“Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America: The Interface between Print and Oral Traditions” (2014)

David Atkinson & Steve Roud (eds.) Street Ballads in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Ireland, and North America: The Interface between Print and Oral Traditions (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2014), i-xi, 290pp. £70 (hb) ISBN 978-1-4724-2741-0.

Reviewed by Dr Stephen Basdeo

The study of nineteenth-century broadside ballads is, as Steve Roud says in the introduction to this book, relatively under-researched when compared to the scholarship surrounding broadside ballads from the seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth centuries (pp.1-2). And what we get in Atkinson and Roud’s edited collection are a series of concise and accessible essays that add to this hitherto under-researched field. The book positions itself as being able to provide an insight into the ongoing oral versus print debate in the studies of folk culture. There are some researchers in this field who believe that many of the folk songs which have survived were once part of an oral tradition that was only later written down. Other researchers argue that many supposedly oral traditions dating from the fifteenth century onwards were actually the invention of a literate culture (pp.2-3). The truth is probably, Roud acknowledges, a happy medium between the two positions, and there was in all probability a reciprocal relationship between the two traditions (p.5). As its title suggests, then, this book examines the interplay between orality and literacy in folk ballads in the nineteenth century.

There are twelve chapters, and David Atkinson initiates the discussion by asking ‘Was there really a “Mass Extinction” of Old Ballads in the Romantic Period?’ (pp.19-36) and proposes a provisional methodology for tracing the history of the ballad in the nineteenth century. He tests William St. Clair’s assertion that there was a ‘mass extinction’ of old ballads in the nineteenth century by ‘working backwards’ from F. J. Child’s collection of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898), tracing the ballads that remained in print until the Child’s collection was printed, and those that did not. Immediately following Atkinson’s methodological discussion are a further three chapters on the broadside ballad in England; Roy Palmer’s ‘Birmingham Broadsides and the Oral Tradition’ (pp.37-58); Peter Wood’s ‘The Newcastle Song Chapbooks’ (pp.59-76), and another one on crime broadsides, of which more will be said below. The rest of the British Isles are covered in two further essays; Christ Wright on ‘Forgotten Broadsides and the Song Tradition of Scots Travellers’ (pp.77-104), and Ffion Mair Jones on ‘Welsh Balladry and Literacy’ (pp.105-27). America and Canada are focused upon in essays by Norm Cohen (pp.147-72), and Anna Kearney Guigné (pp.245-62) respectively, with a chapter also dedicated to Irish folk songs by John Moulden (pp.127-146).

All of the essays in this collection are strong, accessible, and well-researched, utilising an impressive breadth of primary sources. The essays are clearly initiating a conversation that needs to be had amongst folk song scholars. Whilst ballads from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been studied in depth, printed broadsides from the nineteenth century have often been seen as a class apart. When broadside ballads were published in the nineteenth century they were newly-printed to cater to the demands of what was primarily a reading public. Ballad sellers often learned their songs from printed material first, and then disseminated them orally. Ninety per cent of what are now considered part of the ‘traditional repertoire’ of folk songs are thought to have emanated at some point from broadsides, particularly from the nineteenth century (pp.7-8). It was good also to see crime broadsides brought into the fold of folk song studies. The last major work on crime and execution broadsides was Vic Gatrell’s The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1775-1868 (1994), which studied the forms and functions of these ephemeral and somewhat macabre publications. Whilst crime broadsides usually contained news of the latest crimes, the discussion ‘Mediating Maria Marten: Comparative and Contextual Studies of the Red Barn Ballads’ (pp.219-241) by Tom Pettitt aims to contextualise the ‘Copies of Verses’ included on these broadsides (verses usually found in the cells of the condemned man and allegedly – though in reality rarely – written ‘by him/herself’) with folk songs, and so adds to the discussion of these sources which began with Gatrell.

The fate of the broadside ballad varied according to location, and while England and America are covered admirably in this collection, with only one essay each devoted to Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the discussion of those countries’ street ballads appears cursory when the collection is viewed as a whole. The brief attention given to Scotland is especially odd, given the fact that broadsides were being sold there right through to the twentieth century. As the editors maintain, however, this work is intended to initiate a discussion, and so rather than a criticism, the last point here should be seen as a recognition that we urgently need another similar work dealing in a more thorough manner with those regions.

Admittedly none of the essays explores the case of nineteenth-century Robin Hood broadside ballads. But this work is valuable because it provides useful insights into the dynamic interplay between orality and print which occurred in the history of the broadside publishing trade during the nineteenth century. Although Robin Hood ballads are often seen as separate to the folk song tradition (a point that Atkinson makes in his first essay, pp.30-31), the history of Robin Hood broadside ballads in their nineteenth-century contexts remains – as is the case with most general broadside ballads from the era – an under-researched area. We know that Robin Hood broadside ballads were printed during the early part of the nineteenth century by publishers such as James Catnach, but rarely do we examine how these sources would have then been disseminated. When Cecil Sharp (1859-1924) heard a woman, according to Ruth Perry, recite a Robin Hood ballad almost verbatim to an older one housed in the Bodleian Library in the early twentieth century, he assumed that she was the beneficiary of an ancient oral tradition. But as these essays show us, most people in the nineteenth century learned their songs from printed sources, many of which were then of quite recent origin, having been adapted/shortened/altered several times over the course of their histories. This collection forces us to think about the nature of the ‘popular’ Robin Hood tradition in the nineteenth century, and, therefore, Atkinson’s and Roud’s edited collection of essays is a useful springboard for anybody needing to contextualise the later Robin Hood tradition in their research.