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The English Broadside Ballad Archive
by Mary Trull

The English Broadside Ballad Archive. Patricia Fumerton, Director. University of California at Santa Barbara.


The English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) was conceived at the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB) in 2003, as its “History” essay notes, “out of sheer frustration.” Certainly any researcher who sought to explore early modern ballads up to that time can sympathize with this emotion. Though one feels gratitude for the devoted antiquarians from Samuel Pepys to Francis James Child who collected and carefully preserved hundreds of examples of printed ballads, the editions through which most of us accessed ballads made it difficult to gain a sense of the original text as a complete work, one composed of strong visual elements, including striking typefaces and woodcut illustrations. It was also difficult to appreciate the original musical and social contexts for these lyrical pieces destined to be sold in the streets and sung in groups. As story-based songs often written to capture the mood of a moment or capitalize on recent scandals, ballads served a dynamic, quickly-moving market for cheap print. A reader paging through thousands of pages of arbitrarily organized ballads could easily fail to notice many connections among the ballads, and thus miss the pervasive intertextuality that follows naturally from such a trend-driven market. The frustration of the project’s Director, Patricia Fumerton, has led to our gain; the English Broadside Ballad Archive preserves photographic facsimiles and both modernized and original-spelling transcriptions of the printed texts of thousands of early modern ballads in a searchable, user-friendly database. It also creatively adapts the texts for teaching purposes, provides useful contextual essays, and treats users to recorded performances of many of its ballads. All this is publicly accessible with no subscription.[1]

One of the remarkable achievements of this project is to have attained very wide coverage while also thoughtfully cataloguing, transcribing, and editing the images of each of its thousands of ballads, presenting each ballad in three or more formats. Each format privileges the textual, visual or auditory ballad experience in different ways. EBBA’s goal is to include all extant seventeenth-century broadside ballads, estimated at eight to ten thousand in number; 67.2% of these have been archived to date, according to the homepage’s running tally. The work began with the Pepys Collection at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge; other major archives now incorporated into EBBA include the British Library’s Roxburghe Collection, the University of Glasgow’s Euing Collection, and the Bindley and Britwell Collections at the Huntington Library in Pasadena. Digitization continues with the National Library of Scotland’s Crawford Collection. The team wisely states an intention to balance further expansion with a continued focus on the seventeenth century and “ornamental black-letter broadside ballads,” those single-sheet ballads printed in Gothic typeface and usually including ornamentation, woodcut illustrations, and recommended tune titles.

The EBBA team has thoughtfully organized its metadata strategies. For woodcut impressions, the team has identified a few dozen searchable labels; one can, for example, find all the images that depict race, skeletons, or natural phenomena. Similarly, a list of keywords allows one to search for themes treated in the ballad texts. Searches by imprint, license, collection, ESTC number, and printer/publisher are also possible, as well as the expected author, date, and title searches, and a full-text search. One can search for ballads using either the tune title given on each sheet, or Claude Simpson’s standardized tune titles. I am delighted that the Advanced Search includes the categories Pepys imposed upon his collection, which evoke an inimitably Pepysian worldview worthy of study in its own right, including the categories of “Love Pleasant,” “Love Unfortunate,” “Love Pleasant and Unfortunate,” “Marriage” (separately, of course), and “A Small Promiscuous Supplement.” Luckily, EBBA includes ten or so essays by Patricia Fumerton and other researchers devoted to Pepys’s collecting and categorization.

EBBA’s facsimiles are significantly more legible than the black and white images on Early English Books Online (EEBO). EBBA’s facsimiles use 600 dpi color photography when possible, and the photographs are treated to extensive cosmetic surgery. According to the team’s report, “misaligned images are straightened, extraneous materials (border, rulers, color bars, etc.) are removed and—while still preserving as much as possible the look of the originals—illustrations are enhanced and troublesome blocks of text are sharpened to render them more readable” (“Images,” EBBA). For each ballad, readers can explore three facsimiles: album facsimiles, ballad sheet facsimiles, and facsimile transcriptions. Album facsimiles display how the original collector trimmed the printed page and inserted it into an album, while the ballad sheet facsimiles are created by adding page margins that were trimmed by collectors and restoring ballads that were cut apart. Thus, both the collecting practices of antiquarians and an approximation of the original printed ballad’s appearance are preserved for study. Facsimile transcriptions, on the other hand, would make excellent teaching texts: the team has produced modernized transcriptions (double-keyed in most cases, triple-checked in all) that are digitally pasted over the original text in the ballad facsimile. The result is an image that approaches the overall visual effect of the original, but includes an accessible, modernized text in Times Roman font rather than black-letter.

Reading early modern ballads brings certain pleasures: many ballads treat human behavior such as love and lust with playful wit, while others recount tragic events vividly, with great emotional force. But encountering ballads on the page highlights any poetic shortcomings, such as awkward and repetitive diction and rhymes, predictable plots or shaky narrative logic, and simplistic moral lessons. However, listening to the ballad recordings is a different experience altogether, as the beauty of many melodies and the musician’s skill eclipse any shortcomings in the verse. In a vocal performance, the mood of the ballad and its emotional content are set into high relief, and the raison d’être of this art form is obvious: the words and music support one another. EBBA includes many recordings of vocal performances, a labor-intensive undertaking that yields extraordinary rewards for the listener. These recordings can transform listeners’ appreciation of ballads, and EBBA’s plan is to record a performance of every ballad in its database that specifies a tune, a total of over 1,000 of the Pepys ballads. As befits early modern practice, these are unaccompanied singers, but for some theatrical ballads, a virginal or small ensemble of period instruments accompanies the singer(s). In exploring the EBBA recordings, I understand why persistent antiquarians like Francis James Child combed Scotland and England for remnants of a nearly-lost oral ballad tradition: in hearing these songs, the simple words and unadorned melodies come to life together, in a unity much greater than the sum of its parts.

A number of essays accompanying the database describe EBBA’s origins, the history and context of broadside ballads, and discoveries made in the process of mounting this project. For example, the Music Team’s task of performing and recording hundreds of ballads has led to important insights into ballad-singing practices. James Revell Carr’s essay describes the rhythmic difficulties of matching a new text to a known tune, noting that the process reveals “the immediacy and impromptu character of ballad singing in its time” (“Recording Early Broadside Ballads,” EBBA). Revell Carr also acknowledges the limitations of attempting to recapture past vocal performances and describes the artistic choices made by the performers. Other essays explain the team’s practices in photographing the ballads, digitally altering the images, transcribing, and cataloguing, including a detailed list of rules for transcription. The team has made transparency a priority, which helps researchers and students use its tools more effectively. It may be hoped that these essays will inspire and guide other creators of digital archives as well as performers of folk music.

The English Broadside Ballad Archive is an excellent resource for researchers at all levels, from undergraduates guided by an instructor, to fans and performers of historical folk music, to scholarly experts. The website is remarkably thorough, but one welcome addition to the Advanced Search page would be more sophisticated musical search options, such as the opportunity to search only those ballads with recordings, to search by the number of vocal parts, and to search by the use of instruments in the recordings. In the future, one could easily imagine the site hosting new tools for using its data. For example, EBBA provides an intriguing beta version of a mapping project by Eric Nebeker titled “Geography of the London Ballad Trade, 1500-1700.” EBBA’s contribution to early modern scholarship extends well beyond ballad studies; it is a project well worth monitoring in expectation of further innovations in digital archiving and interdisciplinary research tools. 

Mary Trull
St. Olaf College 

[1] EBBA’s work has been enabled by numerous grants from UCSB and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as funds from collaborators including the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and the Making Publics project at McGill University in Montreal (“Funding,” EBBA). Donations from the public are accepted here.


  • Richard Holdstock 8 years, 7 months ago

    I am delighted to connect with EBBA. For over 20 years I have been collecting British Broadside Ballads of Political Reform from 1767 to 1868. I hope to assemble these ballads into a book. I hope to find others interested in my project with whom I can communicate.

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Cite as:

Mary Trull, "The English Broadside Ballad Archive," Spenser Review 44.3.67 (Winter 2015). Accessed June 14th, 2024.
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