCJ: I suppose I’ve already touched on this, in that the Victorian period really is the end of balladry as a significant cultural form, though some street singers persist into the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas, the north of England, and Ireland. It’s less about being chased out than natural evolution: into music hall songs on the one hand, prose journalism on the other, and, as you suggest, advertising jingles, on the – well, the third hand, I suppose? Recording technology has little to do with it: by the time that has any sort of mass impact, the street ballad is long gone. But – to advance a really tenuous analogy – if it were a dinosaur, the ballad wouldn’t have been wiped out by a meteor, so much as turned into a bird . . .

 

CC: Our project focuses on – as the title suggests! – the diseases which not just medics, but ordinary people felt lumbered with by modern life. What are the major ills or scourges of modern life which feature in the ballads you’ve read? What’s the most popular social complaint?

OCJ: I must admit, I had to go looking for this answer – most successful songs tend not to dwell on mundane, unpleasant issues; they tend to be escapist, or aimed at really specific problems. Most people who die tragically do so of broken hearts, drowning, or in battles. The major ‘ills’ are often money-related, with generic ‘poverty’ the biggest culprit. And in general there’s a tendency to avoid the modern – songs aim for a more timeless aesthetic – unless it’s in order to satirise something. Railway disasters, for example, get incorporated within the same epic language as a shipwreck, or the cave-in of a mine.

Ironically, this means the most popular social complaint doesn’t change with the centuries: it’s ‘the times’, with titles like ‘A Touch on the Times’ or ‘The Present Fashions’ cropping up generation after generation, always complaining about how things were better in the old days.

A theme of this blog, of course, has been the gradual decline of balladry, and ballad-singers didn’t necessarily go quietly! So one favourite example of mine is the song ‘The Organ Grinder’. The story is an old one: the singer loses his true love, who goes off with another man. But that man’s identity is topical: he’s an organ-grinder, the ballad-singer’s noisier, new-fangled, more successful rival. The villain of the piece within the song is the meta-villain too – representative of the new technology and accessible music that was making the ballad-singer redundant. For once, the ballad-singer was in sympathy with the great and the good, as the song alludes to Charles Babbage, and the campaign led by him and the M.P. Michael Thomas Bass that led to the Street Music Act of 1864, designed to outlaw the newly-noisy musicians of the London street that epitomised, to these indignant elites, everything wrong with vulgar modernity!

 

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A ballad seller looks longingly at some dumplings in a shop window; a fragment of a larger sheet. c.1830s Hand-coloured lithograph c.1839
1951,0411.4.51,
AN891693001. Credit: The British Museum

 

Thank you so much for talking to us, Oskar, and for sharing both your insights and your singing voice!

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