Session 3 (Themed Papers): Morality and popular song in early modern England

Monday, 5 July 2021, 14.30-16.30, Room 217 | Chair: Samantha Bassler (New York University)

Session Abstract

Popular song in early modern England was a fraught genre, both a site of and a target for moralizing. Yet despite Charles Butler’s dismissal in the 1636 Principles of Musick of “filthy Songs,” ballads, rounds, and catches were popular not only with the lowest classes but with all segments of society, and in addition to their stereotypical ribaldry, often contained ethical instruction and even sacred content. The three papers on this panel investigate moralizing anxieties directed at and contained within popular songs. The first paper addresses contemporaneous criticism of ballads as immoral and attempts to replace their performance with psalmody and other forms of metrical scriptural paraphrase. Conversely, the second paper investigates moralizing propaganda as found within the ballad genre. Finally, the third paper contrasts the rhetoric of moral criticism surrounding rounds and catches with the realities of performance suggested by the extant repertory and sources. Together, these papers illuminate the complicated relationship between popular song and moral sentiment, examining questions of theology, politics, and class.

Anti-ballad sentiment in Tudor collections of metrical scriptural paraphrase | Samantha Arten (Washington University in St. Louis)

Criticism of ballads was a feature of hymnals and other collections of metrical scriptural paraphrase in sixteenth-century England, which often promoted their sacred songs as a wholesome alternative. In this paper, I analyze the moralizing sentiment directed at secular songs, and often at ballads explicitly, found prominently in these books’ title pages and prefatory material. My work reveals a trend in this moralizing content: although anti-ballad polemic was a hallmark of the first flourishing of printed collections of metrical scriptural paraphrase (c. 1535-1567), the second wave (1578-1599) did not feature similar anti-ballad sentiments. Surprisingly, this general trend appears at odds with Protestant tactics regarding the adaptation or rejection of secular art forms (cf. Patrick Collinson’s analysis of this shift, “dated quite precisely to 1580”) as well as quantitative trends in the printing of godly ballads (cf. Tessa Watt).

“A good exhortation,” or moral instruction in English broadside ballads, 1558-1625 | Joseph Mann (Great Hearts America)

We might expect that, as popular song, Elizabethan and Jacobean broadside ballads consistently gave the people what they wanted. However, ballad authors also consistently propagandized the musical road to their listeners’ souls. Beyond overt political propaganda, authors also consistently produced moral propaganda. However, it remains to be seen whether moral propaganda ballads unified around common goals and whether the moral content of ballads changed between the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

Drawing on the available sources, this paper maps the trends, similarities, and differences across ballads aimed at moral instruction, ca. 1558-1625, and suggests that their strikingly consistent subject matter and perspectives shed new light on the moral concerns and cultural thought of early modern England.

Attitudes to rounds, catches and their singers in early modern English culture | Katherine Butler (University of Northumbria Newcastle)

Situated between the poles of monophonic balladry and the more technical part- singing of madrigals and motets, rounds and catches were early modern England’s most accessible form of polyphony. This paper analyses the representation of round and catch singers in early modern England in drama, literature and musical writings, and draws comparison with extant repertory and sources to determine the extent to which their often chequered reputation was justified. This comparison raises questions over whether such representations reflected general moral criticisms of popular music in society (including ballads) rather than the actual breadth of participation in catch singing. The paper concludes by tracing attempts to reclaim the reputation of rounds and catch singing in the seventeenth century.