The English Ballad Singer and Hidden History

Article excerpt

Abstract: Drawing on Pierre Macherey's location of 'real history' in the silences and gaps of the historical record, this paper studies the changing role of the paid singer in England. Although singers and musicians in England have been rewarded for their performances at all periods, more attention has been given in recent years to traditional singing as a recreational, even domestic activity than as a means of livelihood. Because of their constantly changing social status, the position of the paid singer has been ambiguous and frequently oppositional. A recent book sees their status as one of continuous decline. However, the process was not a continuous and inevitable one: the singer adapted to changes in society and found new sources of support.

Keywords: England, paid singer, minstrel, women singers, broadside

In A Theory of Literary Production (1966), Pierre Macherey maintained that cultural history should be 'decentred,' studied for its gaps and silences, what it does not say.1 Silences are, of course, part of every narrative, which has tricks to conceal the truth and prolong the end, or closure, of the story. But a more important part is equivalent to Freud's unconscious. What is missing is 'real' history, which it is the task of the cultural critic to uncover. This is a very productive critical concept, but in the field of vernacular musical culture it has been applied only selectively. For example, in English-speaking societies, attention has overwhelmingly been given in recent years to singing as a recreational, even domestic activity rather than as a means of livelihood. Paid singers do not feature in two recent collections of studies of the folk song tradition in Europe and America at all,2 and the (unstated) implication is that money and traditional song do not go well together: this principle is extended even to the modern folk song revival. In England, the subject of this article, the only professional singers to have received attention in this respect are minstrels and city waits, singers in the service of the great corporations. This paper considers the role of 'opportunistic' singers, like street pedlars, glee-singers and women seeking to increase their income, as significant transmitters of this 'hidden tradition.'

This neglect has been the more surprising because singers and musicians have been rewarded, sometimes handsomely, for their performances at all periods. At the same time, because of their constantly changing social status, their position has been ambiguous and frequently oppositional. This antagonistic role, between privilege and beggary, of the 'remunerated vernacular singer' in England is the subject of a book of that name by Andrew Rouse of the University of Pécs (2005).3 His book is timely in that it foregrounds an aspect of the singing of traditional song that has been downplayed: as a source of employment or of casual income. Rouse sees the trajectory of the paid singer as one of decline from the Middle Ages until today. As I shall show, however, this process was not a continuous and inevitable one: the singer adapted to changes in society and found new sources of support.

There are several accounts of the professional and paid singer from the time of the Anglo-Saxon scop onwards. Some of these accounts offer idealised representations of singers as loyal retainers, folk heroes or bards voicing national aspirations, while others see them as little more than beggars and disruptive outsiders. Many popular beliefs about singers may derive from a later rewriting of history: the romanticisation of the medieval minstrel, for example, is largely a creation of the first collectors and editors in England and Scotland in the late 18th century, culminating in the novels and poetry of Sir Walter Scott. These, the first to value oral literature, gave minstrels a central role that derived more from a model of society revolving round the great houses of the nobility than from any sense of how songs were sung. …