Historians, musicians recreate early English political songs

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Photo by Yingjie Hu |

Using 15th to 17th century instruments such as English recorders, musicians attempt to replicate the sound of an early English protest song.


Using English recorders, bagpipes, a guitar and the lute, musicians produce a sound that would resemble English music from the 17th century.

At an event, entitled “The Early History of the Protest Song: Libels, Ballads and Politics in Seventeenth Century England,” a mixture of historians and musicians spoke about and recreated early English political songs to recapture the political meanings and the musical sounds of the early modern English protest song.

The Rutgers British Studies Center hosted the event at Van Dyck Hall on the College Avenue campus on Friday, which featured musicians who work on 15th, 16th and 17th century European music to figure out if adding melody and performance changes the meaning of written ballads.

The RBSC is an interdisciplinary collaboration among scholars at the University who work on “British things,” said Alastair Bellany, executive board member of the center. They work on British literature, history, culture, political thought and philosophy.

He said their main goal is bringing scholars who work in different disciplines into conversation with each other.

The RBSC was started in 2007 as the Rutgers British Studies Project, and after receiving a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the project became the British Studies Center.

For the last 25 years, the historians, led by Bellany, an associate professor in the Department of History, have uncovered underground rude ballads, songs and poems and have noticed that a number of them are set to music, said Thomas Cogswell, professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Riverside.

These scholars have figured out which songs work with the political ballads and set them to music. This was the first time in 400 years these songs were heard.

Bellany said the center tries to reach out to as big of an audience as possible by having a mix of strictly academic events as well as events that would bring academic work to a broader audience, like this one.

“Hopefully it will be fun because it will be 60 to 70 percent music, and many of the songs we’re going to do are outrageous,” he said. “Some of them are rude so there’s sort of an entertainment factor, but it also allows people to think about the multiple ways in which politics can take place.”

Angela McShane, a course tutor at the Victoria and Albert Museum, spoke about the production of the ballads printed on single sheets, known as the broadside ballads.

“Unlike weekly sermons in church, people from all classes spent their hard-earned cash — often a penny or less — on the broadside sheets willingly,” McShane said. “We must assume they were also interested in the message, [not just the music] and wanted to share it with others.”

McShane presented a number of facts about these ballads to uncover the question of how to study the 17th century political ballad as a song.

She concluded that not many people are interested in doing this because early modern scholars tend to avoid political ballads.

“The great guru of the ballad, Francis Child, referred to these sheets as veritable dunghills,” McShane said. “So rarely sung, this performance today is a really exciting and important event for historians of popular politics.”


Lidia De Los Santos

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