Friday, 23 July 2010

A Couple of Eighteenth-Century Ballads

I have recently been involved in a couple of projects that allowed me to engage with the eighteenth century in a very different way than I am used to. I was involved - in a non-musical capacity! - in helping to create recordings of a couple of eighteenth-century ballads.

The first is a ballad the only copy of which (at least as for as I know) is in the British Library, and is titled The Workhouse Cruelty. I first came across this piece in the early 1980s, and haven't really done anything with it since. But, when I was asked to provide a ballad that would help illustrate a case about a murder in a workhouse for Voices from the Old Bailey on Radio 4, it immediately sprang to mind. The nice thing is that the producer, Elizabeth Burke, then went out and had a recording of it made. The result is here:

This particular recording seems a little sweet to me, and lacking in the political grit of the original rough printed version. And I suspect that it was originally sung by a man - of the sort known as a 'chanting' ballad singer (they normally specialised in durge-like religious songs). But it nevertheless made me want to think harder about how one interprets the words, and how one re-constructs the soundscape in which it was performed.

This then encouraged me to have a go at commissioning a recording myself. Francis Place's papers contain the words of a dozen or so, primarily bawdy, ballads he recalled from his youth in the 1780s. The really nice thing about Place's notes, is that he described where he heard them sung - behind St Clements church, etc - and by whom - two young women - and when - in the evening. The ballad I was particularly interested in was Jack Chance, which Place describes as being sung just after the Gordon Riots. As I was giving a lecture on the Riots, it seemed a natural thing to accompany it. I was also familiar with a printed version of this particular song, mis-dated at 1795, and retitled as Just the thing, among the digital collection at ECCO. I integrated the two versions to eliminate some of the blanks in Place's version and asked a friend of my son's, Henry Skewes, to write the music. Unlike most 18th century ballads, no tune was mentioned as being used with this one. Henry wrote the music, and asked another friend Stephanie Waldheim to sing it. The upshot is:

Jack Chance: Or Just the Thing

Music and arrangement by Henry Skewes;
performed by Stephanie Waldheim and Henry Skewes
copyright: 2010, Henry Skewes, Stephanie Waldheim and Tim Hitchcock.

This version has been translated from its original AAC Audio format to a mp3 format, and has developed a few oddities, but you get the point.

One way or another, this experience has taken me back to Bruce Smith's wonderful, but seldom cited, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. It has also reminded me that there is a lot to do to recreate a neighbourhood soundscape, but that if one could, it would help; and that perhaps it is time to have a go.


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