When Shakespeare mentions ballads in his plays, he uses adjectives like odious and woeful, mentioning both the ballad makers in Coriolanus, and the people who sell them, known as the ballad mongers, in Henry IV Part 1. Shakespeare has over 20 references to ballads throughout his works. These references indicate that these songs were written in ink, published by printers, performed in rhyme and that they could be just as merry as they was painful. One surprising reference from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, even sees Cleopatra complain that a ballad was sung out of tune. Here today to share with us some of the exact ballads that were popular for Shakespeare’s lifetime, as well as the history of how they were created, and performed, is our guests, and masterminds behind the 100 Ballads Project that seeks to recreate and preserve ballads from the 17th century, Angela McShane, Chris Marsh, and Andy Watts.  

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The above link is to an auto-generated transcript of our live recording session. The lyrics to the songs we demo in the audio for today’s episode are not included in the episode transcript. For complete lyrics to the ballads we talk about , visit 100Ballads.org

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Left to Right: Angela McShane, Christopher Marsh, and Andy Watts

Angela McShane

Angela McShane is an Hon. Reader in History at the University of Warwick, who has published widely on political balladry, including numerous book chapters, and journal articles . Angela is the author of a reference work, Political Broadside Ballads in Seventeenth Century England: A Critical Bibliography (2011). As an expert on political song and ballad publishing, Angela worked as a co-investigative historian on the 100 Ballads project, working to establish which known songs were the most popular for the 16-17th century, and gathering them into an online database. 

Christopher Marsh

Christopher Marsh established the project 100Ballads.org. Having seen gaps in the previous research into the history of broadside ballads, Christopher wanted to study which of the surviving ballads were actually successful for this time period, as well as to challenge the notion that bawdy humor was the sole subject for ballads of the 16-17th century. Christopher reached out to Angela and Andy, among several other experts in this field, to pull together the project’s beginnings. Christopher is a Professor of Cultural History at Queen’s University, Belfast. His most relevant book in relation to the 100 Ballads project is Music and society in early modern England (Cambridge, 2010). This is an overview of music-making in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it includes chapters on musicians, dancing, bell-ringing, psalm-singing and, of course, ballads.  

Andy Watts

Andy Watts is a multi-instrumentalist specialising in historically informed performance on woodwind instruments. He began his career with theatre company The Medieval Players, and has performed with such noted groups as The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and The Academy of Ancient Music. Today, Andy plays with the Carnival Band, a band he formed in 1984. The Carnival Band performs a mixture of early, traditional and world music and with them, Andy has toured as far afield as Sudan, the Gulf States and Japan. The Carnival Band’s songful talents are responsible for the music you’ll hear at 100Ballads.org

I’ll be asking Angela, Christopher, and Andy about:

  • Who were the most popular writers of ballads in Shakespeare’s lifetime? 
  • In his play, Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra refers to a ballad being recognizably out of tune. Were ballads from Shakespeare’s lifetime varying poems all sung to a standard set of tunes, and if so, what were the tunes to which ballads were sung?  
  • Was it common for ballads to be based upon stories that were performed on stage?  
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Our Guests recommend:

Bruce Smith, Acoustic World of Early Modern England

Arden Crtical Companion to Shakespeare and Music David Lindley

Elizabethan Top 10, collection fo essays by Emma Smith and Andy Kessen

Harriet Philips, Nostaliga in Print and performance. 

Claude M Simpson, British Broadside Ballad and its music

A Few More Research Tidbits:

100Ballads.org

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • 17th century Little Mousegrove Ballad
  • Dead Man’s Song Ballad,
  • 17th century ballad that was used in Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair play
  • Ballad by William Elderton
  • Song printed possibly 1590 about a Queen who fails due to her pride
  • Ballad by Thomas Deloney
  • 17th century lullaby sung to Greensleeves
  • 1588 Ballad about the Spanish Armada
  • 1594 Titus Andronicus Ballad
  • 17th century woodcut characters popular in ballads
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening! I’m Cassidy Cash and I hope you learn something new about the bard.

I’ll see you next time!