The English Ballad Singer and Hidden History

By Porter, Gerald | Studia Musicologica, March 2008 | Go to article overview

The English Ballad Singer and Hidden History


Porter, Gerald, Studia Musicologica


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. Bishop Thomas Percy, for example, whose Reliques of Ancient English Poesie (1765) is one of the first printed song collections to include vernacular song (though in a thoroughly revised and regularised form), added an essay to his first volume in which he claimed that minstrels were 'the genuine successors of the ancient Bards,'who united the arts of poetry and music and sang music to the harp of their own composing.4 In fact, England never had professional poets of the kind that existed in Wales. Nevertheless, this fanciful picture was later taken up by Sir Walter Scott and applied to life on the Scottish border, and became the accepted model for later representations in, for example, Victorian tableau paintings.

Percy's description remains an idealised portrait of the minstrel. Many of them saw themselves simply as professional singers, like the Scot 'Thomas of Ercildoune' (or Erceldoune) in the words of the medieval romance:

And he said, 'harping kepe I none,

for tonge is chefe of mynstrelsye. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The English Ballad Singer and Hidden History
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.