Modern Street Ballads


Over Street Ballads may be raised the wail of “Ichabod, Ichabod, their glory is departed.” They held their own for many centuries, bravely and well, but have succumbed to a changed order of things, and a new generation has arisen, who will not stop in the street to listen to these ballads being sung, but prefer to have their music served up to them “piping hot,” with the accompaniment of warmth, light, beer, and tobacco (for which they duly have to pay) at the Music Halls; but whether the change be for the better, or not, may be a moot question.
      These Street Ballads were produced within a very few hours of the publication of any event of the slightest public interest; and, failing that, the singers had always an unlimited store to fall back upon, on domestic, or humorous subjects, love, the sea, etc., etc. Of their variety we may learn something, not only from this book, but from the ballad of “Chaunting Benny” of which the following is a portion:—

“My songs have had a tidy run, I’ve plenty in my fist, Sirs,
And if you wish to pick one out, I’ll just run through my list, Sirs.

Have you seen “My daughter Fan,” “She wore a wreath of roses,”
And here you see “My son Tom,” “The Sun that lights the roses,”
“Green grow the rushes O,” “On the Banks of Allan Water,”
“Such a getting out of bed,” with “Brave Lord Ullin’s daughter.”

“Poor Bessie was a Sailor’s bride,” “Sitting on a rail,” Sirs,
“Is there a heart that never loved?” “The Rose of Allandale,” Sirs,
“The Maid of Judah,” “Out of Place,” with “Plenty to be sad at,”
“I say, my rum un, who are you?” with “What a shocking bad hat,” etc., etc.

      Rough though some of these Street Ballads may be, very few of them were coarse, and, on reading them, we must ever bear in mind the class for whom they were produced, who listened to them, and—practical proof of interest—bought them. In this collection I have introduced nothing which can offend anybody except an absolute prude; in fact, “My bear dances only to the genteelest of tunes.”
      There are plenty of my readers old enough to remember many of these Ballads, and they will come none the worse because they bring with them the reminiscence of their youth. Forsan et hoec olim meminisse juvabit. They owe a great deal of their charm to the fact that they were absolutely contemporary with the events they describe, and, though sometimes rather faulty in their history, owing to the pressure under which they were compose and issued, yet those very inaccuracies prove their freshness.
      The majority were illustrated—if, indeed, any can be called illustrated—for the woodcuts were generally served out with a charming impartiality, and without the slightest regard to the subject of the ballad. What previous work these blocks had served, goodness only knows; they were probably bought at trade sales, and had illustrated books that were out of date or unsaleable. They vary from the sixteen century to Bewick, some of whose works are occasionally met with; but, taking them as a whole, we must fain confess that art as applied to these Ballads was at its very lowest. Their literary merit is not great—but what can you expect for half-a-crown? which was the price which Jemmy Catnach,* of Monmouth Court, Seven Dials, used to pay for their production. Catnach issued a large number from his press (in fact, his successor, Fortey, advertised that he had four thousand different sorts for sale), and his name is used as a “household word” to designate this class of Ballad. But, in fact, he only enjoyed the largest share of the London trade, whilst the Provinces were practically independent—Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Preston, Hull, Sheffield, Durham, etc., had their own ballad-mongers, who wrote somewhat after the manner of the author of “The Bard of Seven Dials.”

      “And it’s my plan, that some great man,
      Dies with a broken head, Sirs,
      Vith a bewail, I does detail
      His death ‘afore e’s dead, Sirs.
      And while his friends and foes contends,
      They all my papers buy, Sirs,
      Yes, vithout doubt, I sells ’em out,
      ‘Cos there my talent lies, Sirs.”

      The Ballad singers and vendors made money rapidly over any event which took the popular fancy—a good blood-curdling murder being very profitable; and the business required very little capital, even that being speedily turned over. Generally, the singers worked singlehanded, but sometimes two would join, and then the Ballad took an antiphonal form, which must have relieved them very much, and the crowd which gathered round them was the surest proof that their vocal efforts were appreciated.
      They are gone—probably irrevocably—but a trace of the vendor still lingers amongst us. One or two still remain about Gray’s Inn Road, Farringdon Road, and other neighbourhoods; but I venture to say, as they drop out, they will find no successors. You may know them, if ever lucky enough to meet with one, by their canvas screens, on which are pinned the ballads—identical with that immortal screen of which Mr. Silas Wegg (in Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend”) was the proud proprietor; but these modern Ballads are mostly reproductions of Music Hall songs, and have very little in common with those about which I write.
      I have taken the first fifty years of this century, when this style of Street Ballad was at its best, but I have liberally interpreted my fifty years, by extending its margin by a year or two either way—thus, I include the Mutiny at the Nore in 1798, and the Great Exhibition of 1851, and I have selected those that bear on most, and elucidate best, the social manners and customs of that period.
                        JOHN ASHTON.

* One of whose colophons I use as a tailpiece.

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