Rutgers Re-Enacts Bawdy Protest Ballads of Old England

Rutgers Re-Enacts Bawdy Protest Ballads of Old England

Historians and early musicians unite to explore the world of 17th-century performers who used song for political expression
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Patti Verbanas

During the summer of 1627, three roving fiddlers toured villages north and west of London. They played and sang a collection of scandalous songs that decried the perverse misrule of one of England’s most powerful men: George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Denounced to the authorities, they were fined, whipped and paraded shamefully through the streets.

In the eyes of the court, they were libelers who threatened the social order.

USC Early Music Ensemble
University of Southern California Thornton School of Music Early Music Ensemble perform often libelous songs whose sounds and meanings have been lost for centuries. 
Courtesy Thornton School of Music Early Music Ensemble
But these fiddlers also belonged to a rich political and musical culture of song as a medium for protest and mobilization. A Rutgers workshop – “The Early History of the English Protest Song,” sponsored by the Rutgers British Studies Center – recently explored the political and musical worlds of the fiddlers and other 17th-century performers and writers who used song to challenge social injustice.

At the workshop, historians and literary scholars Alastair Bellany, an associate professor in Rutgers' Department of History; Thomas Cogswell of the University of California-Riverside; and Angela McShane of the Victoria and Albert Museum, analyzed lyrics while Adam Knight Gilbert, director of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music Early Music Ensemble, will lead ensemble singers and instrumentalists. The musicians performed these once-libelous songs that have been lost to history.

Rutgers Today spoke with Bellany about the political and musical worlds of these fiddlers and their brethren – the writers, singers, publishers and musicians – who used song as a vehicle of political expression and commentary.

Rutgers Today: How have these lyrics and tunes been preserved over the centuries?

Bellany: Contemporaries copied the lyrics into books and diaries, preserving them as a record of the events of the day or as interesting examples of poetry. Many of these manuscript compilations survive today and are our major sources for the words of these songs and other libelous political writing.

Rutgers Today: How do historians authentically try to recreate these songs?

Bellany: In some cases, the copies specify a well-known tune, and we can turn to the work of music historians who have transcribed these tunes and see if we can fit the words to the music. In other cases, no tune is specified and then we need to test out plausible accompaniments. This process involves trial and error, but skilled early musicians and musicologists – like Adam Gilbert – are adept at finding plausible tunes that fit the meters of the lyric or that somehow echo the lyrical themes.

Alastair Bellany
Alastair Bellany says one of the reasons he was drawn to this type of 17th-century music is because he is a “huge Bob Dylan fan.”
Courtesy Alastair Bellany
Rutgers Today: What types of instruments were typically used in these protest songs?

Bellany: The best-documented cases involve traveling musicians, so-called “masterless men,” who needed easily portable instruments. Fiddles and drums seem to have been a common option. But there’s no reason why other musicians could not have used other early instruments, such as lutes or recorders.

Rutgers Today: What were the songs’ prevalent themes?

Bellany: Most of the songs are critical of the moral corruption of the king’s court. It was risky to target the king directly, so most of these songs attack the king’s advisers and court favorites. For example, one set of songs we are going to look at was written at the time of a major court scandal that broke out in 1615. The king’s favorite courtier was implicated in a murder of another member of the court. There was coverage of the murder trials in both printed works and in the underground world of libelous song and poetry. Since the libelous songs were not printed, they are more directly critical; some of them are extremely rude, bawdy and violent in their attack.

Rutgers Today: So, the court was unable to police these underground songs?

Bellany: Yes, these songs tended to circulate in ways the state found difficult to police. Thus, there’s a surprising freedom of expression in this genre that you don’t find in other political commentary of the time. These underground songs are usually brutally direct and they name names.

Rutgers Today: What would be the punishment if a musician was caught?

Bellany: Sometimes, the state decided that punishing the musicians was more trouble than it was worth. They didn’t want to give these people publicity. In other cases, though, they would strike back with a range of penalties. The musicians could be charged as purveyors of libelous speech that had the potential to cause political unrest. The punishments involved imprisonment, but also inflicted mutilation – seditious libelers could have their ears cropped and their noses slit. The fiddlers whose 1627 songs we are recreating were heavily fined as a symbolic gesture – they were poor men and had no hope of paying. But they were also whipped, paraded through the streets and publicly humiliated. The state wanted to shame them and expose the true wickedness of their offense.

Rutgers Today: Who are some modern-day musicians who follow in this tradition?

Bellany: Of course, most modern protest singers in the West have greater freedom of expression. But in many ways, figures like Peter Seeger in his McCarthyite blacklist days, The Plastic People of the Universe in Communist Czechoslovakia and Pussy Riot in Putin’s Russia fit the bill as modern successors. They are musicians using song to critique power in situations of severe censorship. And, of course, there’s a great leftist British folk tradition that has ancestral ties to the roving musicians of the 17th century. Of the modern British troubadours, I would put Billy Bragg squarely in the dissident musical tradition.

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Patti Verbanas