logo Enthusiasms No 84
A collection of shorter pieces on subjects of
interest, outrage or enthusiasm ...

Before the Broadside
Some replies

I have decided to turn my recent Editorial into part of an Enthusiasm, since I've had several Comment pieces come in - and can anticipate more to follow.  So - here's the editorial concerned:

Before the Broadside

In the beginning was the word ... so we're told.  But is that true?

Victor Grauer was one of the team which worked with Alan Lomax on his Cantometrics project back in the '60s.  He wrote 'I've recently become interested in Cantometrics again thanks to certain new developments in genetic anthropology.  Many things which had puzzled Lomax and myself about the distribution of musical styles worldwide are now making sense, thanks to the ability of these researchers to reconstruct some of mankind's earliest migrations from strands of DNA'.

One of the results of this work on the 'Out of Africa' theory, currently being explored in the field of genetic anthropology, has been the suggestion that the sung music of the Amazonian Pygmies and Kalahari Bushmen may well be part of the remains of the original culture of homo sapiens and - even more interestingly - may well have developed before speech.  Groups of homo sapiens began leaving Africa almost 300,000 years ago, and would have taken their sung music with them.  And we know, from the work of the Cantometrics project, that almost every subsequent human settlement has had its own folk songs.

So I think it's fairly clear that humans have sung for their own pleasure for countless centuries.  This would be one of the reasons why printers have, since the sixteenth century, been making a living providing us with songs and ballads to sing.  Would they have done so if there had not been singers to buy them?  Would they have printed the words 'To be sung to the tune of .......' if such a song did not already exist?

Research on dance and drama have found that what went on in the Royal and Noble courts soon found its way into the countryside, albeit in simplified forms.  And the same happened to the minstrelsy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.  Songs were sung by ordinary people for their own enjoyment - even if no written record of it exists.

It should be clear to most thinking people that an ordinary person of the lower classes, from the 1801 Census until fairly recently, had just three pieces of information about them available to historical researchers: their birth; marriage; and death.  Prior to that, virtually nothing.  Unless they fell foul of the Law, or did something quite remarkable that resulted in a written record of some kind - that was it!  It should also be clear that most of the ordinary singers of songs would not, as singers, find a place in a written record of any kind.  This, of course, is one of the problems with 'history' ... most of it relies on the written record, and such records will only describe extra-ordinary events.  And if singing for one's own pleasure and the entertainment of one's friends were as normal for most ordinary people as I firmly believe they were ... then there was nothing extra-ordinary about it, and thus little in the way of records of it.

Accordingly, I find myself a little irked by this new fashion of saying "This song dates from it's first printing by so-and-so printer in 1650."  The admirable Steve Roud was by no means the first to float this idea but, since the success of his recent book Folk Song in England and its widespread coverage in the Media, this view seems, more and more, to be taken as gospel.  To be fair, Steve never quite says this in his book, but careless reviewing (and careless listening) has resulted in this view becoming commonplace.

Clearly, an historian can only 'prove' that a song dates from the discovery of a 'first known' written record, but common sense demands that something similar must have preceded it.  Exactly what that 'something similar' may have been is open to conjecture - we just don't know.  Sadly, that is the fate of so much of the history of the ordinary people of the past (and, probably to a considerable extent, the present) - we just don't know!

Rod Stradling - 11.4.19

Re: Editorial

Hi Rod,

As one of the researchers who has irked you I feel the need to take issue with your recent editorial and bring some clarity to the obvious confusion.

Your first 6 paragraphs must surely be simple logic and taken as read.  I can't think of anyone who would dispute them.  However, how this relates to your 7th paragraph is beyond logic.

No-one is saying we can prove that the earliest extant broadside equals the origin of any ballad (Other than where the content makes this obvious, e.g., 'Bonny Bunch of Roses').  What we are saying is quite clear:

Regarding your last paragraph: You need to be more precise with your vague expression 'something similar' before we can evaluate what you are trying to say.  'We just don't know'; agreed, but this does not really tell us anything.  If you mean that before the broadsides there must have been something similar being sung, you are very likely correct, but with very little evidence there's not much point in conjecturing.  What preceded the broadside tradition was a manuscript tradition, but again we have almost no evidence that this tradition related to oral tradition.

Best wishes

Steve Gardham - 22.4.19

Ed.  I was not irked by researchers, but by others now saying that the date of a particular ballad is 'known'.  Further, my use of the term 'something similar' was in quotes because it is a quote from Steve Roud's book.

Re: Editorial 11.4.19

Can we ever say how old a folksong is?  One school of thought used to say that a folksong was only as old as the last time that it was sung.  But, of course, this does not help us in knowing just when a folksong first appeared.  Today there is certainly a trend to say that a folksong is only as old as its first-known printed date, even when it seems obvious that the song's content almost certainly dates from an earlier period.  I suppose that the problem here is that unless we can trace such content to a specific date, then modern scholars will not accept such ideas.

When I first became interested in folksongs - over sixty years ago - it was fascinating to be told that a song such as The Bold Fisherman was based on medieval allegorical origins, and it came as something of a shock to later be told that it was simply yet another of the 'returned lover in disguise' songs.  According to Steve Roud and Julia Bishop, the 'slightly mysterious words' led early folksong collectors on 'flights of fancy' about the songs origin. Again, according to Steve, the 'earliest extant (broadsides) date from about the 1820s (The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (2012) pages 392 - 93).  This may well be true, but it does not necessarily prove that the song is no older than this date.  As we all know, it is very hard to prove a negative and I feel sure that many folksongs predate their first known appearance on broadsides.

Although I have specifically mentioned The Bold Fisherman here, I am not trying to say that this is a song which predates the 1820s.  I simply wish to point out that our perceptions have changed over the years.  Sixty years ago, there were very few academics studying folksongs.  Today this has changed, and standards have become far more rigorous.  And so, we should not be surprised to find folksong studies going off in new and different directions.  Sadly, though, this often means that when today's scholars write about the songs, we often only find lists of dated broadside versions, and little else.  Perhaps what we need is a little more in the way of humanity when we consider the old songs.

Mike Yates - 12.4.19

Re: Mike Yates's letter

Mike Yates: 'I feel sure that many folk songs predate their first appearance on broadsides'.

Just a feeling then, Mike, nothing concrete to back it up?  What had you in mind?  Have you some examples?  There are some good examples, some in articles on this website, but they are very few.

Mike Yates: 'We often only find lists of dated broadside versions, and little else.  Perhaps what we need is a little more humanity when we consider the old songs'

The humanity lies in the texts themselves.  They are mostly simple and straightforward with clear meanings and messages, and on the few occasions where explanations of old-fashioned terms are needed we do so.  We can discuss the beliefs embodied in a song and place the song in its historical context if it has one, but other than that there is very little we can say without stating the obvious.  If by 'a little more humanity' you mean the romantic stuff created in the past, I think we need to get beyond this if we are to have any credibility in the modern world.

Best wishes

Steve Gardham - 22.4.19


Rod Stradling - e-mail: rod@mustrad.org.uk  Tel: 01453 759475
snail-mail: 1 Castle Street, Stroud, Glos GL5 2HP, UK

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