Why the old political broadside ballads need to be sung again

Time was that if we wanted to get the word out about how our lives were limited by those who claimed to have the right to restrict us, broadside songs were the way to go. Since they provided some income for street singers, song writers and low-end printers, we folkies should enjoy knowing we walk in those footsteps.

I became totally aware of this in 1992, while searching for just a few more pro-Napoleon Bonaparte songs at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House.

Though a man of Kent transplanted to California, I have spent the largest part of my adult life singing traditional British songs. For me, the more Napoleon songs I had in my repertoire, the better.

I found a few more Bonaparte songs that I had never seen before but, as I searched their copy of the Madden Collection from Cambridge University, I found much more.

I kept finding broadside ballads that reminded ordinary people of the need for change in the political system during those dark days of history. One after another these songs give insight into what people thought and needed in those days.

‘People were so in need of change that it is clear that many thought things would have been better if Bonaparte had won’

People were so in need of political change in the 19th century that it is clear that many thought that things would have been better if Bonaparte had won.

After spending weeks at Cecil Sharp House, I had collected 400+ photocopies of broadside ballads dealing with the fight for political change and two or three new additions to my Napoleon song repertoire.

Built upon those first songs collected in London, my book Again With One Voice: British Songs Of Political Reform 1768 To 1868 was printed last year.

After finding many more ballads from all kinds of places, my book now contains 120 songs. Most are from broadside ballads, which are presented chronologically with printed melodies, detailed analysis of what was going on at that time, and with rough recordings of the first verse of every song free on Bandcamp.

Because of the book many songs that hadn’t been sung for over two centuries are beginning to be sung again. It is hard to believe that many of their topics are still applicable today.

Within the hundred years covered, there are songs about Wilkes and liberty; the revolutions of America, France and Ireland; the 1780 Gordon Riots; war with revolutionary France and Napoleon; General Ludd; the abolition of slavery; Peterloo; the Tolpuddle Martyrs; Captain Swing; the Irish Famine; the Chartist movement; the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867; and many more travails of the working class.

Broadside ballads were sung about significant people of the times, including John Wilkes, John Cartwright, Thomas Paine, Thomas Muir, Wolfe Tone, Bonaparte, the Duke of Wellington, Henry Hunt, William Cobbett, Daniel O’Connell, Feargus O’Connor, William Gladstone and more.

It is hoped that this collection of songs from our ancestors will help us to feel the long struggles they went through to win the freedom we strive to maintain.

They need to be sung again and our folk community can lead the way.

Again With One Voice: British Songs Of Political Reform 1768 To 1868 (Loomis House Press, ISBN 978-1-935243-80-9) is available from all major booksellers. This article appeared in Folk London 318, April-May 2022