This is a book in progress. Go here to read the previous chapters.
Chapter 6, Part 2
Stories sung at European marketplaces and in pubs by itinerant pedlars peddling their wares dominated news distribution to the mostly illiterate hoi polloi from the 15th through the 18th Centuries.
All across Europe (except, it must be noted, in Spain where the Inquisition was underway in the 15th Century) singers of most ethnicities carried the news from town to town. As printing proliferated, the singers added broadsheets of lyrics and, sometimes, music to their wares. That became a whole new market for the pedlars as they monetized their songs along with whatever small wares they carried.
I knew well the now closed pub in Mayfair, London named after Samuel Pepys; it was not far from Brown’s Hotel where I used to stay in the ‘70s. I also thought I knew a bit about Pepys after having skimmed his diary in college. I knew he had accumulated quite a library (still at Pepys Building, Magdalene College, Cambridge University) and knew his diary told us more about England’s Restoration than almost anything else. What I didn’t know about were the more than 1,800 printed “ballads” in the Pepys collection.
The latter half of the 16th Century began the startling growth of the English street ballad. By the end of the century an estimated four million plus printed ballads were in circulation. Pepys collection of 1,800 song sheets include almost 200 about politics or what he labeled “States and Times” … far fewer than “Love – Pleasant” or “Love – Unfortunate.” The Pepys collection was started by another early fan, John Selden. In Pepys first volume he transcribed from Selden, “Though some made slight of libels (political ballad lyrics), yet you may see by them how the wind sits. More solid things do not show the complexion of the times as well as ballads and libels.”
The religious wars of the 14th and 15th Centuries also produced their share of “ballads and libels.” After the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had defeated Protestants in the Schmarlkaldic War over the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, the so-called Augsburg Interim found singers of political/religious hymns proliferating throughout Northern German lands. “Led by the free city of Magdeburg in a heroic four-year resistance, Lutherans vented their anguish in a storm of pamphlets and songs.”
At first dominated by the learned classes, the protests quickly took over the streets. Luther himself, a famous composer and lyricist who still dominates Lutheran Hymnals, rewrote songs in a political manner. French Calvinists picked up the process using the psalms. One song attacking Capuchin priests for selling alms to buy prostitutes favors, was based on the hymn “Lord keep us steadfast in thy word.”
In Italy, with a long history of politics in song, some singers had songs printed in serialized pamphlets allowing each sheet to be sold along with wares in marketplaces. Italians took to political singers in part because they were used to it … city governments in the 13th Century had employed singers to announce new laws or events.
Later in Italy as political songs grew more specific during the French advances on Venice, the Venetian government tried to allow only favorable songs to be sung and, even later, tried to ban them all. In a 1585 encyclopedia of professions, it was reported that the number of street singers “had grown like a weed.”
Echoes of the street singers can be found in the mid-20th Century growth of folk and protest songs in the United Kingdom and United States. From “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” to “The Eve of Destruction” to other protests against the Vietnam War the street singers grew more sophisticated than their ancestors with electric guitars and Farfisa organs. These singers also drew a backlash from patriots of a sort who shouted, “America, love it or leave it.
Next week: Chapter 6, Part 3 – The News of Wars and Rumors of War
In an almost 50-year career writing and reporting on media, Paul S. Maxwell started and/or ran some 45-plus publications ranging from CATV Newsweekly to Colorado Magazine to CableVision to Multichannel News to CableFAX and The BRIDGE Suite of daily newsletters and research publications. In between publishing stints, Maxwell served as an advisor and/or consultant to a number of major media companies and media start-ups including running a unit of MCI and managing a partnership of TCI and McGraw-Hill.
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