The Kick 18th Century Folk Got out of Ballads Is like YouTube Now; THE SINGING NEWSPAPERS OF YESTERYEAR JOIN DIGITAL AGE

Article excerpt

Byline: SIMON GASKELL

WITH 24-hour news across websites, news channels and newspapers, the public have more ways to keep in touch with current affairs than ever before.

But spare a thought for our ancestors, who were forced to rely on the melodies of balladeers to keep up with the latest gossip and scandal.

The songs, performed on street corners, carried details of all the headline stories of the day, including gossip, tales surrounding workers' rights, bloody European revolutions and the pioneering cremation of an infant by an eccentric Valleys doctor.

Now, more than 4,000 of the 18th century verses that remain - including William Price's controversial cremation of his son Iesu Grist Price in Llantrisant in 1884 - have been dragged into the digital age and put online for the consumption of a modern audience for the very first time.

With the help of new funding, the stories have been "digitised" over much of the last year by Cardiff University and the National Library of Wales, which were in possession of 2,000 ballads each.

The university also intends to post audio recordings of authentic ballad performances online later in the year.

Peter Keelan, Cardiff University's head of special collections and archives, said: "The ballads are an exceptionally important part of Welsh heritage. "If you were in Metropolitan areas, you would see newspapers circulating, but if you were in the rural community, you wouldn't see a newspaper from one year to the next.

"At the local fairs and markets that took place, ballad singers went around with a stack of single sheet ballads and sang about the latest shipwreck, revolution in Europe, or murder case from Cardiff or Bangor."

Mr Keelan said the kick 18th and 19th century folk got out of ballads - which also came on single or multiple printed sheets - was the equivalent of something like YouTube today.

He said: "In the farming community, they re-sang them on their farm as they had heard them. The printed ballad then reinforced that. If the story was interesting, you may have been tempted to spare a farthing or a penny to buy the ballad.

"In some communities, they would put them on the wall and that was their entertainment much as we have the internet, television and radio today."

Another reason behind the new digital versions was the need to preserve the content of the rhymes because of the increasingly precarious state of the centuries-old originals.

"They came in various shapes and sizes but got knocked about and over the years they really were in a bad condition," Mr Keelan said.

"Part of the rationale was to digitise them so that there was an electronic version and the ballads weren't handled as much, but we also wanted to make them more accessible to people across Wales.

"The project was just over 12 months. The digitisation work took five months, all the cataloguing took another five months and we have just finished linking everything up. …