Ballads and Other Musical Forms

Music was a common recreation among all ranks of society in early modern England, engaging amateur singers and performers, as well as professionals employed by the royal court, a few large aristocratic households and ecclesiastical institutions like St Pauls Cathedral. Many people knew how to sing or play an instrument and performances often enlivened social gatherings.  Samuel Pepys records numerous social gatherings involving music in his diary.  On 6 January 1660, for example, he went "to Mr. Vine's, where George and I fiddled a good while," while the next day he and several friends visited Dr. Whore, where they "heard some symphony and songs of his own making, performed by Mr. May, Harding and Mallard."  On the 12th he visited a tavern where he encountered "a young man that plays so well on the Welsh harp." 

Puritans disapproved of the polyphonic music employed in English cathedrals but encouraged the singing of psalms, both collectively during Sunday worship and as an individual act of piety. London's theatre companies had consorts of musicians and singers, for songs during performances and to provide additional entertainment before and after the play.  Theatrical music became considerably more elaborate after the Restoration, as composers like William Purcell wrote for the stage. Songs and instrumental music were also sometimes integrated into events like royal entries or the Pope-burning processions of the late seventeenth century. In short, music was everywhere and inevitably came to play a role in political culture.

With the arguable exception of the psalm, the most popular musical form was the ballad. Generally sung to familiar tunes --a few of these, like Greensleaves remain well-known even today -- ballads were commonly performed in taverns and other public gathering places. But some gentlemen, like Samuel Pepys, collected ballads, making them a form that appealed to both elite and popular audiences. Performance practices must have been equally varied, from unaccompanied singing in a public street or tavern to more polished renditions, accompanied by musical instruments, in private homes.  We have provided examples of both kinds of singing on this site.

Ballad lyrics were written and printed continually throughout the period and hawked by peddlars, who travelled up and down the country. They varied widely in content, from religious pieces to love songs. But a significant number focused attention on newsworthy events and politics. As early as the Elizabethan period members of the Council encouraged the production of ballads favorable to the Queen and her policies. But people unhappy with events at the royal court also wrote and distributed ballad lyrics. Ballads therefore provide an excellent example of how the gap between literacy and illiteracy could be bridged by members of the elite wishing to reach popular audiences.

Although unsuited to complex analysis and detailed reporting, ballads were an ideal vehicle for pithy summaries of events, as well as both hero worship and personal abuse. Satric and libellous ballads seem to have been especially popular. At the popular level they were sometimes composed for use in private quarrels: records exist of illiterate men bribing amateur poets with a pot of wine to compose insulting ditties about neighbors they disliked. But many verse libels written about unpopular national figures, like Georges Villiers Duke of Buckingham, were undoubtedly intended to be sung as well as read.

During the Civil War both royalists and parliamentarians adopted the ballad form, although the royalists seem to have been especially adept at using it to mock their "roundhead" enemies. After the Restoration the ballad remained an important vehicle for political commentary, some of it seditious in nature.


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