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The print industry and traditional song


Understanding the Collections
By J. Maughan

 

Of the abundance of musical material the FARNE project has digitised, a significant proportion of this material will be in broadside form. In particular the Bell/White collection of local songs and poems, held by Newcastle University Special Collections, is considered to be one of the country’s richest collections of traditional song. The North-East is unique in its wealth of traditional song collections, a large number consisting of printed broadsides and chapbooks. Broadsides, along with chapbooks, were a very specific genre of printing, one which seems to have thrived particularly in the North. While there can be no doubt that these broadsides are interesting and valuable as individual documents, understanding why the region has such a wealth of this printed material is an integral part of understanding the collections that form the FARNE archive.


During the eighteenth century, chapbooks and broadsides formed the main reading matter available for the poor. “Similar to the cheap press of today these poorly printed books and broadsides catered for popular tastes, being sold by chapman in the country and booksellers in the town. Usually sold for no more than a penny, the production of these little books and broadsides were extremely profitable for most printers. Sold in bulk the material required little proof-reading, was widely plagarised, and badly printed.”


The population growth in the lower classes of society towards the end of the eighteenth century, along with increased adult literacy had created a greater reading public. As the number of readers amongst the poorer classes grew, other factors were also coming into play. As V.E. Neuburg comments, ’the Industrial Revolution changed beyond recognition the mass public’. Village communities were no longer as isolated and a large class of industrial workers emerged. A new readership developed in the crowded and rapidly growing towns of the industrial north. Social unrest created by food shortages and high unemployment in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars accompanied this change. The popular readership no longer consisted therefore of ’rustic villagers who had awaited with impatience the arrival of the hawker or pedlar with his ... budget of new books priced at one penny each’. At the turn of the nineteenth century the demand for popular literature was greater than ever.

This was nowhere more true than in Newcastle. Throughout Britain the revolution in popular print meant that printing skills and technology were readily available. As Dr. Joan Hugman points out, it was therefore no surprise that most towns struggled to support a single newspaper. Eighteenth century Newcastle however published three, publications such as the Newcastle Courant lasting for more than two centuries. The printing industry in Newcastle was an extremely competitive environment with printers staying ahead in the market by constantly upgrading their machines and techniques. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the printers were also providing more political coverage as a means of selling their publications and the strong spirit of reform and dissent that was prominent in nineteenth century Newcastle created a market for cheap serious reading matter. Aside from newspapers, broadsides and chapbooks filled this role. Next to London, Newcastle became the most important centre for the production of chapbooks in the country.


This is not to say, however, that content of these broadside songs were dominated by politics. As Lloyd points out in his introduction to Bruce and Stokoe’s ’Northumbrian Minstrelsy’, ’the repetory of Northumbrian song has in its make-up seemingly conflicting characteristics of feudal loftiness, rustic tranquility, and proletarian gusto; classical ballad, country song and urban industrial lyric’. From the late eighteenth century, spurred on by the wide availability of printed song material in the North East, collectors such as Joseph Ritson and John Bell began collecting and publishing traditional song. Ritson, Bell, and later Robert White amassed large collections of broadsides songs and it is to them that we owe the preservation of some of the regions most important traditional song history.


It seems clear that the enthusiastic production and collection of broadsides in the region was not a random coincidence. Certainly we cannot underestimate the importance of individuals such as Bell. However, it is also clear that Bell’s zeal for collection and his demand for traditional song material was not isolated. – Rather, the amazing growth and demand for popular print in the region and the melting pot of industries, politics and reform in the North East provided a unique atmosphere in which this particular genre of printing could flourish.

By J. Maughan








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ARTICLES



Criteria for the selection of melodic content
Criteria for the selection of melodic content
FARNE Digisation Officer Mike Hirst talks about how and why we selected material for preservation.

The cataloguing of traditional melodies
The cataloguing of traditional melodies
Thoughts on the classification and documentation of traditional melodies.

The print industry and traditional song
The print industry and traditional song
Digitisation Officer J. Maughan discusses the effects of the printing revolution on our traditional song

Broadsheets of the North East
Broadsheets of the North East
Project worker and musician Johnny Handle discusses the importance of broadsheet songs to us today


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